The dearth of drone pilots

Considering the possibility that drones will be turned against American citizens, I find it hard to get too worked up over the inability of the USAF to retain their drone pilots. But regardless, it’s interesting to hear a drone pilot explain to Jerry Pournelle the real reason behind the declining pilot retention rate:

With respects to Col Couv, the AF leadership is “at a loss to explain” the RPA pilot exodus because they’re the ones causing it, and it has nothing at all to do with “real pilots” being disgruntled at driving a drone around. Rather, it has to do with a loss of trust and respect bottom to top in the USAF pilot force. The AF leadership sends drone pilots to be “deployed in place” flying continuous combat ops 6 days a week (12 hr shifts around the clock) for 3-5 years straight, then the leadership refuses to adjust the promotion system to account for the fact that almost every one of these officer and enlisted crew members has little to put on their promotion recommendation forms beyond “flew classified combat ops”. It took 15 years after the start of RPA ops before we had a “drone pilot” come back to be a squadron or wing commander out at Creech AFB, not for lack of good officers, but because for 15 years those good officers were passed over for promotion and command in favor of officers who had down time to pad their promotion recommendation forms and do something, anything, other than continuous combat ops.

We had a guy who was a squadron commander as a Major get passed over for Lt Col. That NEVER happens, but it did to a drone pilot. Any wonder why he quit? It wasn’t because he couldn’t fly real airplanes anymore.

To hammer home the point that USAF leadership is completely out of touch with what is going on in the trenches among RPA crews, they took a long look at the high suicide and mental illness rate among RPA crews and decided that the way to fix it was through a “resiliency training” program. Sounds great, but in practice what it means is that on what should otherwise be a weekend day off with family and away from our job of hunting and killing people every single duty day for 5 years (what do people think armed ISR means?), we have to spend that day doing a social activity with others from our squadron. Taking away my family time is supposed to somehow make me more resilient? What they need to do is acknowledge that these are no kidding deployed combat billets and relieve the crews from the garrison nonsense additional duties and training requirements, and let us get on with the job without pestering us with nonsense. And come up with a scheduled training, garrison, or leave rotation, to give people some real down-time like every other combat unit in the history of forever. We are finally starting to see signs of improvement in the performance reports and promotion rates now that we have a couple of commanders who have flown RPAs before assuming command, but for crying out loud show us a little support and take some of the garrison admin nonsense off our backs while we’re flying combat ops. Bagram air base in Afghanistan has better support facilities than the bare-base facilities at Creech AFB. Questions about support functions are universally answered with “there are no further services facility upgrades planned for Creech AFB”.

We just got word a month ago that almost everyone at Creech is getting their tours of duty extended from the usual 3 years to 5 or more years, with nowhere to go after an RPA instructor or non-flying staff job except back into the grinder doing the same thing. That is a dead end career path no matter how you look at it or where the pilot came from.

A recent survey of RPA pilot experience asked a series of questions regarding various topics including things like “how many combat actions have you actively participated in that directly resulted in the death of enemy combatants”, and “how many engagements have you witnessed or participated in that resulted in the death of enemy combatants”. I had to laugh when the top answer was only “50+”. I witnessed, enabled, directly supported, or directly participated in more than that in less than 6 months, watching the carnage up close through the best zoom lenses money can buy. 5 years of that plus actually deploying overseas for 4-6 months every 2 years in addition to the combat ops shift work without any down time, and we’re demeaned by the likes of Col Couv for being selfish and quitting because we throw tantrums due to not being in the cockpit? Flag officers get compensated in many different ways for accepting that sort of duty tempo and responsibilities, but we’re talking about E3-E7 and O1-O5 here. The ops tempo situation hasn’t changed but the AF has halted the “use or lose” leave extension program. That means we have a lot of people, myself included, who will lose leave at the end of this fiscal year due to carrying too many days of leave built up since we can’t actually take it due to ops tempo. Thanks again AF leadership.

That’s why there is an exodus.

In Martin van Creveld’s technology and war, he explains how the seemingly irrational in military technology is not always as irrational as it looks. But, I have to confess, even when I try to find a rational perspective here for continuing to favor manned-craft pilots over drone pilots with regards to promotions and commands, I’m at a loss to come up with anything outside the usual bureaucratic desire to protect jobs.