In 2013 the US Department of Defence (DoD) published its unmanned systems roadmap, showing how it intends to continue to deliver vital unmanned aerial systems (UAS) capabilities as part of an integrated force structure over the coming two and a half decades.
At the time of the paper's publication, the main focus of the changing threat environment post-Afghanistan was the emerging Asia-Pacific theatre, and the DoD's UAS plans followed suit as they shifted to a peacetime environment. To ensure it had the resources free to prioritise its most critical modernisation efforts, Predator and Reaper projects were earmarked as an area, in which the DoD could make 'near-term capacity reductions'. This would see ten fewer Predator and Reaper 24-hour combat patrols - a drop from 65 to 55.
However, as the Middle East theatre has re-emerged as a central area of concern for the Pentagon, the number of flights has actually risen. By the beginning of 2015, the number of drone patrols conducted by the US was back up to 65, and in August the Pentagon revealed that it will continue to significantly increase the number of daily missions conducted to 90 by 2019 - a figure that has implications for fleet size, operator burden, and support footprints.
Manning the unmanned
Despite their 'unmanned' name tag, the pilot and crew requirements for UAS operated by the US military are high. Each MQ-9 Reaper crew comprises a pilot, sensor operator, and mission intelligence coordinator, and the matter of having sufficient pilots and crew to operate the air force's UAS fleet has been an issue for some time.
Sustained requirements for ISR missions have put growing pressure on the air force's RPA pilot community. The force has been operating at surge capacity for nearly a decade, and this has taken its toll - in order to meet combatant commander requirements the air force surged MQ-1/9 combat air patrols nine times in the last eight years.
The pressure this demand has placed on unmanned pilot resources was recognised in April, when the US secretary of defence approved the reset of the combat air patrol (CAP) planning guidance from 65 to 60 to improve RPA pilot operations tempo and alleviate the constant surge experienced by the RPA community.
Aside from improving conditions for RPA crew, the air force is well aware that the amount of new pilots emerging from training programmes is well below the number needed to meet its requirements.
In May, the air force admitted that current demand for operations put requirements for active-duty RPA pilots at around 300 per year, however the current active duty training production output is only 180 pilots per year.
The issue of insufficient pilot numbers was brought to light back in April 2014, when the US Government Accountability Office published a report detailing a significant shortfall in the number of active-duty RPAS pilots in the air force. The report said that despite the crew ratio - the optimum number of RPAS pilots - having been determined as too low as far back as 2008, no action had been taken to date to update the ratios.
Despite air force guidance stating that low crew ratios 'diminish combat capability and cause flight safety to suffer', the air force 'has operated below its optimum crew ratio and it has not established a minimum crew ratio' the report said. Additionally, the high work demands on RPA pilots 'limit the time they have available for training and development and negatively affects their work-life balance'. All of which has contributed to low pilot recruitment and retention in the air force.
A number of initiatives have been kicked off in the last year to address this issue, with a focus on how to alleviate long-term stress on a community being tasked with delivering greater capability with finite resources.
"To further ease the strain on the RPA community, the air force will provide more pilots for RPA duty within the next year through increased manning and incentives," says US Air Force Captain Trisha R Guillebeau. "Approximately 80 UPT graduates over the next 12 months will be assigned to RPA positions for one assignment tour to help alleviate growing pressure on RPA crews.
"Additionally, the air force is looking at special and incentive pays to enhance recruiting and retention and recognises RPA pilot contributions to the mission. The air force expects the undergraduate RPA pilot pipeline to produce enough RPA pilots to sustain current operations by 2017."
The Secretary of Defense has also approved government-owned, contractor-operated (GOCO) RPA CAPs to enhance continued ISR support for combatant commands worldwide.
"As we move forward, the air force will continue to refine emerging requirements for government-contracted RPAs, while conducting continuous research to determine industry's capacity to fulfil these emerging requirements," says Guillebeau.
A big help here could be the RPA training academy that MQ-1/9 OEM General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) confirmed plans for in September. The facility will be in Grand Forks, North Dakota, co-located on Grand Forks Air Force base, and is set to start training in early 2016. The academy will be well placed to meet growing demand from the air force for private contractor RPA operators trained on government-approved curricula.
The training burden
It is a significant logistical challenge to train air force RPA pilots, ground support crew, and the instructors who train them, but efforts are underway.
The US Air Force is currently expanding operations at its Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico where the formal training units for both the MQ-1 and MQ-9 pilots and sensor operators are located. During fiscal year 2015 the facility trained 603 pilots and sensor operator students, and the expansion will increase the rate of student production up to an estimated 818 students in fiscal year 2016, making Hollman Air Force Base the largest aircrew training base in the air force.
The expansion will see new instructors trained, facilities enlarged, and the syllabus for incoming students improved, with the process set to take 18 months in total.
According to the air force, the expansion 'promises to fix manning issues within the RPS pilot and sensor operator career fields air force-wide', while also tackling the issue of RPA maintainer personnel - another significant limiting factor, with low numbers and high workloads across the board.
The air force also exercised a contract option with CAE USA in September for additional MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper aircraft training services and courseware development. Comprehensive training for aircrew is delivered by both active-duty and contract instructors who work as an integrated team to provide classroom, simulator, and live flying instruction at the site. CAE's contract includes a modification that calls for CAE USA to significantly increase the number of training instructors it employs to support these MQ-1/9 training programmes, as the air force moves to address the shortage of instructors at Holloman.
New technologies are also being sought to ease the workload of RPA crews.
"In the future we need to leverage on-going technology developments to generate manpower savings on existing and future RPAs, while enhancing capabilities," says Guillebeau. "Developments, such as auto-take-off and land, multi-aircraft control and automation, can provide crew mitigating and mission enhancing capabilities across a spectrum of RPAs - the air force is actively exploring these capabilities for existing and future RPA fleets, while also looking to expand mission capabilities beyond the current permissive fight."
Among the efforts being pursued are open architecture, widely shared tools and multi-domain analysis.
"We are putting all of that together and thinking through the direction the intelligence community is going, including the Intelligence Community Information Technology Enterprise, as well as bringing in information for the air force from the three primary domains of space, air and cyberspace," says Guillebeau. "Specifically, we are pursuing an open architecture for our Distributed Common Ground System, which provides globally networked, regionally focused immediate warfighter support.
"When that system becomes an open architecture, and we are more agnostic as to the hardware we apply to it and the sensors we need to integrate, because we can do that in days or weeks rather than years, it really starts to open up some possibilities, while also providing an opportunity to bend the cost curve."