March 31, 2010: The U.S. Air Force has concluded that they were training their UAV observers the wrong way. Until now, the observers were image analysts, trained to scrutinize aerial (and satellite) photos for useful information. These "sensor operators" controlled the UAV vidcams pointed at the ground, along with the laser designator that identified the target for the Hellfire missile carried by Predator and Reaper UAVs. While these image analysts went through a nine month training course, it was found that what they really needed was a tactical sense, and empathy with the situation of troops on the ground. So the air force has come up with a new sensor operator training approach, that concentrates on developing awareness of not just what is down there, but what it means in a tactical sense. As the air force puts it, they want to train their sensor operators to think like warriors. The air force will be able to get help from the army and marines, who have long trained their sensor operators to think like warriors. With this switch, the air force is finding that its UAV crews (operator/pilot and sensor operator) need different skills than those in manned aircraft.
This realization has been coming for a while. For example, it was only last year that, for the first time, the U.S. Air Force graduated a class of UAV operators who were not already military pilots. Actually, these officers were given flight training, but only of the most basic kind, and needed only 18 hours at the controls of an aircraft, before they went on to UAV operator school. Now, the air force has increased that to 35 hours, because it is believed that a UAV operator needs a pilot's sense of what is going on, even while operating an aircraft remotely from the ground. However, most UAV operator training is done using simulators, which is easier to do with UAVs (because the operators normally operate their aircraft via two or more flat screen computer displays.) These simulators are getting better and better, and don't require the expensive dome displays and mechanical actuators (to simulate the movement of the cockpit and physical orientation of the pilot). There are sensor operator simulators as well, and these will be equipped with software that will simulate typical combat missions, and the kind of things sensor operators should be looking for.
Then there's another factor at play; UAVs have become where the action is. There are more UAVs operating over Iraq and Afghanistan, than all other air force combat aircraft. So, if you want to see some combat, you want to be a UAV driver. This has not been enough to lure many fighter pilots away from their "fast movers." But the fighter pilots forced to do a three year tour with UAVs don't regret it. While the duty is often tedious (UAV operators do eight hour shifts), at least you are focused on the ground, where the enemy, and the action, is. Instead of a cockpit, UAV operators sit in front of multiple flat panel displays (showing system status, maps, chat room discussions with troops and other operators, and video from the cameras), and interact via a joystick, rudder control and a keyboard. While UAV operators sometimes (in about three percent of missions) fire Hellfire missiles, most of their work is more like a detectives' stakeout, watching for suspicious activity, and passing on video, and observations, to the ground troops. Some air force pilots are attracted to UAV duty because they see this as the future.
It's the sensor operators who do most of the observing, much like the weapons officer who manned the back seat in fighters (starting with the F-4 Phantom). These back seaters operated electronic warfare and weapons control systems, but also provided a valuable (it was discovered) second pair of eyes. It worked in air-to-air combat, and now it's becoming a key to air-to-ground combat aboard UAVs.
The air force is rapidly approaching its goal of having 200 Predator and Reaper UAVs in service. This would enable them to keep about a third of them in the air at any given time. This is what the guys on the ground want. But to staff this force, the air force will need 1,400 operators and 1,100 sensor operators (to provide shifts for the crews, which don't have the same endurance as the machines). Currently, the air force has only 371 sensor operators. These will be transferred back to the image analysis work they were trained for. That's because UAVs are carrying more sensors, many of them having multiple (three or more) vidcams, and these images must often be scrutinized later, for useful data.
This year, the air force is training 800 sensor operators. But at the same time, there will be fifteen Predator/Reaper squadrons, and three Predator/Reaper Wings. At that point, about ten percent of U.S. Air Force combat squadrons will be equipped with UAVs. Air Force Wings, which are roughly the size of army brigades, are the largest units in the air force, aside from the numbered air forces (1st Air Force, 7th Air Force, and so on). There used be Air Divisions (composed of two or more Wings), but these were phased out in the 1990s.
Each Predator squadron has at least twelve UAVs, and sometimes as many as 24. But the air force prefers to keep them smaller (12 aircraft and about 200 airmen). Only about two thirds of those troops go overseas with the UAVs. The rest stay behind in the United States, and fly the Predators via a satellite link. When in a combat zone, each Predator averages up to 200 hours in the air each month. Each aircraft flies 6-10 sorties (also known as CAPs) a month, each one lasting 15-25 hours.