The U.S. Air Force‘s Drone Problems Have Been a Long Time Coming
Squadrons are overworked and stressed out
The U.S. Air Force’s drone fleet is understaffed and overburdened, according to a recent report by The Daily Beast. But these issues are not nearly as new as the leaked memo might suggest.
Six years of official histories—which War Is Boring obtained via the Freedom of Information Act—show Air Combat Command has consistently struggled to find enough operators for its drone squadrons. ACC oversees the bulk of the Air Force’s attack planes, fighters and aerial spies, including drones.
At the same time, the Pentagon’s demands for the unmanned aircraft have only increased.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, remotely-piloted planes quickly became a cornerstone of the Pentagon’s global counterterrorism campaigns. Despite a long history with unmanned spies, many Air Force officials were wary about the drones’ expanding role.
As of 2006, the Air Force only had enough personnel for 12 so-called “Combat Air Patrols,” or CAPs, according ACC’s annual report for 2007.
MQ-1 Predators flew all of these missions. The larger and more capable MQ-9 Reapers were still months away from entering service.
Each CAP contained four aircraft. With this number of planes, crews could theoretically keep a drone hovering over a target indefinitely. When one Predator ran out of fuel, another would arrive and take its place.
In spite of these limited resources, the Pentagon ordered the flying branch to almost double the number of drones in the air at any one time. The push created problems within the service.
ACC paid for these extra patrols and supplied the pilots. But the Air Force Special Operations Command and the Air National Guard actually operated these new CAPs.
In February 2007, Gen. T. Michael Moseley—then chief of the Air Force—ordered ACC to give up four CAPs, plus their airframes and crews, to their commando brethren. Moseley agreed to the request from U.S. Special Operations Command because of “real world conditions,” the 2007 history explains.
But to make sure everyone paid their fare share, the various commands devised a complex budget arrangement where ACC paid costs up front and AFSOC paid them back.
The flying branch was still stretching resources dangerously thin. To meet the requirements, Air Force leadership took pilots away from flying fast-moving jets—a more prestigious assignment.
Combined with the onerous schedules, morale in the Predator units plummeted.
And by the end of the year, the Pentagon slipped that it expected the flying branch to create 10 more CAPs. On top of that, Moseley considered sending all of the existing Predators and Reapers to help hunt for terrorists and insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“If such a tasking did occur, it would mean all training would be halted because all aircraft … would be deployed,” the 2007 records say.
The training also “severely limited the expansion of combat capability for Predators and Reapers.” This is because combat units carried out the training in-house, the following year’s history complains.
The need to prepare new pilots and crews for what the Air Force described as “the fast-paced and unplanned expansion of Predator and Reaper combat missions” remained a major issue throughout 2008, according to the annual summary.
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates famously chastised the service for not putting more emphasis on the drones. “Because people were stuck in old ways of doing business, it’s been like pulling teeth,” Gates told a gathering of airmen in April.
But in November, ACC met the 31-CAP goal, with two CAPs flying the newer Reapers. Air Force officials had little time to catch their breath and celebrate.
Years ago, the Pentagon inquired about the possibility of running 50 drone patrols. The flying branch submitted plans to meet this new requirement.
By 2010, ACC had nearly 140 Predators and Reapers. The MQ-1s alone were in the air for almost 180,000 hours that year, three times more active than ubiquitous F-16 fighter jets.
But it wasn’t until June that the Air Force finally acknowledged the unmanned planes were “an integral part of the service’s overall force structure” and not a “novelty,” according to the 2010 historical documentation.
Only then did the flying branch create specific job classes for drone pilots and the sensor operators. For the first time, incoming airmen could work with remotely-operated aircraft from the very beginning.
With a steady stream of drone crews in the works, Air Force officials let some pilots return to flying manned aircraft, too. The shuffling helped smooth over some of the lingering morale problems.
The Pentagon also saw the progress as an opportunity to expand the number of CAPs yet again, setting a new goal of having 65 Predators and Reapers in the air at one time.
By 2011, then Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley warned that the situation was deteriorating.
These “unconstrained requests for additional MQ-1/9 CAPs … are unsustainable,” Donley wrote in an internal memo, according to ACC’s 2012 historical summary.
In spite of these difficulties, the Air Force met the goal of 65 patrols and expanded the overall size of the drone force, according the same history. The ratio of personnel per CAP increased from 6.25 airmen to eight, which gave “crews a much needed breather.”
Still, the flying branch has not been unable to meet their real goal of having at least 10 individuals available for every mission. ACC also failed to expand the training units as planned.
Even then, the flying branch only planned to get those squadrons 80 percent filled. At the end of the year, the so-called “formal training units” had approximately two-thirds of their expected staff.
Now, these units are reportedly struggling to keep half the necessary personnel on hand. Despite the improvements, the Air Force has been unable to make drone-related jobs significantly more attractive to incoming airmen.
With no obvious solutions to these issues, it’s really no surprise that Air Force planners want to shrink requirements for drones and their crews. Unfortunately, the Pentagon is continuing to demand more from the flying branch’s unmanned pilots.