Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/04/29/young_usaf_predator_pilot_officer_slam/

USAF slammed for pranging Predators on manual

'Xbox flyer' sergeants + autopilots do better

By Lewis Page

Posted in Science, 29th April 2009 10:53 GMT

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.

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.