For years, the Air Force has had an officer at the stick when one of its remotely piloted aircraft takes off.

Next year, all that could change. The Air Force is taking a serious look at whether to allow enlisted airmen — who until now have been limited to crew roles such as sensor operators — to fly its drones.

But is the Air Force ready for the massive cultural change that enlisted drone pilots could present?

"I have no doubt they can do the job," Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said Sept. 15 at the Air Force Association's Air and Space Conference. "The question is, should we go that way?"

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and many other observers inside and out of the Air Force agree enlisted airmen are capable of flying drones, given the proper training. Having enlisted airmen at the controls would also open up a new source of potentially talented pilots, filling the Air Force's ravenous need for more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability and helping ease the burden on undermanned, overworked commissioned officers flying RPAs like the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper. The Army allows enlisted soldiers to fly its drones. It could also save money by having lower-paid enlisted airmen doing jobs officers do today.

"There's no question in my mind that we need the extra help, because this is a field that has been under strain and it's one where we have more demands from our combatant commanders around the world," James said in a Sept. 16 interview at AFA. She said the Air Force will finish studying the issue between November and the end of the year and she will make a decision around the beginning of 2016.

Welsh also opened the door to the idea of enlisted airplane pilots. "It's time to look at how we use this talent pool in a different way," Welsh said in May. "And one of the ways we could use it is not just in the RPA force. RPA would just be the first piece, we have to look at the pilot force in general."

When asked about enlisted airmen flying manned aircraft, James said, "One step at a time."

Authorizing enlisted drone pilots could potentially have ramifications in several areas. The Air Force is concerned that the pay differential between enlisted airmen and better-paid officers doing the same job could lead to disgruntlement. There could be conflicts regarding supervision.

And — in what could be the biggest stumbling block — having enlisted drone pilots release weapons in a combat zone could potentially present legal issues that have to be worked through.

Filling a need

The Air Force is struggling to keep up with the demand for drone pilots. Part of the problem is overwork. Fighter pilots fly an average of 250 hours per year, the Air Force said earlier this year, but drone pilots fly about 900 hours per year.

"The RPA community has been operating at surge capacity for eight years," Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Karns said in July.

And the Air Force isn't churning out enough drone pilots to keep up with the demand. At the AFA conference, Lt. Gen. Darryl Roberson, commander of Air Education and Training Command, said the Air Force trains 192 RPA pilots per year, and he pledged to double that to 384 in 2016. He lauded Defense Secretary Ash Carter's April decision to drop the number of RPA combat air patrols flown from 65 per day to 60, which allowed AETC to have more experienced pilots train new ones.

There is also a stigma among some in the pilot community that flying RPAs somehow makes them lesser pilots than those who are actually in a cockpit. This makes some reluctant to move to drones.

So in July, the Air Force announced plans to offer some Predator and Reaper drone pilots retention bonuses worth up to $135,000 beginning in fiscal 2016. And it said it would start steering 80 undergraduate pilot training graduates away from traditional manned aircraft and directly into drone squadrons for one tour, typically three years long, before giving them the opportunity to move to a manned aircraft.

Retired Gen. Billy Boles, who ran AETC until he retired in 1997, wholeheartedly supports enlisted drone pilots. Tapping them to fill that role would mean fewer manned aircraft pilots would have to be moved to drones against their will, he said. And that could help the Air Force retain those pilots whom it is driving out because they don't want to fly drones, he said.

"Why would we take a fighter [or mobility or bomber] pilot who doesn't want to get out of the cockpit, and send him off to do that for two or three years?" Boles said. "We take these young men and women who we would like to have make a career in the Air Force, and we put them off in assignments that other people can do, and then we get surprised when they get out. We have a shortage of pilots, and part of that is a retention issue."

Some enlisted airmen are eager to take the controls of RPAs, and think it could provide a new way to serve their country — and also advance their careers, both in the military and civilian world.

"I think it would be fun, kind of exciting, and challenging, and at the same time rewarding," said Staff Sgt. Brian Baker, a jet engine mechanic at the 823rd Maintenance Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. "I have a personal interest in flying, and that would be a really cool way to continue military service and be a pilot. You're filling a combat role every day whenever you're a drone pilot."

Baker said he would relish the opportunity to directly help troops in harm's way by flying drones.

"The stuff they do, they're spotting out for ground troops, you're helping out people on the ground that are in a sticky situation — if you can help them out, that's kind of awesome," Baker said.

