Little Chance of Promotion or Respect Fuels Drone Pilot Shortage in U.S. Air Force

Thursday, August 22, 2013
(AP Photo)

Political and military leaders think highly of drone warfare, but that excitement has not been duplicated among those who fly the unmanned aerial vehicles. The result: a shortage of drone pilots.


In a report (pdf) produced by the Brookings Institution, Air Force Colonel Bradley Hoagland wrote that his service is struggling to keep up with the demand for pilots who can fly drones.


Last year, the Air Force wanted to add 150 drone pilots to operate Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk robotic aircraft. But the service “was not able to meet its RPA (remotely piloted aircraft) training requirements since there were not enough volunteers,” Hoagland wrote.


Fewer personnel are volunteering because drone pilots lack opportunities for promotion to higher ranks. Also, the military hasn’t done enough to cultivate respect within its ranks for these non-traditional pilots.


The same reasons explain why the dropout rate for drone operators is three times higher than that for traditional pilots.


“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,” Hoagland wrote.


The Department of Defense tried to give drone pilots more recognition by creating a special honor for them: the “Distinguished Warfare Medal.” But many veterans objected to the medal, which forced Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to do away with it after only a couple of months.


The Air Force had about 1,300 drone pilots as of 2012. This group made up 8.5% of the service’s aviators.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

U.S. Air Force Can’t Find Enough People Willing to be Drone Pilots (by Agence France-Presse)

Next Top Guns? Air Force Faces Shortage of Drone Pilots (by Lolita C. Baldor, Associated Press)

Air Force Aims to Land More Top Guns amid Pilot Shortage (by W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times)

Manning the Next Unmanned Air Force: Developing RPA Pilots of the Future (by Colonel Bradley T. Hoagland, Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at Brookings) (pdf)

The Boredom of Drone Pilots (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)


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