Who flies the UAV?

Ryan AQM-147 RPV

It had always struck me as rather odd that the US have chosen to employ highly trained military pilots to fly UAVs. In the Vietnam War, when RPVs were utilized on a variety of missions, the actual launch and operational legs of the sortie did not require the intervention of a qualified pilot, only during the recovery did a pilot become involved. When Israel first began operating small UAVs, little bigger than large model aircraft, they used conscripted personnel who had experience of flying radio controlled model aircraft to pilot the UAVs.

The highest levels of the USAF, in common with most other air forces throughout the world, are dominated by pilots, usually fast-jet pilots. Many of these individuals were resistant to the development and deployment of Cruise Missiles, rather than strike aircraft during the Cold War and adopted a similar stance when the new generation of UAVs first appeared. However, the performance of the GNAT-750 over Bosina soon made the widespread introduction of UAVs into USAF service inevitable, and to help overcome the resistance of the many UAV opponents, it was felt necessary to have a fully qualified pilot at the controls. Now that UAVs have been in service for a while, perhaps it’s time to address whether the employment of military pilots as UAV pilots is both really necessary and the most cost-effective option.

A paper submitted to the US Air & Space Power Journal in Spring 2005 by Maj James C Hoffman and Charles Tustin Kamps entitled “Future manning for unmanned aerial vehicles” addresses this very issue and draws some interesting conclusions. In the paper they argue that, as the USAF currently suffers from a critical shortage of pilots, removing a fully qualified pilot from his cockpit for a 36-month tour as a UAV pilot, is both expensive and disruptive to the pilots career progression. Furthermore, it would make sense to retain UAV pilots beyond a 36-month tour to build up experience levels and also develop a formal UAV/UCAV force career path to encourage people to remain within this specialisation. This matter needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency, as the deployment of more UAVs and the eventual introduction of UCAVs will only acerbate the problem, particularly as the USAF currently struggles to find even 20 pilots a year to volunteer for UAV pilot duties.

GA Warrior

A study published in 2002 by the US Air Force Research Laboratory concluded that flying experience in T-1 or T-38 during specialised undergraduate pilot training aircraft was not required to fly a UAV. In addition, Hoffman & Kamps suggest that it would be more cost-effective to employ properly trained non-aircrew junior officers for UAV pilot duties. These individuals would undertake initial flight training to PPL standard, followed by a commercial instrument rating, before completing Predator UAV Initial Qualification Training (IQT). They argue that these people would be highly motivated, knowing from the outset that they would remain within the UAV community for the majority of their service, where their knowledge and expertise would be of most benefit. The cost-savings alone by implementing this solution are considerable, evening without quantifying the dilution of experience levels that currently occurs when qualified pilots are posted to UAV duties.

Hermes 450

Hoffman & Kamps is certainly a radical suggestion, but one that I think has considerable merit and in time may even come to fruition. It is perhaps significant that already two UAVs are already under development that will not employ a fully qualified military pilot. By 2008 the US Army plans to field an Extended Range Multipurpose (ERMP) UAV capable of carrying various payloads including electro-optical, communications relay, radar and up to four Hellfire missiles. It was recently announced that the competition had been won by the General Atomics Warrior, a descendant of the Predator and similar in size. However, the US Army are insisting that the ERMP will be flown by an enlisted soldier, rather than a qualified pilot. In the UK the planned Watchkeeper UAV, a version of the Israeli Elbit Systems Hermes 450 UAV, will be operated by 32 Regiment, Royal Artillery and flown by a soldier, rather than a pilot. These decisions by the US and UK Army on who they intend to employ to pilot these large UAVs beg the obvious question, if they don’t need a highly qualified military pilot to fly these UAVs, why do the UASF and RAF?

Whether military pilots like it or not, UAVs and UCAVs are likely to become a crucial element in the order of battle of any modern air force. To ensure that military commanders gain the maximum benefits that these unique vehicles will provide, I believe it will be essential to have well manned units, employing highly motivated operators who owe their allegiance to the UAV community first, rather than employing staff on temporary duty from manned aircraft squadrons. Whether the US and UK military organisations will firmly grasp this nettle, or pretend the problem doesn’t exist, remains to be seen.