Imagine a 1st lieutenant with 3.5 years on active duty who has amassed over 1500 combat hours, executed multiple air-to-ground kinetic weapons strikes, supported special operations and conventional forces, and spurred innovation and positive change within their community. Now, with their platform set to begin retiring within the next decade, they have no clear guidance on where they will go and what they will do. This is the uncertain future facing MQ-9 pilots.
For sixteen years now, the U.S. Air Force has been lamenting its pilot shortage. The most recent reporting noted that the Air Force is 1,650 pilots short of its goal, with 1,100 of those positions in the fighter community. Yet the service has no plans for what to do with over 2,000 highly skilled remote pilots as it transitions to a fleet of increasingly autonomous unmanned aircraft. Wise human capital management could solve both of these problems, enabling the people currently flying systems like the MQ-9 to step into the cockpit of the country’s manned airplanes.
The Air Force has a strict categorization system for its rated personnel, which consists of pilots, remotely piloted aircraft pilots, combat system officers, and air battle managers. Since the creation of the 18X career field for remote pilots in 2010, this track has been completely separate from the manned pilot track. Initially, this was a sensible response to address severe personnel shortages for unmanned planes. But now, as the Air Force’s needs are shifting, a more flexible model is needed.
Today, the only available option for remote pilots to transition to manned pilot crew positions is to start the process from scratch by attending traditional undergraduate pilot training. The Air Force should create a transition program to enable remote pilots to fly any aircraft in the fleet. Adopting a model that builds on the airmanship of the MQ-9 pilot community with tailorable training will save time, money, and effort. In this way, reforming the rated officer and career enlisted aviator enterprise can help to retain the combat aviation experience needed for strategic competition.
Artificially intelligent, autonomous aircraft are within operational reach of the joint force. The Air Force has been dogged in its pursuit of these new-age weapons systems in order to maintain its global military advantage, opting to bypass next-generation remotely piloted aircraft and move straight to autonomous systems. Artificial intelligence and autonomy are critical to the Family of Systems concepts and the Air Force’s broader plans for weapons acquisition. This can already be seen in the Loyal Wingman program, the Next Generation Air Dominance platform, the Advanced Battle Management System, and the recently announced Low Collateral Effects Interceptor program.
Meanwhile, the service’s remotely piloted aircraft platforms are scheduled to be retired within the decade. MQ-9 pilots and sensor operators may have a role in supervising the development and use of new autonomous platforms as they come online, but this is only likely to require a small subset of the current community. As pilot and analyst Alex Biegalski noted in War on the Rocks, the growth of automation and artificial intelligence “will likely reduce the requirements for remote pilot manning.” This leaves one of the largest communities of combat-experienced, tactically minded Air Force pilots with no path forward.
The Air Force has gone to great lengths to reimagine how its pilots are made without considering the potential already present within its existing rated force. In launching the Pilot Training Next experiment, meant to rapidly produce manned pilots via tailored training, the Air Force did not conduct dedicated trials to examine how remote pilots and combat system officers could transition to flying crewed aircraft. Despite the fact that every remote pilot’s initial training occurred in a manned, single-engine plane, the Air Force has shunned any attempt to augment the ailing manned pilot force with remote pilots.
Unfortunately, this is not surprising. Many manned pilots have long harbored a disdain for remotely piloted aircraft and their operators. This stems, in part, from the Air Force’s storied mismanagement of its pilot community. For years, manned pilots were yanked out of cockpits to fill non-voluntary, remote aircraft assignments at some of the least favorable bases in the continental United States. This took its toll on the manned pilot force. To make matters worse, the Air Force significantly reduced the training requirements for its remote pilots in order to reduce costs and mitigate the loss of manned pilots. Meanwhile, manned pilots assigned to fly MQ-1s and MQ-9s performed the exact same job as their remote pilot counterparts, even though their much longer training times incurred service commitments that were nearly twice as long. This combination of factors led to an unfavorable view of remote pilots by some of the same manned pilot officers that were charged to lead them.
To make matters worse, the Air Force does not have a great track record when it comes to adaptive training to help officers move between closely related areas of specialization. As Mike Byrnes has argued, the Air Force is “remarkably poor at recognizing experience overlaps and interchangeable skillsets.” This seems to be especially true for rated officer positions and is particularly ironic given the service’s commitment to the multi-capable airmen concept.
If Pilot Training Next, a roughly six-month program with a focus on virtual reality simulation learning, can prepare airmen without any rated experience to fly the world’s most technologically advanced fighter, bomber, and mobility aircraft as winged aviators, surely several already-trained, experienced, instrument-rated remote pilots can do so as well.
Beyond this, the service should consider revitalizing the now-defunct Multi-Domain Warfare Officer career field with MQ-9 airmen in mind. While making all airmen into multi-domain experts is appealing, it remains unrealistic. A dedicated cadre of multi-domain officers at the forefront of integrated, multi-domain operations would serve the joint force much more effectively. With some additional training, MQ-9 pilots could make a significant contribution to multi-domain operations. These aviators could fill critical positions and enhance the capabilities of air operations centers and joint multi-domain task forces across the globe.
One obstacle is the lack of current training capacity. But even if this continues 8 to 10 years into the future, the Air Force could execute a phased transition approach so as to not overwhelm the aircraft-specific pipelines. This phased approach, combined with fielding the T-7A Red Hawk advanced trainer, would enable the service to provide advanced tactical jet training and reduce the burden on fighter and bomber platforms. A phased transition program would also allow for commanders to ensure career milestones are met, without detrimental delays. Rated and non-rated career transitions in today’s Air Force are not unique. With years to thoughtfully plan career field transitions for its remote pilots, the service should be able to mitigate negative impacts on school and staff timelines.
Finally, MQ-9 sensor operators have a valuable role to play as well. These career enlisted airmen bring substantial tactical acumen to the fight. They should have the opportunity to train for manned career enlisted aviation crew positions if they are medically qualified. Their skillsets are already on par with their manned counterparts, and many of them are directly transferable. Sensor operators who do not meet the medical qualifications should also be able to transition to another career field that allows their combat experience to be put to effective use. For example, sensor operators already have first-hand experience with target analysis from conducting strike planning and weapons engagement. In this role, they could provide the Air Force with an experienced cadre of multi-capable airmen.
The Air Force’s future warfighting fleet will require the diverse backgrounds of the service’s broader rated and career enlisted aviation force to be successful. The MQ-9 community is full of tactical experts that thrive in the innovation space. With legacy remotely piloted aircraft set to retire, the Air Force cannot afford to let this community wither with no feasible transition option. If it can overcome existing cultural impediments, the service has the opportunity to address its pilot shortage while retaining critical combat experience within its ranks. As the MQ-9 is phased out over the coming years, the Air Force should look inward and take advantage of the trained talent it already has.
Tyler Jackson is a U.S. Air Force officer. He is a graduate of Howard University and the University of Oklahoma, and is currently assigned to the Naval Postgraduate School as a graduate student. He is a senior remotely piloted aircraft pilot and former combat systems officer who has amassed over 1700 combat and combat support hours. The views expressed are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. Government.
Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Nicholas Paczkowski.