It's happening: Enlisted airmen will be allowed to fly some remotely piloted aircraft.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James has announced Thursday that enlisted airmen will be able to fly RQ-4 Global Hawks, unarmed RPAs that fly high-altitude reconnaissance missions.
"There are no weapons on the RQ-4. However, there are not limitations on enlisted members employing weapons," said Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Karns. "The Air Force employs enlisted airmen on other aircraft where they are responsible for employing lethal force where necessary."
Currently, the Air Force is not considering allowing enlisted airmen to fly other RPAs, such as the MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper, Karns said in an email Thursday to Air Force Times.
James and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh have told Air Combat Command to develop over the next six months an implementation plan that will outline enlisted RPA pilots’ duties, training and pay as well as how they will be trained and compensated and the mix of officers and enlisted pilots, Karns said.
"The range of duties and responsibilities for officers and enlisted pilots may overlap, but the Air Force will continue to rely on officers for mission prioritization, planning and supervision of multiple aircrews during mission execution," Karns said.
The Air Force has not had enlisted pilots since the service became independent in 1947, Karns said. During World War II, a small number of enlisted pilots served in the U.S. Army Air Forces.
"This action will make the most of the capabilities of our superb enlisted force in order to increase agility in addressing the ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] needs of the warfighter," James said in a Thursday statement. "Just as we integrated officer and enlisted crew positions in the space mission set, we will deliberately integrate enlisted pilots into the Global Hawk ISR community."
Welsh, in the same statement, said enlisted pilots' experience flying Global Hawks seemed to indicate that enlisted pilots may fly other aircraft in the future. "What we learn from flying Global Hawks with enlisted pilots "under the supervision of rated officers will inform whether we apply a similar approach to other weapon systems,"
He added, however, "It is too soon to speculate on any expansion of enlisted aircrew beyond the Global Hawk program."