Help for the Crispy RPA Force

The Air Force’s cadre of remotely piloted aircraft fliers and sensor operators is getting worn down by an ever-escalating demand, requiring injections of more people to the career field and incentives to keep them in it, said the Air Force leadership on Thursday. Secretary Deborah Lee James and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said RPA pilots are flying 900 hours to 1,100 hours worth of missions a year versus 200 to 300 hours a year for pilots of manned aircraft. They’re flying “six days in a row, and 13- to 14-hour days,” said James; the clear evidence is that it’s a “significantly stressed” career field, she said. To help, James has directed that pilots detailed temporarily to RPAs from manned aircraft systems will have to stay with it a while longer. A lot of RPA pilots are also coming up on the end of their service obligations, so James is instituting a bonus increase from $650 a month to $1500 a month, if they stay in. A big problem is that the training function is only manned at 63 percent, according to Welsh. The Air Force trains 180 new RPA pilots a year, needs 300, and loses 240 to normal attrition: math that doesn’t work, he said. He noted that the Air Force now fields about 55 RPA combat air patrols—where it had hoped to stop—but demand is increasing and the service may go closer to the 65 mandated by Congress a few years ago. James said “these are just the first steps” and that more will be done to ease the stress on RPA operators. Welsh said he’s looking at proposals that include enlisted personnel as RPA pilots as well as hiring operators from the other services that are “divesting” RPA functions. (James-Welsh transcript)