It turns out that a decade of war has taken its toll. Drone pilots are leaving in larger numbers than can be trained each year, and the Pentagon doesn’t know what to do about it. It has decided that the solution to the problem should be spending more money in the “War of Terror” by paying pilots more. How about flying less drones?
During a ‘State of the Air Force’ briefing at the Pentagon, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh admitted a significant drone pilot shortage on the force, and promised to increase their pay to encourage experienced personnel to stay.
“The crisis right now is with the pilot force. It is the most stressed part because it is the lowest manned part of the RPA [remotely pilot aircraft] fleet, percentage-wise,” Welsh said. “They have the longest and most expensive training pipeline in that community.”
“The biggest problem is training,” Welch said, referring to shortages of MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper operators. “We can only train about 180 people a year and we need 300-a-year trained, and we’re losing about 240 from the community each year.”
Drone pilots, as well as sensor operators, are always under “significant stress” during the mission, James said, due to an “unrelenting pace of operations.”
While a conventional pilot flies between 200 and 300 hours per year on average, “RPA pilots log four times that much, ranging from 900 to 1,100 flight hours per year,” she said. “This is very stressful operations because mistakes can cost lives.”
To retain and attract new drone operators, James announced that the Air Force is looking to substantially increase their pay.
A 2012 RAND Corp. report looked at incentive pay in the drone pilot world, and its usefulness as a retention tool. “For the Air Force, there is a tipping point at which it becomes cheaper to retain a trained individual than to recruit and train a new one,” the report said. “Even if this tipping point is not reached, incentive pays may be needed to meet experience requirements.”
James’ decision to boost bonuses for RPA pilots comes just weeks before the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission will release its recommendations on reforming service members’ pay and benefits. The proposed changes, which officially will be unveiled Feb. 1, could affect a range of third-rail military compensation issues, including commissary benefits, housing allowances and the pension system.