It is “conceivable” the Air Force could eventually have more unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or remotely piloted aircraft, pilots than manned aircraft pilots, the service’s outgoing chief of staff said Tuesday.

“Yeah, the factoid is that we’re training…more (UAV) aviators than we are bomber and fighter pilots,” Gen. Norton Schwartz told reporters during his final Pentagon briefing. “Ultimately, it is conceivable that the majority of the aviators in our Air Force will be remotely piloted aircraft operators.”

Schwartz said even though UAV pilots could eventually outnumber manned aircraft pilots, manned aircraft aviators will still be a big part of the service’s fabric for years to come.

“As long as we’ll be able to read and write, manned aviation will be a part of the chemistry here because, at least for the near term, the remotely piloted aircraft capability is not for contested airspace,” Schwartz said. “It is a benign airspace capability.”

While the Defense Department has increased its use of UAVs for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) over the past 10 years, much of that was in uncontested airspace over Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon’s new focus on the Asia-Pacific region will involve potential adversaries, such as China, gearing up with Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) techniques to prevent entrance to a space (anti-access) or restricting movement within a space (area denial).

“This is why manned aviation, F-35s are a case in point, B-2s another, will be a part of our force structure,” Schwartz says.  “I would estimate at least for a generation-and-a-half, 30 years, probably. Maybe more, (but) probably not less.”

President Obama nominated Gen. Mark Welsh to succeed Schwartz as Air Force chief of staff. Welsh appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) July 19. A spokeswoman for SASC said yesterday the committee was trying to put together a confirmation vote for late last night.