NPR ran a story a few weeks ago about the fact that the US Air Force is now training more drone pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined. That fact reflects the reality that drone usage is rising while conventional airplane usage falls. It also means the Air Force has to reshape its culture to get the most out of both forces. There have always been hierarchies in Air Force culture, with various flying communities rising and falling as Air Force missions changed. In The Rise of the Fighter Generals, Michael Worden showed how the early postwar Air Force was dominated by bomber pilots from Strategic Air Command, and how they were replaced by fighter pilots in the late 1960s and 1970s. The Air Force has had trouble merging different flying communities: combining aerospace rescue and special operations into Military Airlift Command’s 23 Air Force was mostly unsuccessful, while uniting the long-haul airlift and aerial refueling communities into Air Mobility Command required a deliberate effort by senior leaders to merge the two groups.
Dealing with RPV pilots will probably be a little more difficult. The conventional wisdom is that pilots don’t like RPVs because they take the human out of the sky and stick them on the ground, what Thomas Ehrhard calls the “white scarf syndrome” (in homage to the scarves worn by World War I and interwar aviators). The reason RPV projects fail, the syndrome claims, is that the Air Force starves them to avoid competition with its manned aircraft. In his research on drone development, Ehrhard (who was an ICBM officer in his active duty career) argues that there’s no evidence for that white scarf syndrome has ever had much influence on USAF drone development (his research is available in an exceptionally-detailed PhD dissertation from Johns Hopkins, or in a much shorter pamphlet from the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute). Instead, the problem is that they tend to lack an institutional constituency and end up without consistent advocates. The quintessential example of this in Ehrhard’s dissertation actually comes from the US Navy. The Navy’s Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter (DASH) belonged to the destroyer community, while all the skills and equipment necessary to make it effective (jet mechanics, a training pipeline for pilots, permission to use airspace over the US task force) belonged to the aviation community. Without enough support for training, DASH crashed – a lot – and that made it into a liability for the commanders of the ships it flew from. In the end, no one was unhappy to see it go – and the destroyers got a manned anti-submarine helicopter that was supported by the aviation community.
The Air Force has already taken steps to make sure that RPVs get the institutional support they need. While earlier generations of drone operators already had experience flying conventional aircraft, the new generation is going straight to drones. Starting in 2008, drone pilots began going through a drone-only undergraduate RPV course which takes half the time of conventional Undergraduate Pilot Training. Despite that, they are considered rated pilots, wear the same flight suits as other pilots when operating their aircraft, and get the same flight physicals and incentive pay. That makes the RPV community equal to fighter, bomber and airlift pilots.
Will this situation last if fewer US troops on the ground means less demand for drones overhead? Sending operators straight to drones is only one of the ways that the Air Force has loosened its requirements that key tasks be performed only by pilots. Since the creation of the USAF in 1947 it has always insisted that only rated combat fliers (at first fighter, now also bomber pilots and air battle managers), could serve as Air Liaison Officers with Army units. Just this year, it opened the position to non-rated officers for the first time. Only time will tell, but my guess is that operating RPVs is here to stay as a distinct USAF career path.