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Sergeant pilots? "You may not be surprised to hear that the Air Force is resisting this"

The Army philosophy is mostly applied on weaponless drones, but this is beginning to change as Warrior begins to reach the field. A US Army Warrior, indeed, recently delivered a deadly airstrike while under the command of a (relatively) low-ranking staff sergeant, rather than the officer or warrant-officer who would have been flying had it been a manned aircraft.

The application of massive lethal force by non-officers is routine in the ground forces, of course - sergeants routinely command tanks, direct artillery etc - but it certainly seems to ruffle a few feathers in the air arms. Pilots often seem to feel that unmanned aircraft are a bad idea, but if they are to happen anyway they'll still have an officer pilot who's been to flight school and flown normal planes, by god.

It seems that this attitude is being challenged, however. Army drones with auto-land have lost "an insignificant fraction" of their fleets, as opposed to the conventionally remote-piloted jobs, according to Mr Young.

"I have mandated in acquisition decision memorandums that the Air Force move as fast as possible to an auto-land capability ... It will not surprise you that the Air Force is resisting this,” he added, according to DoD Buzz.

That certainly isn't surprising: the USAF may be hoping that they can quietly bin that order after Mr Young is gone.

They're probably wrong, though. President Obama has confirmed Young's boss, Robert Gates, in post as Defense Secretary: and Gates is scarcely the most airforce-friendly SecDef the United States have ever had, despite having briefly been a USAF officer himself (non-aircrew, though) back in the 1960s. Gates famously sacked both the civilian and uniformed heads of the air force last year, following various clashes - including a huge row over foot-dragging by the USAF in building up its unmanned fleet.

Gates seems likely to see to it that Young's reforms are pushed through in his absence, and a little bit more of the officer-class flyboys' raison d'etre will be chipped away. ®

Bootnote

The handful of British Reapers, Blighty's only armed drones, is operated by an RAF squadron drawing personnel from all three services using pilots already qualified on manned aircraft: your correspondent isn't aware of any non-officer ever handling one.

One should note, however, that British Army manned helicopter pilots are frequently noncommissioned: some are as low as Corporal in rank on qualifying. This contrasts sharply with the US and the other British services, where almost all manned-aircraft pilots are commissioned and none are below the status of Warrant Officer (there are special direct-entry warrant ranks used by US Army pilots, fitting between sergeant-majors and commissioned officers in status).

At least in theory, a British noncommissioned pilot could wind up flying an armed British Reaper - which makes sense as he is already allowed to fly a heavily beweaponed Apache attack chopper.

The British Army also has unarmed Hermes 450 surveillance drones leased in on an hourly rate and operated by a mixture of civilian contractors and artillery noncoms. In future an enhanced version, Watchkeeper, will become part of the Royal Artillery. As one might expect, the gunners do not wish to take business away from their big guns and rocket launchers (and do not relish the prospect of a turf grab from the RAF), so Watchkeeper will also be unarmed.

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