The Air Force is still months away from deciding whether to allow enlisted airmen to be drone pilots. But its top two leaders say they have no doubt that enlisted are capable of doing the job.

"My personal opinion on it ... we have just an absolutely fantastic enlisted force," Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said at a news conference at the Air Force Association's Air and Space Conference Tuesday. "With the right training and the right preparation, I just can't imagine that they couldn't do an excellent job of being an RPA [remotely piloted aircraft] pilot or virtually anything else that we would be talking about here."

Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh echoed her comments. The Air Force now has some officer drone pilots who started out as enlisted sensor operators, who were probably capable of flying the RPA before getting their commissions, Welsh said.

And Welsh said the Air Force now has a large number of enlisted sensor operators who have been involved in more so-called "kinetic actions" -- or firing weapons from an aircraft -- than some new manned pilots.

"I have no doubt they can do the job," Welsh said. "The question is, should we go that way?"

Welsh earlier this year said the Air Force planned to make a decision on enlisted drone pilots by the Corona meeting this fall, but James on Tuesday said the Air Force would likely have an announcement around the beginning of 2016.

Welsh and James said that the Air Force is wrestling with the potential pitfalls effect of having enlisted pilots on the Air Force's organizational structure, such as conflicts regarding supervision and the fact that an enlisted drone pilot would be paid less than an officer doing the same job. Some of those difficulties caused reasons were why the Air Force to scrapped its enlisted flying corps in the past, Welsh said, so the Air Force is considering holding a beta test to do "due diligence."

Welsh said the Air Force is considering enlisted drone pilots to help satisfy the growing need for the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability that drones help provide. But while those needs are growing, tight budgets are limiting how much the Air Force can grow its officer ranks.

"Our Air Force can not get a lot bigger personnel-wise ... and we can't keep taking officers from everywhere else to make them RPA pilots," Welsh said. "The world has changed, in the RPA world, and it's going to change dramatically going forward. I think all the old rules are worth considering. But we don't have any idea if this is a good idea or not yet."

Certainly it would be a different tradition. There could be different issues like pay differentials, and how would all that work. These sorts of things would have to be thought through fully.

There's a reasonable difference of opinion among people with in our own Air Force: Is this the right way to go?But there's no question in my mind that they have the intellect, the skill, obviously they would need the correct training, as would any person to be able to take on such a role.

I have no doubt they can do the job, the question is should we go that way? The reason we're even talking about this is because there is the potential of us adding more ISR capability. Significant amounts potentially depending on which way the department and this nation go in this mission area. And we will be in the middle of that growth. And if we grow significantly, Our air force can not get a lot bigger personnel wise, under the current budget stretch, and we can't keep taking officers from everywhere else to make them RPA pilots. So there could be a very practical problem we face where we have got to look at other options for manning RPA pilot slots. We have a number of current RPA pilots who are officers, who were RPA sensor operators as enlisted troops, they probably could have flown the RPA just fine if they had just gone right from the seat. But there are some other issues with the organizational structure, with supervision, with potential conflict in that regard, which were the reason we got rid of the Air Force enlisted flying corps in the past, and so we have got to look very closely at this, and what we are talking about is doing a beta test. It's due diligence in my mind, so if we ever had to plus up the force quickly, we would know how to do it the right way.

Welsh said the Air Force has a large number of enlisted sensor operators who have been involved in more "kinetic activity" -- or firing weapons from their aircraft -- than some new manned pilots have.

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 He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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