The military’s high demand for unmanned aerial systems (UAS) is fueling a pilot shortfall and contributing to retention problems in the Air Force’s UAS enterprise, Gen. Herbert J. Carlisle, head of the service’s Air Combat Command, said March 16.

Since 2006, the Air Force’s MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper enterprises have grown exponentially, increasing from 12 sorties a day in 2006 to 60 sorties today that can last as long as 22 hours. Almost 2.8 million of these aircrafts’ 3 million flight hours have been in combat, underscoring the “insatiable demand” for the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) provided by those assets, he told the Senate Armed Services airland subcommittee.

An MQ-9 Reaper. Photo: Air Force
An MQ-9 Reaper. Photo: Air Force

Those requirements have stretched the UAS community to the point where pilots are leaving the Air Force quicker than they can be replaced, resulting in a shortfall of about 200 pilots.

“The demand signal accelerated so rapidly, and we were trying to meet the demands of the warfighter,” Carlisle said. “We just started this ramp of increasing those lines of combat air patrols per day and we didn’t have time to build what is a normal process to develop and take care of that enterprise.”

To better meet pilot requirements, the Air Force is growing its UAS training capability from about 250 pilots per year to more than 400, and it will offer a $25,000 retention bonus for UAS pilots, he said. It also is considering numerous changes that would improve pilots’ quality of life, such as expanding the number of locations where pilots and their families can be based.

The service is also considering the use of new technologies to help cut down on the workload of operators, he said.

“There are new systems on the sensor side that give us ultimately more capability like Gorgon Stare,” he said, speaking of an image capture suite that can be integrated onto a UAS. “But the back end of that is the processing, exploitation and dissemination to take all of that information and get it out. Are there machine ways that we can do that better? Are there learning algorithms that we can do to take advantage of that?”

Since making recommendations to the Air Force in 2014 and 2015, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found the service has taken action to address issues related pilot recruitment, training and retention, said Brenda S. Farrell, GAO’s director for defense capabilities and management. However, issues still remain, in part because the service has not identified how many pilots it actually needs to meet requirements.

“The key recommendation is truly about the crew ratio and it keeps coming up,” she said during the hearing. “These shortages that are related to instructors or the training pipeline or quality of life, it always goes back to: do you have enough pilots?”

The Air Force in 2008 instated a 10-to-1 crew ratio for the MQ-1 Predator, meaning that 10 pilots would maintain a 24/7 orbit in a given geographic region. However, GAO believes that number may be too low as it does not account for certain flying and administrative tasks, Farrell said. Furthermore, sometimes the crew ratio dips to only six or seven pilots per aircraft, further taxing operators.

“As of March, the Air Force has not updated pilot requirements, and until it does, the Air Force will not know if it is assuming unacceptable levels of risk to accomplishing the missions and ensuring safety,” she said.