Has the time come for the Air Force to put enlisted airmen in the cockpit? Even among some command chief master sergeants, there's a difference of opinion.

Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh is due to make a decision this November on whether enlisted airmen should be allowed to fly drone aircraft, and has said in a virtual town hall earlier this year that could open the door to enlisted airmen flying manned aircraft as well.

And at a panel discussion at the Air Force Association's Air and Space Conference on Monday, some command chief master sergeants had different thoughts on whether the Air Force is ready for enlisted airmen to fly alongside officers.

"I don't think the Air Force is ready for enlisted pilots right now," Chief Master Sgt. Matthew Caruso, the command chief of Air Force Special Operations Command, said at the discussion. "However, it is being looked at hard, very much so, particularly in the RPA [remotely piloted aircraft] realm. But we haven't spelled out what it really means."

Caruso said the Air Force hasn't yet talked about what it would mean to give enlisted airmen the authority to drop weapons from aircraft onto targets. Enlisted airmen currently serve as sensor operators for drones, but drone pilots are all commissioned officers.

"That has some implications in the legal aspect that we have to walk through," Caruso said. "Not only for the Air Force, but for the nation. I think we have some work to do; I don't think we're ready just now."

But Chief Master Sgt. Victoria Gamble, the command chief of Air Mobility Command, said that the Air Force has used enlisted pilots in the past when it has faced a pilot shortage, and that the Air Force needs to do so once again.

"We've been down this [path] before," Gamble said. "We need enlisted pilots when we have a need for it, and I would say, we have a need for it. I can't wait to see it come around again."

In a his May virtual town hall, Welsh said he had no doubt that enlisted airmen are able to fly drones, but that the Air Force needed to consider some issues that could come up with them flying alongside officers. For example, Welsh asked for a review to see whether enlisted drone pilots could resent the fact that they would be earning less money than officers doing the same job.

If he decides to allow enlisted drone pilots, Welsh said enlisted airmen could begin drone pilot training Oct. 1, 2016.

Caruso said if enlisted airmen do become pilots, "we'll get along" with officers as the command structure changes.

"This is a team sport," Caruso said. "Whatever shakes out of this, it'll be just fine."

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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