Drone Dogfight: Action vs. Words

Hagel calls for the military to embrace innovation. But not everyone is listening

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Air Force photo / Senior Airman David Carbajal

Drones rest between missions at Kandahar airfield in southern Afghanistan.

Actions speak louder than words. That’s especially true inside the Pentagon, where everyone says they want a cheaper and better way to prevent — never mind prevail — in conflicts, but don’t always follow up. Such actions were the major thrust of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s Tuesday talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, where he rattled off what he called six areas of focus on how to do more with less.

One of those keys is a willingness to nurture innovation by “protecting investments in emerging military capabilities.” Thanks to a veteran Air Force pilot, we have a blueprint on how his service is not doing that. Manning the Next Unmanned Air Force is a recent report Colonel Brad Hoagland wrote while on a fellowship at the Brookings Institution think tank. Hoagland spent a year at the White House before his Brookings stint ended in June, and is now vice commander of the the 386th Air Expeditionary Wing at Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait (citing “host nation sensitivities” the service doesn’t publicly say where the 386th is based, but coins and patches for the unit give it away).

Hoagland has spent his career largely driving C-130s, which may lack the glamour of the white-scarfers flying fighters and bombers. But given his 3,400 hours in the cockpit, it also gives him insight into how the Air Force is — or isn’t — exploiting the opportunities presented by what his service prefers to call Remotely-Piloted Aircraft, or RPAs. “The views expressed in this monograph are those of the author,” he dutifully notes, “and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.”

Hoagland contrasts his service’s actions with the words of General Mark Welsh, the chief of staff. The Air Force’s top officer is another pilot with 3,400 hours in the cockpit. He has spent most of them flying F-16 fighters and A-10 attack planes. Says Welsh:

RPAs, unmanned aerial systems, unmanned air vehicles…we’re in the second stage here. We’re just past the Wright Flyer stage of these things. In the next 20-30 years these things are going to explode. It’s going to be exciting to watch, and our Air Force has to be in the lead because we’ll know the best way to use them. Innovation is what we’re all about.

To be sure, the Air Force confronted the “pig-in-the-python” syndrome when it went from a relative handful of drones to thousands after 9/11. That required a massive increase in drone pilots, and resulting complications. Of course, part of that can be attributed to the service’s long-standing coolness to unmanned aircraft, and its resulting flat-footedness once they became vital.

Operation Enduring Freedom

Air Force photo / Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez

An MQ-9 Reaper heads out for a night mission from Kandahar airfield.

Beyond that, Hoagland shows, are institutional impediments to drones. Bottom line: if RPAs are to succeed, they need people on the ground to control them. If the barriers Hoagland details existed amid what then-defense secretary Robert Gates called the Pentagon’s post-9/11 “gusher of defense spending,” it’s going to be even tougher sledding for drones as that gusher peters out.

“It is apparent that the RPA career field is not properly identifying and professionally developing these pilots,” Hoagland wrote in his 32-page paper, released in August. “In order for the AF to stay innovative and relevant in the furtherance of unparalleled RPA operations, it must take a new approach and re-evaluate the personnel programs that most effectively contribute to this vital mission.”

Excerpts from Hoagland’s study:

— It is apparent that the RPA career field is not properly identifying and professionally developing these pilots. Mental health and post-traumatic stress disorder factors aside, there are still significant institutional issues that confront the RPA community, and these problems are not receiving the level of attention they deserve. First, the RPA career field is failing to accurately prescreen and access the most appropriate pilots to fly RPA, which is resulting in an attrition rate during RPA Flight Screening (RFS) that is three times higher than traditional pilots. Second, RPA pilots are unable to meet promotion education, and training opportunities commensurate with other officers, resulting in a 13 percent lower promotion rate to the rank of Major over the last five years.

— Once these candidates have been deemed “pilot qualified” for traditionally manned or unmanned aircraft duties, the AF commissioning sources use a board order of merit (BOM) to select the rated assignment track, with the UPT requirement (66 percent of the total rated requirement) filled first and RPA requirement filled last. At USAFA [U.S. Air Force Academy],for example, the BOM is based on 60 percent grade point average, 30 percent military point average, and 10 percent physical education average. According to the Air Staff, this has resulted in the Class of 2011 sending 54.3 percent of RPA candidates from the bottom quarter of the class and the Class of 2012 sending 63.3 percent from the bottom quarter of the class. In addition to these USAFA cadets, the AF also permits those “washing-out” or not finishing UPT [Undergraduate Pilot Training] to volunteer for the Undergraduate RPA Training (URT) track. Historically the AF has reclassified approximately ten personnel per year to RPA, but due to the higher attrition rate during RFS [RPA Flight Screening] and the resultant shortage of RPA pilots, is evaluating the effectiveness of increasing this rate to ten percent of approximately 200 UPT wash-outs per year. Once again, this contributes to an RPA culture that is comprised of pilots in the bottom of their class and/or perceived as “not good enough” for UPT.

— The RPA career field is experiencing a unique phenomenon due to the influx of 1,000 RPA pilots from UPT and those forced to cross-flow in order to meet the surging warfighter requirements. This high operations tempo has also resulted in the inability of RPA pilots to participate in educational, training, and staff officer opportunities on par with their peers, even though the AF realizes it must still deliberately identify and professionally develop these aviators that have unique RPA backgrounds and skill sets.

— Only 41 of approximately 4,314 USAF Colonels have experience (i.e. flying hours) in the MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper, or RQ-4 Global Hawk.

— Since very few, if any, traditional pilots actually volunteered for the RPA community, most commanders generally sent Captains that were in the bottom half of the pool of eligible pilots. Some of these pilots had multiple downgrades or failures on their annual checkrides; some were unable to upgrade from copilot to aircraft commander due to below average airmanship; others did not have had the “right” attitude or personality that fit into the weapon system climate; and others had discipline or quality of force issues. It should not be surprising that a few years later the promotion rates to Major were below that of the rest of the AF, especially given the fact that these aviators weren’t high potential officers to begin with as a result of flying or discipline discrepancies.

— Lastly, lack of adequate or appropriate recognition is a factor for lower promotion rates. One of the controversies surrounding their historical lack of high level recognition is the viewpoint that RPA pilots were not risking their lives while operating their aircraft 7,000 miles away in Nevada. According to Dr. Peter Singer from the Brookings Institution:

“Let’s use the case of the mission that got the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Zarqawi. So there was a team of unmanned aerial systems, drone operators, that tracked him down. It was over 600 hours of mission operational work that finally pinpointed him. They put the laser target on the compound that he was in, this terrorist leader, and then an F-16 pilot flew six minutes, facing no enemy fire, and dropped a bomb – a computer-guided bomb – on that laser. Now, who do you think got the Distinguished Flying Cross? The people who spent 600 hours, or the six-minute pilot? And so that’s really what we’re getting at. Actually, the drone operators, in that case, they didn’t get the medal, but they did get a nice thank-you note from a general. So, essentially, you know, what we’re hitting at is, one, you have this growing portion of the military that’s engaged in these kind of operations. It’s important to the future of the military. But at the same time, the system wasn’t set up to recognize some of their accomplishments.”

The Air Force, Hoagland concludes, is running out of time to get drones right. “The AF cannot wait another decade to ensure the RPA community gets professionally developed, recognized, and promoted on par with other officers in the AF,” he says. “In an AF that now produces more RPA pilots than traditional fighter and bomber pilots combined, the sooner the AF fully integrates this innovative and technically savvy culture of aviators, the more effective the RPA community will be in recruiting, training, and retaining high potential officers that will be future senior leaders in the AF.”