Leadership: USAF Ordered to Step Up and Man Up


March 23,2008: A year ago, the U.S. Army was only getting about a third of its requests for Predator missions filled. The surge campaign was under way, and the new Secretary of Defense got involved with the growing number of complaints from army officers about the Predator shortage. The air force had about a hundred Predators, but only a dozen were in Iraq. Questions were asked.

The air force said it did not have enough Predators, and that there was also a shortage of Predator 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 coming down before their fuel is used up. The air force insists that existing pilots (of manned aircraft) be trained as Predator operators. The army uses NCOs trained specifically for UAV operation. The army has no operator shortage.

Ever since World War II, there's been a controversy over whether all pilots (most of whom 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) had enlisted pilots, as did the navy. 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.

Because of Iraq and Afghanistan, the army has also increased UAV operator training, and actually has far more UAVs than the air force. But most of the army UAVs are micro (under ten pounds) models, used by combat units (companies and battalion size units). These UAVs are designed to be very simple to use, requiring little formal training. Brigades and divisions use larger, but smaller than Predator, models. Most army UAV operators are not, like air force ones, pilots.

The Secretary of Defense ordered the air force to get more Predators to Iraq, and there are about two dozen there now. To deal with the UAV operator shortage, the air force has been recalling Predator pilots who have returned to their regular flying jobs. Until recently, being a Predator operator was a temporary (three year) assignment. Now, the air force is making it a career option, but it will take several years before they have enough career UAV pilots. The army complains that the air force is not operating like there's a war on, while the army is. While the air force complains that their UAV operators are working twelve hour shifts, six days a week, the army points out that the Predator operators are stationed in the U.S. (and control the UAVs via a satellite link). Air force personnel in Iraq (ground crews for the Predators) serve six month tours. Meanwhile, soldiers serve 15 month tours in Iraq, work 12 hour shifts, and get shot at a lot.

The army is buying a smaller version of the Predator (the Warrior) [PHOTO] and will be using NCOs and warrant officers as operators. The army is taking advantage of the fact that a UAV operator can become proficient practicing with the kind of flight simulator software you can buy in a game store. The air force does not agree with this approach, and fears unfavorable comparisons to their more complex and expensive approach to obtaining UAV operators. A lot of the bad blood between the army and air force comes down to how each service understands wars, and how they are fought. The air force has always been into new technologies, and new ways of fighting wars. The army is more about getting down and dirty and just getting the job done. The Secretary of Defense is siding with the army, and is telling the air force to get off their butts and get more Predators into the air, or else.


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