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A senior Pentagon official has delivered a stinging attack on the US Air Force, saying that its philosophy of using fully qualified human pilots to handle unmanned aircraft at all times has resulted in unnecessary, expensive crashes. By contrast, US Army drones with auto-landing equipment and cheaply-trained operators have an enviable record.

The comments were made by John Young, outgoing acquisition chief at the Defense Department. Young's remarks are reported differently by various media, and were followed up with corrections by his staff, so it's hard to be sure how many of what classes of aircraft he said had crashed or not crashed.

What's clear is that in Young's view the Air Force deliberately insisted on not having auto-landing in their well-known Predator drones, and that this has been unnecessarily costly.

"The Air Force built a budget that didn’t include putting auto-land capability in their Predators, despite the fact that we’ve lost a third of the Predators we’ve ever bought, and a significant fraction of the losses are attributable either to the ground control station or the pilot’s operation of that ground control station, or the pilot’s operation of the vehicle," he said, according to Stars and Stripes.

It's well known that Air Force Predators and Reapers must be handled at all times in flight by a fully-qualified human pilot, a commissioned officer and gentleman/woman who has learned his or her trade in normal manned aircraft. During landing and takeoff, this pilot officer will be in a control station at the runway, so as to reduce latency: but for most of a mission the aircraft is handled over satcomms from bases in the USA.

The US Army has a differing philosophy: it's "Sky Warrior" variant of the Predator is intended to land itself automatically, and the present-day Shadow has such kit already. Army drones are controlled by noncomissioned tech specialists who, while fully trained and qualified for their job, have no airborne stick time in regular aircraft. They are always in theatre with the rest of the troops.

A US Army sergeant, qualified to fly both the Warrior and the Shadow and with operational experience in Iraq, recently told the Reg:

Officers and Warrant Officers have a college degree as per their job requirements. NCOs and Enlisted Soldiers are not required to have a degree to join the military and tend to be seen as little more than trained monkeys ... The US Air Force considers itself to be the only branch qualified to fly aircraft. They have been trying to take the UAS program away from the Army as a matter of principle ... Previous training in crewed aircraft is irrelevant to UAS training ... I am insulted by much of the 'Oh, you fly an X-box' mentality which I constantly have to battle.

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