Air Force works to fill need for drone pilots

By Lolita C. Baldor

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Aug. 9 2012 12:05 p.m. MDT

Those results, according to Air Force leaders, show that while a new career field may take 20 years to fully develop, this one is on its way.

Despite the end of the Iraq war and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, top military leaders staunchly defend plans to boost the drone fleet in order to meet intelligence, surveillance and targeting needs of U.S. commanders in other hot spots, including the Pacific, Africa, and South America.

Budget cuts could slash that spending, but members of Congress have largely supported the unmanned aircraft programs and voiced little opposition to the drone fever that has gripped the military. The military's spending on drones — which includes aircraft used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, known by the acronym ISR, as well as the hunter killers used for air strikes — has grown from roughly $2.3 billion in 2008 to $4.2 billion this year.

"My current position allows me to see where almost every ISR asset in the world is being utilized," Lt. Gen. John Kelly recently told a Senate committee. "And what I can tell you from that is that there's simply not enough ISR to go around. It's obviously concentrated in a couple parts of the world doing very, very, very important work."

Kelly, who is being promoted and will take over U.S. Southern Command, added, "I will make as much noise as I possibly can, within, certainly, the halls of the Pentagon to increase the amount" of drones he gets in his new job.

Right now, drones are completing 57 24-hour combat air patrols a day, mostly in Afghanistan, Pakistan and areas around Yemen and the Africa coast.

The goal is to increase that to 65 patrols daily by mid-2014, with eight crews each. By 2017, the Air Force wants to have 10 crews per combat air patrols, in order to meet staffing requirements and allow the drone pilots time for schooling, training and other career-building time. Each crew is made up of a pilot, a sensor operator and a mission intelligence coordinator.

To staff 65 combat air patrols, the Air Force will need nearly 1,700 drone pilots and 1,200 sensor operators. Currently there are just 1,358 pilots and 949 sensor operators.

The goal is within reach, said Ted.

"They're going to be on the tip of the spear," he said. "And not just deploying weapons, not just dropping bombs; it will be doing the (surveillance), collecting that intelligence, and really feeding the fight for everyone."

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