The Air Force wants to get to the bottom of the retention problem and other issues in the remotely piloted aircraft community.
The Air Force's remotely piloted aircraft community is following the nuclear community's lead in beginning a bottom-up, grassroots review of issues facing the airmen who fly RPAs and how to best improve their career options.
While the review of RPA operators and related airmen in Air Combat Command is similar, the Air Force wants to be clear it was not prompted by similar issues.
"We are doing ours for our reason," Col. Jim Cluff, commander of the 432nd Wing at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, told Air Force Times in a May 29 interview. "In the end it's helping airmen, helping airmen get better at their job and get a better capability."
The Air Force RPA community has been a large focus of Air Force leadership's attention recently, with issues of undermanning and overworked operators continuing as operations have not waned following the drawdown in Afghanistan. The Air Force cannot currently train enough airmen to replace the operators who are leaving the community, leading to a stress among those who stay currently in the ranks. The biggest focus is the lack of operators, but the RPA community is also feeling stresses in jobs such as maintenance, Cluff said.
"The No. 1 concern and challenge right now is how to develop and build the enterprise, how to build the systems so we have enough qualified and capable airmen to meet our requirement given to us by the secretary of defense, and how to meet it long term, in a sustained manner to not overstress the career field," Cluff said.
To address this, top Pentagon leadership let the Air Force reduce its requirement for RPA combat air patrols to 60 per day, down from 65. This came even though the demand for patrols while the demand signal has stayed the same, however, Cluff he said. what's the demand signal?mhKIND OF UNCLEAR ON THIS, IDEA IS THAT THE REQUIREMENT WAS REDUCED BUT THERE IS STILL A HIGH DEMAND FOR THE MISSIONS It was a conscious decision by leadership to "get the community healthy" for its long-term requirement.
Cluff oversees the main base for RPA operations outside of Las Vegas, where more than 3,000 airmen are dedicated to the mission. His airmen love what they do, he said, but he has seen airmen decide to leave the community, or the service itself, because of the stress.
"Right now, they love what they do, they love being a part of it," Cluff said. "The challenge is because of the reduced manning, and the demand signal that puts on them … they need to do more and more and more, and we give them less time off. That's what causes the stressors.
''They like what they do, they want to keep doing it. … But in the end they make the decision that's best for them and their families, and that means getting out. They don't want to, but we are stressing them too hard."
This led the RPA community to look to Global Strike Command's lead in listening to their airmen. That command's force improvement program led to more than 100 recommendations on ways to improve morale, ranging from changing how airmen are tested to new equipment for security forces in the field.
Now the Air Force is doing an enterprise-wide look at the RPA community, led by senior officers. The team will go to all the areas that work with RPAs and intelligence gathering, including Air National Guard guard units and the schoolhouses, Cluff said.
"They will look at the whole system, front to back," Cluff said. "They will find out how to make things better and get a slate of proposals."
The effort will take place this summer, he said.