The military might have enough drones to continue fighting across the globe, but it’s running short on pilots. The crews prosecuting America’s drone wars for the Pentagon are short-staffed and overworked, according to an internal memo acquired by the The Daily Beast.
The Air Force uses Combat Air Patrols, or CAPs, to manage each drone. These CAPs are comprised of about 10 trained people. Each member of the CAPs team specializes in one area: piloting, camera operating, sifting through the video surveillance of what the drone has seen, or the ever-important job of drone maintenance. In emergency situations, the drones could operate with only eight humans per vehicle.
But in the memo acquired by the Daily Beast, the Air Force’s Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle indicated to the Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, that the Air Force is currently operating at a rate of less than 8 people to 1 drone. “This directly violates our red line for RPA (remotely pilot aircraft) manning and combat operations,” Carlisle wrote.
The effects of the drone war on the populations of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other places have been well documented. But the toll that the new form of warfare has taken on the military has received less attention. As drones become an ever-more important part of the American military, the specialized training and infrastructure to support the missions has not kept pace. The Air Force can’t get enough people to volunteer for drone pilot duty because, among other things, the prospective recruits worry they won’t advance up the ranks or receive the respect of other pilots.
The new form of warfare comes with new emotional requirements, too. Instead of dealing with long tours away from home, drone pilots live strange lives, deployed during their shifts, but back on the homefront as soon as they leave Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. ““After a day of being there and doing that and being intense to the nth degree — life and death … then you go home and it’s ‘honey, your truck leaked oil on the driveway,’” retired drone pilot Lt. Colonel Bruce Black told a Nevada radio station. Motherboard’s Jason Koebler calls it, “the world’s most extreme office job.”
Some help may be on the way. Florida State University, among others, plans to debut a drone operator program. And as more and more wars are fought by remote control, the respect issues some in the Air Force cite should ease.
In the meantime, though, the immediate problem doesn’t seem likely to go away. “Even as the demand increases on the drone fleet,” The Daily Beast’s Dave Majumdar wrote, “fewer new troops enter the ranks while more and more veteran operators vote with their feet.”
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