Warplanes: Not What They Signed Up For


November 7, 2011: The U.S. Air Force effort to increase the number of large UAVs in service is failing. It’s not because of a shortage of UAVs, but a shortage of operators. Over the last two years, the air force has been hustling to double the number of CAPs (Combat Air Patrols) in combat zones. Two years ago there were 30-35 CAPs. Now the air force wants to put 65 CAPs out there. But they cannot recruit and train new operators fast enough.

Each CAP requires 3-4 Predators or Reapers (one doing the CAP, one or two in transit to the CAP area and one on the ground undergoing maintenance and repairs). Each UAV has a ground crew to take care of maintenance and repairs, as well as landings and take offs, while a smaller number are back in the United States, actually operating the UAVs.

To do this round the clock, each five CAP UAVs requires a ground control station (GCS). One GCS is overseas, to handle takeoffs and landings. The other ground stations are back in the United States, where 30 members of the squadron operate the UAVs, in shifts, as it patrols. Currently, the air force has over 50 MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper CAPs operating in Iraq, Pakistan, the Persian Gulf, northeast Africa and Afghanistan.

Despite the fact that serving as a UAV operator has become more popular within the air force, the training program cannot keep up. In an attempt to deal with the shortage, the air force has temporarily shut down its UAV "top gun" school and sent instructors back to UAV squadrons. The problem is basically one of developing the best way to recruit and train UAV operators while simultaneously rapidly expanding the UAV force. Until recently, this was compounded by the fact that UAV operators were actually pilots for combat or support aircraft, who were only serving three years as UAV operators. That is changing, but not fast enough.

UAVs have become where the action is. There are more UAVs in action over Afghanistan and other war zones, than all other air force combat aircraft. So, if you want to see some action, 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, and 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, but most existing pilots see it as not what they signed up for.

Meanwhile, the army already uses NCOs trained specifically for UAV operation. The army has no operator shortage. The air force is under pressure (both from within, and outside, the air force) to allow NCOs to be career UAV operators. But it will probably stay with officers or, as the army does with helicopter pilots, use warrant officers (officers who concentrate on their technical specialty, and not command duties). 

A typical Predator crew consists of a pilot and one or two sensor operators. Because the Predator stays in the air for so long, more than one crew is used for each sortie. Crew shortages sometimes result in Predators being brought back to base before their fuel is used up. There is also help on the way from the developers of flight control software. Many UAVs can fly quite well without any pilot at all. This is basically an adaptation of "automatic pilot" systems (which are now mostly software and sensors) that are now capable of doing practically all the flying for commercial aircraft. So it was no big jump to install these systems in UAVs and let them go on automatic. Global Hawk UAVs are sent across the oceans on automatic (including take-offs and landings). Using more of these systems for Predator and Reaper, eliminates a lot of the human error problems. This solution has been a trend in aircraft and automobile design for over two decades. The boredom of watching video for hours is being alleviated by the use of pattern matching software that can detect movement that is in need of human attention.

Predators and Reapers fly sorties that last, on average, about 18 hours. Each sortie results in finding about two targets. About 15 percent of those sorties were in direct support of ground troops under fire, and about 20 percent were in support of ground troops engaged in raids. For the ground troops, the UAVs are the most important aircraft up there. The army has its own GPS guided rockets and artillery shells, but it does not have enough UAVs constantly monitoring the battlefield.

The large number of UAV operators has created a growing body of knowledge of what works, and what doesn’t. Two years ago this led to the establishment of a "graduate school" (the "Weapons School" or "Top Gun" course) for Predator and Reaper operators. This insured that useful combat knowledge is not lost, and is captured and passed on to other UAV operators. This quickly showed results in ways that were rarely reported (a lot of techniques are kept secret, lest the enemy have an opportunity to defeat them). But the growing success of these UAVs indicates that the knowledge is there and useful. The UAV Weapons School also develops new tactics, like the use of UAVs for taking out enemy air defenses, so that bombers, cruise missiles, or heavily armed UAVs like Reaper, can go in and hit other targets. This includes developing tactics for entirely robotic operations. UAVs need this for when they lose communications, and have to get back to base, or complete their mission. Nothing radically new here. Cruise missiles have been seeking out and destroying targets, on their own, for decades, but the new generation of UAVs are being trained, or programmed, to deal with more complex situations.

The U.S. Air Force has 18 UAV squadrons, including some from the reserves, operating overseas. Each squadron has about 200 personnel (operators, maintainers, and other support troops). The air force has about 250 Predator and Reaper UAVs in service. These fly over 250,000 hours a year.

Predators are mainly reconnaissance aircraft, but ones that are capable of carrying out a relatively new airborne mission; surveillance (keeping an eye on one patch of ground for an extended period). Surveillance missions tie up a lot of airborne hours, but yield big results on the ground, where lots of enemy activity can be observed (especially at night). The army and marines have developed new tactics to take advantage of these new reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities. As more Predators become available, the ground troops put them right to work. So far, too many Predators are not enough.

While the Predator was a reconnaissance aircraft that could carry weapons (two Hellfire missiles, each weighing a hundred pounds), the Reaper was designed as a combat aircraft that also does reconnaissance. The Reaper can carry over a ton of GPS or laser guided bombs, as well as the 114 kg (250 pound) SDB, or Hellfire missiles. The Predators cost about $4.5 million each, while the Reaper goes for about $11.2 million (although that can go a lot higher depending on what kind of sensors you install).

The Reaper weighs about four times as much as a Predator, and carries sensors equal to those found in targeting pods like the Sniper XL or Litening, and flies at the same 20,000 foot altitude of most fighters using those pods. This makes the Reaper immune to most ground fire, and capable of seeing, and attacking, anything down there. All at one tenth of the price of a manned fighter aircraft. The air force will stop buying the MQ-1 as of next year, and will switch over to the Reaper.




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