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Military Connection: Air Force Looks to Bolster Drone Pilot Pool

Drone Pilots

The United States Air Force has been finding it difficult to secure candidates for their unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) pilot program. Now, Air Force leadership is taking aggressive steps to fill the much needed drone pilot positions from their pool of National Guard and Reservist pilots.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James is laying out plans to increase incentive pay in order to bring more National Guard and Reserve pilots onto active duty, and find volunteers to fill needed slots to fly drones. James has told the media that the Air Force may seek large retention bonuses for drone pilots, close to the maximum $25,000 stipend that manned aircraft pilots receive.

The Air Force has struggled with manning drone operators. The demands of ongoing operations around the world, including persistent airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, have only made the problem worse. And according to General Mark Welsh, Air Force Chief of Staff,  plans to reduce the number of combat air patrols by drones have instead  increased, mostly due to the airstrike missions in Iraq and Syria.

There are currently 988 active-duty pilots for the Predator and Reaper drones – the two most lethal unmanned aircraft commonly used for surveillance and strikes. More than 1,200 pilots are needed.

Gen. Welsh says that the Air Force can only train approximately 180 drone pilots a year.  But the annual need for drone pilots is closer to 300. And the Air Force loses about 240 drone pilots a year, as drone operators move to other jobs, or leave the military for higher paying jobs operating drones for the drone manufacturers that sell them to the military.

In an attempt to combat the issue, James said that she will more than double the monthly incentive pay for some drone operators, from $600 to $1,500, in order to persuade them to stay in the Air Force. The incentive would be targeted towards those who have finished their initial six-year service commitment. All drone pilots now get the $600 monthly stipend, but current policies do not allow for any retention bonuses, unlike the up to $25,000 given to manned aircraft pilots to encourage them to stay in the service.

Ms. James also said that she will shift funds in order to bring some National Guard and Reserve drone pilots onto active duty, and will ask other trained drone operators to volunteer to deploy for six months to some of the more strained units. It is expected that 33 current drone pilots will be asked to voluntarily stay in their jobs, rather than going back to their original aircraft, as planned, later this summer.

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Military Connection: Air Force Looks to Bolster Drone Pilot Pool: By Debbie Gregory