Is the USAF trying hard enough to find drone pilots?


The US Air Force is looking for a few good drone operators. The hours are long. The work environment is substantially contained within conex boxes rigged as command centers. The business can get grim, at least on the other end of that video feed. As the squadron commander says in that new movie with Ethan Hawke, “they don’t call it a Hellfire for nothing.” The film’s overwrought tagline isn’t helping—if you never face your enemy, how can you face yourself? (Groan.) But whatever the drama, in the numbers, the problem is showing—in fiscal 2013, the USAF recruited only 110 of the 179 new drone pilots it wanted.

The odd thing is that unmanned systems are commonly assumed to reduce manning problems. It may not quite be true, as Colin Clark claimed on Breaking Defense, that “drones need more people to fly them than do manned aircraft.” It’s the mission that they fly that demands all those people. Full-motion, always-on video is an integral part of the product, and that’s not the case with an F-16 or an F-35. That new style of warfare creates, as Majumdar continues, a considerable tail, which “requires hundreds of man-hours to support every hour of flight… most starkly in the processing, exploitation, and dissemination of the intelligence that [drones] create.”
Accordingly, the USAF would like to automate its signals and imagery analysis too. Good luck writing that software. Perhaps there’s not a linear relationship between investment in drones and changes in personnel costs, but there will clearly be a sustained staffing challenge—unless something is done. According to today’s news, the USAF is unsure whether it wants to employ the carrot of retention bonuses or the coercion of stop-loss. That’s an odd juxtaposition of options: cash on the barrelhead, or the press gang.
This simply tells me that someone is not thinking creatively. Before panicking, the service might slow down, repeat those numbers, and reconsider the magnitude of the problem. The Air Force couldn’t find another 69 new drone pilots last year in a country of 320 million people. I’m yet to see a single targeted advertisement. No one seems to be darkening doors at the video gamer conventions. Las Vegas is not the worst place to live. In short, someone at the Air Force Personnel Center isn’t trying hard enough, and this is actually a matter of national security.
James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.