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Two Senate leaders are calling for an investigation into the Air Force's policies regarding unmanned aircraft personnel, saying they have concerns about the promotion rates, mental health and working conditions for airmen in the career field.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said in a Sept. 27 letter to the Government Accountability Office that an in-depth analysis is necessary due to the importance of unmanned aircraft in current conflicts, and the heightened demand for airmen in the career field.
"Given the extent to which we increasingly depend upon RPA personnel to conduct military missions of strategic importance to our nation, we believe that we must take rapid and proactive steps to ensure that these personnel are rewarded, rather than disadvantaged for their choice in career path."
The lawmakers say that during the past five years, the promotion percentages for RPA personnel to become majors has dropped from 96 percent to 78 percent, compared with a range of 91 percent to 96 percent for airmen in other career fields.
Also, a recent Air Force Psychological Health Screening assessment found high emotional exhaustion and fatigue among RPA operators. Additionally, the lawmakers say they have heard reports of airmen excluded from continuing education, disadvantages in leadership opportunities and difficult working conditions, according to the letter.
Pilots in the RPA community come from three backgrounds; pilots who cross-train from "traditional" manned platforms, other aviators such as combat systems officers, and airmen in the 18X career field that was established to specifically for drone operators. About 60 percent assigned to RPAs come from the 18X career field, 821 pilots.
It is not uncommon for promotion rates in career fields made up of individuals from different backgrounds to take time to stabilize, Air Force spokesman Maj. Joel Harper said in a recent email.
"The first step in building a career field is creating a training pipeline followed by cross-flowing midcareer officers from related career fields to meet mission requirements," he said. "Accomplishing this in a wartime environment, with ever increasing demand, has not been without its challenges."
Officials at the GAO said Wednesday they have received the lawmakers' letter and will determine soon whether it will carry out the study.