And Chief Master Sgt. Victoria Gamble, the command chief of Air Mobility Command, said at a Sept. 14 panel discussion at the AFA conference that the Air Force should renew its use of enlisted pilots.

"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."

Legal issues

But not everybody in the Air Force thinks it's time just yet to take that leap.

"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 AFA. "It is being looked at hard, very much so, particularly in the RPA realm. But we haven't spelled out what it really means. I don't think we're ready just now."

Caruso highlighted the implications of having enlisted release weapons from drones as an issue that needs to be worked through.

The Air Force did not respond to an Air Force Times inquiry by press time asking for more clarification on those legal issues.

One experienced RPA pilot, who asked for his name not to be printed, said that having enlisted drone pilots will never work, because the law always requires a commissioned officer to oversee the use of force by enlisted service members.

"Somebody has to be able to be held accountable [for the use of force], and that somebody is always a commissioned officer," the pilot said. "Even when the enlisted guy holds a rifle, there is a platoon commander in the Army. Even when a security forces airman has to discharge a weapon to protect the base, there is a security forces operations officer he works for. That is a pretty awesome responsibility."

Bringing in a mission director or operations supervisor to provide officer authority would present its own problems, he said. First, it would slow down the "kill chain" in a life-and-death situation, he said.

And a complex battlefield situation involving multiple enlisted pilots, each flying a drone in a different area, would stretch such an officer's attention in multiple directions, he said — with potentially dangerous results.

"There is no known training in the world by which we can teach a human being to make those kinds of high-level decisions about five simultaneous battlefields," he said.

The pilot sketched out a hypothetical scenario where an officer oversaw noncommissioned officer drone pilots firing missiles at Islamic State militants in Syria, in five different locations about 20 miles apart — each with tactical problems to sort out.

"There's no way one guy can watch all five lines," he said. "This one's really close to civilians, we're going to have to watch the angle at which we shoot at something, if we shoot. This one's more in the open, I'm less worried about that, but it's really close to the border, so I got to watch airspace."

And with an officer's attention divided in so many places, he said, an accident could easily happen.

"Even if you did the most amazing job in aviation history, juggling all five lines, and I was talking to Line No. 2 and correcting that NCO pilot on his shot geometry before he pulls the trigger, and I don't see that the fifth line has taken the shot, and he's off parameters," he said. "And the missile goes flying and he actually hits friendlies because the trajectory was wrong. If it's your son that was killed along with his buddies, because my NCO took the shot on the wrong parameters, are you not going to still hold me accountable? Is it enough that an NCO takes the fall for that? And the answer in our society is no."

Having one officer to oversee each NCO pilot could solve that problem, he said, but at that point it would be more efficient to have the officer fly the drone himself.

James said the Air Force has a "tiger team" looking at barriers such as that, as well as other issues such as pay and supervision.

"We entrust our enlisted force all the time with a variety of lethal weapons," James said. "This would be another form of a lethal weapon, but to me, that's not in and of itself a showstopper."

Boles said that when the Air Force first started looking at drone pilots in the mid-1990s, he wanted to have enlisted pilots fly them, but was overruled by other generals because of the deadly force issue.

"I said, I thought we had enlisted pilots during World War II, but I knew that was not a place to fall on my sword," Boles said.

The drone pilot said that simply because the Air Force used to use enlisted pilots isn't enough of a reason to do it today. Most of the WWII pilots who started as enlisted — including legendary aviator Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager — went on to earn their commissions, he said.

Welsh said that issues such as pay and supervision caused the Air Force to scrap its enlisted flying force decades ago. For that reason, the Air Force is considering holding a beta test to do "due diligence."

Precedent-setting?

If the Air Force allows enlisted to fly RPAs, the drone pilot said, it sets a precedent for allowing them to also fly manned aircraft — especially since the service has argued for years that RPA pilots are just as much aviators as manned pilots.

"This is Pandora's box," he said. "If you say, why can't they be on RPAs, a guy with stripes, why does it matter? Well, OK, why can't they be the pilot of a U-28? How about an MC-12? How about an F-16? F-22? Your prize of all things, F-35?"

"Given the level of tactical sophistication between what an F-16 dude does, and what the MQ-9 crews are actually doing behind the scenes, you would have better luck making an enlisted guy an F-16 wingman than you would of making him an MQ-9 aircraft commander," he continued. "It's literally that level of responsibility different. It is an actual warplane. It is not a toy."

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter at Defense News. He previously reported for Military.com, covering the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare. Before that, he covered U.S. Air Force leadership, personnel and operations for Air Force Times.

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