The head of Air Combat Command is adding between 2,500 and 3,500 airmen to the remotely piloted aircraft community as part of a series of initiatives to provide some relief to overworked RPA operators, the command announced on Thursday.

The additions would be a significant increase to ACC's current force of about 1,000 RPA pilots from the active-duty force, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve as well as 700 active-duty sensor operators.

"Our RPA enterprise was born in combat and recently surpassed 20 years of service, many of which were executed at surge levels," Gen. Hawk Carlisle said in a Thursday news release. "We owe it to our airmen to remove the daily stressors that are responsible for the challenging environment they are operating in."

Between 600 and 700 of the additional airmen will be officers and the rest will be enlisted, said Maj. Genieve David, a spokeswoman for ACC. The airmen will be for both operations and support elements, including pilots, sensor operators, maintainers and intelligence analysts.

ACC currently has about 1,000 RPA pilots from the active-duty force, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve as well as 700 active-duty sensor operators, David said.

Carlisle listened to RPA operators for nearly four hours in October as they suggested ways to fix the problems that threaten the long-term vitality of the career field. RPA operators have complained about the crushing operations tempo, not being promoted as often as manned aircraft pilots and being treated as second-class airmen by fighter pilots.

On Thursday, ACC announced that Carlisle has directed his staff to implement a series of initiatives stemming from the RPA operators' input, such as assigning RPA units to new locations, possibly including bases outside the continental United States.

"As we strategically analyze the RPA community, we need to take a hard look at our operating locations," Carlisle said in the news release.  "Expanding our RPA basing to potential sites such as Davis-Monthan [Air Force Base, Arizona], Langley [AFB, Virgiinia], and a few overseas locations is a discussion we need to entertain as we stand up a new wing."

However, ACC needs to work with Congress, the Defense Department Defense and White House to expand the number of bases for RPA operators, Carlisle said in the news release. "Resourcing these changes is not within ACC's direct control," he said. 

Other initiatives include:

  • Increasing the number of RPA squadrons from 10 to up to 20.
  • Creating a new wing for RPA units operating in new locations.
  • Making sure all RPA units can work together seamlessly.
  • Studying the promotion and professional military education selection rates for RPA officers.
  • Creating a single Air Force Specialty Code for RPA maintainers.
  • Better integrating the Guard and Reserve into flying and supporting missions.

An RPA operator who asked not to be identified said he is encouraged that these moves will give the RPA community the dwell time it needs to train with fighters and other aircraft so that RPAs can be fully integrated into the fighting force.