November 14, 2011: The U.S. Navy has one enlisted UAV operator, and now plans to have more of them, maybe. Since World War II, all navy aviators (pilots) have been officers. But three years ago the navy awarded wings to its first two non-officer pilots in over sixty years. Faced with a growing shortage of pilots, the U.S. Navy has finally adopted a solution the U.S. Army implemented long ago; Warrant Officer pilots. The first fourteen navy Warrant Officer pilots were commissioned four years ago and sent off to flight school. Warrant Officers are officers with no command duties and are usually technical specialists. Many senior NCOs consider Warrant Officer rank a normal part of their career path.
Noting over half a century of U.S. Army success with a Warrant Officer program, the U.S. Navy decided to try it out, and called for enlisted volunteers. The navy Warrant Officer pilots serve as flying officers in patrol, electronic warfare and helicopter aircraft. These pilots would remain pilots their entire careers. Commissioned officers are expected to move on to leadership positions. Traditionally, this often means spending some of your time flying a desk, instead of an aircraft. Many pilots don't like this, and the Warrant Officer program is, for them, an attractive option.
There's a sense of déjà vu with this. The navy had NCOs flying aircraft early in World War II. Ever since, there's been a controversy over whether all pilots (most of who are highly trained warriors, not leaders, which is what officers are supposed to be) must be officers. At the start of World War II, the army air force (there was no separate air force yet) also had enlisted pilots. These men were NCOs ("flying sergeants") selected for their flying potential and trained to be pilots. Not leaders of pilots, but professional pilots of fighters, bombers and whatnot. Officers trained as pilots would also fly, but in addition they would provide the leadership for the sergeant pilots in the air and on the ground.
As the Army Air Corps changed into the mighty Army Air Force (with 2.4 million personnel, and 80,000 aircraft, at its peak), its capable and persuasive commander (General Hap Arnold), insisted that all pilots be officers. Actually, he wanted them all to be college graduates as well, until it was pointed out that the pool of college graduates was too small to provide the 200,000 pilots the Army Air Force eventually trained. But Arnold forced the issue on only officers being pilots, and the navy had to go along to remain competitive in recruiting.
When the air force split off from the army in 1947, the army went back to the original concept of "flying sergeants," by making most pilots Warrant Officers. Many air force pilots envied the army "flying Warrants" because the Warrant Officers just fly. That's what most pilots want to do, just fly an aircraft, not a desk. But a commissioned officer must take many non-flying assignments in order to become a "well rounded officer." Many navy and air force pilots don't want to be well rounded officers, they want to fly. So a lot of them quit the military go work for an airline. They often they stay in the reserve, and fly warplanes on weekends, and get paid for it. This is considered an excellent arrangement for the many pilots who take this route.
What the navy is trying to do, besides experiment with the old "flying sergeants" arrangement, is address a shortage of pilots for combat support aircraft. Fighters are the most attractive aircraft for military pilots, but far fewer qualified people want to do the more unexciting work of piloting patrol aircraft and helicopters. The navy is also confronted with the coming generation of robotic aircraft. These UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) are usually controlled (when they are "flown" at all) from the ground. This job has been unattractive to pilots, and often NCOs are used (except by the air force, which has made some of its UAVs completely robotic so they could allow NCOs to push the buttons) to do this. Warrant Officers would be better suited to be career UAV operators.
The U.S. Army has used a combination of NCOs and Warrant Officers to operate its larger UAVs, and that program has been a success. But senior U.S. Air Force commanders have publicly rejected growing calls from air force commanders that NCOs be used as UAV operators. Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force struggles to train enough UAV operators a year, while the U.S. Army has no problem finding and training many more than the air force needs. Most of the army operators use the small (two kg/4.5 pound) Raven UAV, which provides platoons, companies and vehicle convoys with aerial reconnaissance. Interestingly, UAV operators each spend about 1,200 hours a year controlling UAVs in the air, versus 450 hours for army helicopter pilots and even less for air force pilots in the combat zone. Most army UAV operators are enlisted troops, while all air force ones are officers. The Raven training only lasts 80 hours, but this tiny UAV was designed for ease of use. It takes about five times longer to train operators for larger UAVs like Shadow, Predator and Reaper. The air force points out that the largest UAVs, like the Global Hawk, can cross oceans, and requires a high degree of training and skill. But it's much more dangerous to fly a Raven within rifle range of enemy troops, and keep the little bird alive long enough to get the video feed needed to win the battle. Many of these army Raven operators are very, very good, mainly because they have hundreds of hours experience operating their UAVs while under fire. Few air force UAV drivers can claim this kind of experience.
There are other problems. The U.S. Department of Defense has been putting pressure on the air force to automate their UAV operations. The air force initially responded with complaints that they were overloaded. But then it became widely known that, while army UAVs have software that enables automatic take-off and landing, similar air force UAVs do not, and this has led to higher UAV losses for the air force. At the same time, the navy, and the British, are developing flight control software that allows pilots to control two or more UAVs while flying their own aircraft. In effect, these pilots would fly into combat with two or more UAVs under their control. The U.S. Air Force is under a lot of pressure to make this happen, so one team of UAV operators can control two or more aircraft.
It's not that the air force can't make this happen, it's just that there's a lot of resistance in the air force to replacing pilots with a lot of UAVs. Actually, there's not much at stake in this dispute, other than possibly settling the decades old controversy over whether all pilots must be officers. The other services save a lot of money by using NCOs as UAV controllers. Sergeants and Petty Officers are paid less, and they don't get flight pay. No one has been able to demonstrate any better performance on the part of the air force pilots who operate UAVs. In the long run, the enlisted UAV "pilots" will probably be superior, because they are making a career of this sort of thing.
While refusing to let NCOs operate UAVs, the air force has compromised and allowed officers to make a career of it. UAV operators have also been given flight pay, which has been justified by the fact that UAV operators suffer more stress and fatigue from the hours of staring at videos from their aircraft, constantly on the lookout for anything important. Meanwhile, new software (that detects images that might be of interest) will eventually reduce the stress somewhat. The air force has also found that non-pilot officers can also serve as effective UAV operators, and is training more of them for the job. But, at least for now, no NCOs will operate UAVs in the air force.