24 Jun 15. I am grateful to journalists Christopher Drew and Dave Philips of the New York Times for bringing to my attention in a worrying article published last week that USAF is struggling to train sufficient numbers of RPAS (Remotely Piloted Air Systems) pilots to replace those that have already left or that would appear to be planning to quit. Through my own sources I have subsequently been able to verify that the NYT article is a true and reliable account of the problem that USAF is now being forced to face up to.
Such is the extent of the problem that it appears that USAF has had little option but to cut back on the numbers of intelligence and attack based missions that will in future be undertaken over Syria, Iraq and Yemen by the 432nd Operations Group based at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.
For the record the 432nd Operations Group employs remotely piloted aircraft capability on Combat Air Patrols in support of US and allied forces worldwide. Operating 24 x 7 x 365 days a year, missions include combat command and control, tactics development, intelligence support, weather support, and standardization and evaluation oversight for the U.S. Air Force Air Combat Command, Air Forces Central Command, Air Force Material Command, Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve Command, and Royal Air Force remotely piloted aircraft units.
The 432nd Operations Group is also responsible for all air traffic control, airfield management, and weather services for operations at Creech AFB, Nev. The 432nd OG currently oversees global operations of six squadrons: 11th Reconnaissance Squadron, 15th RS, 18th RS, 20th Reconnaissance RS, 42nd Attack Squadron and the 432nd Operations Support Squadron. Including 432nd Maintenance Group, Creech AFB is also home to 732nd Operations Group and the 799th Air Base Group.
As the New York Times report reminded, since last August, remotely piloted USAF Predator and Reaper aircraft have conducted no less than 3,300 sorties and 875 missile and bomb strikes in Iraq and against Islamic State. Far from cutting back on RPAS missions, as appears now likely to be the case over the coming months, there has actually been significant pressure mounted by some in the Pentagon and elsewhere to increase the number of RPAS based flights in the war against ISIL. Sadly, that is not going to be possible and as the report also confirms, US Defense Secretary, Ashton B. Carter has now signed off the cuts to flights amounting to around 10% per day because quite frankly he had no choice.
So what is the problem and why the shortage of RPAS pilots? The problem would appear in part to be based on stress caused by the system being seriously undermanned and that operatives are sapped of strength by the tough alternating day and night shift conditions in what can only be described as an unpleasant operating environment. To that combination can be added the severity of the work involved and the fear in terms of precision requirement of getting it right.
A high pressure environment operating and flying remotely piloted air systems certainly is but is this any different to flying manned aircraft? Certainly the environment that the unmanned aerial vehicle pilots operate from are often cramped, operatives are surrounded by screens and electronic gear and see little if any daylight during a shift. I have myself seen some of the facilities unmanned aerial vehicle operatives work from and while I could perhaps say that such tight, cramped operating conditions that some are forced to work within could hardly be described as being pleasant I would sum the situation up by saying that at the very least they can only be described as being manageable for short periods.
The result of this is that USAF staff operating RPAS at Creech AFB are leaving faster than they can be trained. USAF requires that those wishing to become RPAS pilots must be commissioned officers and have say done four years in the Air Force Academy or, in the case of those already holding a degree, a few months at Officer Training School. Of course, most who seek to join the Air Force probably do so seeking to be pilots of manned aircraft as opposed to unmanned. There is I suppose a natural stigma behind this and that makes unmanned aerial vehicle flying less attractive. In an ideal world USAF might have hoped to attract sufficient numbers of unmanned pilots without invading the pool of manned aircraft pilots but I understand this has not been the case.
The training required for RPAS pilots is tough although it is relatively short by comparison to say flying a fast jet. The real point is the ability to master the need for absolute precision in everything that you do. When fully trained RPAS pilots at Creech AFB operate 123 hour shifts and, as I have already alluded, sometimes in air conditioned trailers that are dimly lit. Hardly the most pleasant of environments but with close to 1,100 RPAS pilots based at Creech AFB and 500 of them regularly staring very closely at screens and toggling joysticks that control an aircraft that might well be 10,000 miles away in a conflict zone on the other side of the world make no mistake about this being a high pressure environment.
Another problem and one that I have some experience of here in the UK is that when there is a shortage of personnel or maybe trainers there is a tendency to leave them in the same position for far longer than might otherwise have been the case. I have little experience of how this applies in the specific USAF RPAS problem that we are talking about here but I do know that here in the UK military leaving personnel in the same job for too long seriously reduces motivation often because the intended career path is brought to a standstill.
The choice if personnel are left in the same job for too long and if the pressure does get to them is to leave. That appears to be what may well be occurring at Creech AFB and the inability to replace those that leave fast enough puts even greater pressure on the rest. So, on the basis of my own training that says never put a problem forward without a solution my answers are as follows:
Firstly, USAF and indeed, the Royal Air Force who also work alongside at Creech AFB must better understand the human and psychological problems of flying RPAS capability under pressure. Aviation Medicine which both USAF and the Royal Air Force have considerable experience should be used to help and develop a better environment for personnel involved.
My second solution is to recognise that an efficient RPAS based operation cannot be done on the cheap. What the military of countries such as the US and UK having achieved using RPAS capability is formidable and its place in the armoury is very secure. But it is time to reverse the unfortunate impression that RPAS is merely a cheaper way of using ISR and kinetic capability and to recognise that it is far from being cheap. To operate RPAS effectively requires physically and mentally fit personnel able to cope working for a couple of years maximum in what can only be described as a tough working environment
The third is to recognise that working a 12 hour shift in such unpleasant conditions is hardly satisfactory. Eight hour shifts should be the norm. Pay too is something that must also be considered and I understand from the New York Times article that USAF has doubled the incentive pay to $18,000 per year.
That may or may not help but it must be done alongside recognition that the career path of those who operate cameras or drive RPAS military capability should not be interrupted by personnel operative shortages.
Finally, a brief mention of Royal Air Force involvement at Creech AFB. Officially linked to RAF Waddington, the UK hub for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, reconnaissance and also to Royal Air Force RPAS operated missions that link through Waddington, Creech AFB has since 2007 been home to 39 Squadron of the Royal Air Force, The squadron operates both the unmanned Predator vehicle, a medium altitude, long endurance reconnaissance aircraft that also has additional ground attack capability if required and also the Reaper MQ9A and which is primarily required to provide real-time video imagery to ground commanders. With a primary mission to act in support of the ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) role Reaper can in its secondary designed role provide Close-Air-Support (CAS) options and carry and deploy Hellfire missiles and laser guided bombs. As a capability both Predator and Reaper have an excellent record of success when deployed in ISR and attack roles in Afghanistan. It is however important to point out that the UK Reaper force is not an autonomous system and thus does not have the capability to employ weapons unless it has been commanded to do so by the flight crew.
39 Squadron trains and operates alongside USAF as part of the Combined Joint Predator Task Force and includes some Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Army personnel.
CHW (London – 24th June 2015)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Tel: 07710 779785