By Jonah Bennett, DCNF
An internal memo from senior officials reveals that the Air Force’s drone program is on the verge of collapse due to limited personnel just when the military is stepping up efforts against ISIS, The Daily Beast reports.
The memo from Gen. Herbert Carlisle, commander of the Air Combat Command (ACC), reflects a longstanding dispute between the Air Force and the Pentagon. At a time when more drone flights than ever are needed to combat ISIS, the Air Force is struggling to keep up with demand. What’s missing is not equipment: There are more than enough MQ-1 and MQ-9 Reaper drones in stock; but the Air Force is running dangerously low on trainedpersonnel. “It’s at the breaking point, and has been for a long time,” a senior service official told The Daily Beast. “What’s different now is that the band-aid fixes are no longer working.”
Of the personnel left, hundreds have quit over sustained stretches of emergency staffing levels that require everyone to work longer hours. From Gen. Carlisle’s perspective, for every drone flight, there should be 10 personnel. The emergency ratio is 8.5 to every flight.
Currently, Air Combat Command is struggling along and barely making it at eight pilots for every flight. “This directly violates our red line for RPA [remotely pilot aircraft] manning and combat operations,” Carlisle noted.
Long hours at work have been preventing pilots from furthering their careers in the military. They’ve had leave canceled and have not been able to attend military education courses. The outcome is that pilots are exiting from the ACC as fast as possible. The retention rate for drone pilots is stationed at just under 50 percent.
A paper from the Brookings Institution released in August 2013 found several problems with the piloting programs. The first and foremost problem is that screening processes are not doing a terribly good job, since pilot retention rates are very low: three times higher than the rate for traditional pilots in the Air Force.
“RPA [Remotely Piloted Aircraft] pilots are unable to meet promotion education, and training opportunities commensurate with other officers, resulting in a 13 percent lower promotion rate to the rank of major over the last five years,” the Brookings report added. The RPA program has seen a dramatic increase in importance during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, an importance which has only grown further since the U.S. launched combat operation against ISIS. According to a Government Accountability Report, in fiscal year 2013, the Air Force only managed to bring in 110 pilots, rather than its intended goal of 179 pilots, missing the projected mark by 39 percent.
In spite of the shortages, the Pentagon is looking to add an additional 65 more combat drone patrols this spring, leaving Air Force officials panicked and asking for more personnel support.