Faced with an ongoing shortage of remotely piloted aircraft operators and the need to train more RPA pilots, the Air Force is hiring civilian contractor pilots, sensor operators and maintainers for MQ-9 Reapers, officials said.

The contractors are only involved with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, said Maj. Genieve David, a spokeswoman for Air Combat Command.

"Those intelligence collection missions do not involve an airstrike," David said in an email Tuesday to Air Force Times. "Therefore, these missions will not involve engaging targets or lasing targets."

David stressed that Air Combat Command already uses contractors in support of RPA operations, so the latest move "represents an expansion, rather than a fundamental change" in contractor support.

The planning and execution of the contractor missions will fall under the same oversight as missions flown by military aircrews, she said.

"The resulting sensor information will be collected, analyzed, transmitted and stored as appropriate by the same military intelligence units," David said. "This information only addresses RPA lines flown by the U.S. Air Force — specifically ACC. We can't speak for other organizations that conduct RPA operations."

In May, the Air Force announced it was reducing the number of combat air patrols that RPA pilots fly from 65 to 60 per day because the RPA community had been operating at a "pace [that] cannot be sustained without accepting risk," Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Karns said at the time.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James also indicated that the service would also hire contractors to augment RPA operators in a May 19 news release. 

"Contractors can help support the insatiable demand for ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capability," Karns said in an email Wednesday to Air Force Times. "While contractors are restricted to ISR only, their services allow for an increased capability to understand adversary patterns of life and a complex global environment. Contractors are not shooters; however, they can help meet constant combatant commander ISR demands without adding additional responsibilities to a stressed force."

Several contractors are working as instructor pilots at the Launch and Recovery School at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada; and the Formal Training Unit at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, Karns said.  Contractors also serve in operations support roles within squadrons, such as schedulers and evaluators.

Now the Air Force plans to hire civilian contractors to fly and maintain government-owned RPAs for 10 combat air patrols per day in addition to the 60 flown by the Air Force, said service spokeswoman Ann Stefanek.

In June, the Air Force awarded two contracts for a total of $28.3 million for the first two combat patrols, said Stefanek, who declined to identify the companies that won the contracts due to security concerns.

The Los Angeles Times, which first reported the story on Nov. 27, identified the companies as General Atomics and Aviation Unmanned, but Stefanek could not confirm that information.

With multiple war zones and hot spots around the world, the Defense Department's demand for aerial reconnaissance has been insatiable, so RPA operators often fly six or seven days a week. That means they don't have time for professional military education and are often promoted less often than fighter, bomber and mobility pilots.

In October, Gen. Hawk Carlisle, head of Air Combat Command, heard several recommendations from RPA operators about fixing the challenges they deal with, including adding more bases for RPA operators and putting a general officer in charge of the career field.

Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh told RPA operators earlier this year that he understands they will leave the Air Force if the service cannot make life better for them.

"This workforce is tired and we've got the first group of people who are RPA-only pilots now coming up to the end of their initial commitment this year," Welsh said during a March 24 visit to Creech Air Force Base. "It's a small group. It's another small group next year. The year after that, it's a big group."

But by turning to contractors to fly Reapers, the Air Force might inadvertently be providing an incentive to RPA operators to get out of the service because they can earn up to twice as much money as civilian contractors.

"In a lot of ways, it's like: 'Wait, where's my incentive to stay?'" one RPA pilot, who declined to be identified, told Air Force Times in April. "The Air Force in a lot of ways has signaled that they really don't care about the community and the viability of it into the long-term future. They've made a lot of their decisions looking at the three to five years out, but they're failing to see if this community stays around for 20 years."

Sen. Claire McCaskill appeared skeptical about using civilian contractors to fly RPAs when she asked former Air Force Secretary Michael Donley on Friday, "Are you comfortable that we are at a position that we are hiring contractors to do the drone work?"

McCaskill, D-Mo., said the Air Force seemed not to have anticipated that it would need to support RPA operators.

"I'm uncomfortable if the answer is to hire civilians," she said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

Donley replied that the demand for this capability has been off the charts," and the Defense Department has repeatedly increased its demand for RPA missions.

"I am uncomfortable with having civilian contractors performing military missions," Donley said.  "That doesn't sound right to me. We need to take a close look at that interface of what is an appropriate civilian activity and what is an appropriate military activity in the sensor-to-shooter kill chain."