The U.S. Air
Force is scrambling to supply enough operators for its growing fleet of UAVs.
They now have over a hundred Predator and Reaper UAVs in service, as well as
over a dozen Global Hawks. To that end, ten percent of recent graduates from
pilot schools will spend three years operating UAVs, before going on to flying
manned aircraft. In addition, the air force is experimenting with training
non-flying officers to be UAV operators. Many of these officers could have been
pilots, but were prevented from doing so because of physical limitations (poor
eyesight or inability to handle the gyrations of aircraft). The air force has
long insisted that UAV operators already be manned aircraft pilots, and allowed
most of them to spend only three years operating UAVs before returning to
manned aircraft. This has limited the number of UAV operators available.
The army uses NCOs trained specifically for UAV operation. The army has
no operator shortage. The air force has recently made UAV operator a career
field, not a temporary assignment (as it had been for years). The air force is
also beginning to train non-pilot officers to be UAV operators, and is under
pressure (both from within, and outside, the air force) to allow NCOs to be
career UAV operators.
A typical Predator crew consists of an pilot and a sensor operator.
Because the Predator stays in the air for so long, more than one crew is often
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 cylon. Well, OK, not completely robotic, and certainly
not self-aware. But 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.
Meanwhile, crew and satellite bandwidth shortages mean that only about
30 Predators and Reapers can be in the air at the same time. But that number is
increasing, and the pilot shortage will remain until the air force has enough
career UAV operators available.
For the first eight months of this year, Predators and Reapers flew over
4,400 sorties, each lasting, on average, about 18 hours. Each sortie resulted
in finding about two targets. About 12 percent of those sorties were in direct
support of ground troops under fire, and about 22 percent were in support of
ground troops engaged in raids.