Air Force Adds Civilian Contractors to Drone “Kill Chain”

Tuesday, December 01, 2015
A drone command center (AP photo)

Faced with a shortage of drone pilots, the U.S. military has turned to civilian contractors to operate some unmanned aerial vehicles as part of its “kill chain” of going after militants and terrorists.


The Los Angeles Times reported the U.S. Air Force has hired two civilian defense contractors, Aviation Unmanned in Addison, Texas, and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., of Poway, California, to fly MQ-9 Reaper drones. The Air Force was forced to use contractors because it has struggled to recruit, train and retain military drone pilots. “It is several hundred short of its goal of 1,281 pilots,” the Times’ W.J. Hennigan reported.


“They’re just not getting the people in the Air Force to become drone pilots, and I think they’re going to run into a problem where there’s an acute shortage of people even to do the armed drone strikes,” Karl Kaltenthaler, a professor at the University of Akron and expert on the intersection of drones and modern combat, told U.S. News and World Report. “There’s actually a bit of desperation right now to come up with the supply to meet the demand.”


The Reapers perform surveillance missions throughout the world. The civilian pilots do not “pinpoint targets with lasers or fire missiles,” Hennigan wrote, and control two Reaper patrols a day. That number is expected to increase to 10 a day over the next four years.


A 2013 article in Air Force Law Review warned that use of contractors could violate international law. “The more closely related an activity is to the kill chain, the greater the likelihood the activity should be barred from contractor performance,” Maj. Keric D. Clanahan wrote, according to the Times. He urged the Pentagon to “only allow military personnel to serve as aircraft pilots and … sensor operators.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Air Force Hires Civilian Drone Pilots for Combat Patrols; Critics Question Legality (by W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times)

A Slippery Slope for Drone Warfare? (by Paul D. Shinkman, U.S. News & World Report)

Pentagon Outsourcing Spy Missions to Drone Maker (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

U.S. Drone Killing Program Threatened by Disconnect between Contractors and Military (by Noel Brinkerhoff and David Wallechinsky, AllGov)


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