There was an interesting piece in the LA Times today.....covering the Air Force, contractors, and the requirement for more drone pilots.
So, the Air Force has come to agree that they have a problem in getting and maintaining enough qualified drone pilots.
You might ask why.
Around twenty years ago when this drone thing was first being discussed, it was decided that these were all high-value items and thus you needed an officer to fly them. One might admit that if city street-sweepers had a cost-value of $2 million, and the Air Force bought a dozen of them.....they'd have Captains piloting the city street-sweeper.
Then they said that you had to be a graduate of flight school and thus a 'real' pilot to fly the drone. So if you were in the school and you came to the point where they handed out airframes and assignments....you fell into three groups. The first being the happy group with fighters. The second group were the cargo or recon plane jobs, which were somewhat happy individiuals. The third group was the drone group, where no one was very happy.
Being a drone pilot meant you were going to Vegas for three years. It meant that you'd be sitting in a cubicle and monitoring a flight that might take fifteen-plus hours, then you'd walk out and try to assemble a somewhat normal life in the Vegas culture. I should note....on top of the drone duty, the AF always tried to find other duties to ensure your administrative side of life was hectic and full of papers to be written.
The only positive thing was that at the end of a drone tour....you got this really juicy assignment somewhere for three years.....possibly even a career-enhancement job which guaranteed early promotion. Then, they might come to you after the juicy period, and offer a drone deal again.....since you had the certifications, and offer you a chance to drone for three years, and then get that heavily desired DC job which would guarantee you another promotion.
For a decade, drone-burn-out has been discussed in open forums and people readily agree that it's a problem now to recruit and keep Air Force pilots under this issue.
So, contracting companies stood up and said.....if you pay us X, we will provide a drone pilot force.
What they look for are simply people with a pilot background that meet the contract specifications. No one cares if the guy is 30 pounds overweight. No one cares if the pilot is a guy who wears Scottish Kilts or a ladies high heels. No one cares if the contracted drone pilot is HIV-positive. No one cares if the drone pilot is a trans-lady-guy. That's the thing about contracting out this job.....you just want someone to show up at 3AM, get into a lounge seat for sixteen hours, and fly a mission from some air conditioned room on the base north of Vegas. Administrative duties for the contracted pilots? No....none.
Naturally, this drew negativity....hiring out.
The Air Force said.....fine.....they'd hire for the Reaper drones....which are recon only.....not capable of firing missiles. The contractors wouldn't pinpoint targets (lasering) or push the button for the missile.
All of this got military lawyers upset to some degree.....they still say that the contractors are part of a "kill chain" and you just can't use civilians for that purpose. There's that law which says you as a civilian cannot be part of an armed conflict.
It's ok to cook chow food in a war zone, or repair trucks, or erect tents. Once you cross the line into the killing zone.....it's 'bad'.
Part of this problem of a drone pilot shortage....is the Air Force's own fault. If the Army ran the program.....it'd be a warrant-officer program where guys with a year of college would be professional drone-pilots. They wouldn't be dragged around with deals being laid on the table.....year after year....and they'd probably own permanent homes in Vegas, with a three-year tour every couple of years to Italy or Germany to chill out. The Army would figure out some way to only fly four or five missions a month, and most folks would be happy with the deal. The Air Force got rid of warrant-officers back in the late 1950s.....saying they just were a hindrance.
There are probably 300,000 kids in America who are 'game-happy' and computer geeks. If you went up to a eighteen-year-old kid and just said.....here's this deal. You go through a simulator pilot school for two months....we certify you......then you drone with us for five years while we pay for two classes each semester and pay you $40,000 a year to live in Vegas....then you'd get several thousand volunteers each year. You end the five-year deal with a degree and walk out out the door happy. The Air Force could make some deal like this but then they'd have to admit that any idiot could fly the drone with a little bit of training, and they'd hate to admit that in public.
So, settle back and watch how this unfolds.