Air Force hiring contractors as drone pilots due to shortage

Gregory Feitshans, chief engineer at the Air Force Research Laboratory, demonstrates a system being developed that would allow a single person to control multiple remote piloted aircraft at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., May 13, 2015. (DoD News photo by EJ Hersom)

The US Air Force is considering contracting out the role of drone pilots in light of a shortage of servicemembers who can meet their demands.

While private contractors are not permitted to use weaponry on drones, there is no limitations on them performing intelligence-gathering missions, according to The New York Times. Even now, private contractors are performing reconnaissance roles with unmanned aerial vehicles in several hotspots that the United States has deemed worthy of investing time and resources on.

While the usage of private contractors has been commonplace since 9/11, the Pentagon may be allowing the USAF to step up their numbers when it comes to drone operators for scouting missions. Over the past 10 months, the USAF’s 60 drone crews over the Middle Eastern/North African area of operations have been supplemented by four civilian drone pilots.

The next two years could see a boom as large as six more drones piloted by contractors, though the exact number and identities of the pilots are classified in order to protect sensitive information.

The main complaint surrounding civilian pilots seems to be that the civilian drone operators are too well-paid, with the salaries often being double or triple what a standard military operator would receive.

“This is opening up a whole new can of worms — we have seen problems with security contractors on the battlefield since 9/11, and there’s been an improvement in oversight in that area, but that came after a decade of problems,” said Laura A. Dickinson, a law professor at George Washington University, who has written extensively about the United States’ use of military contractors. “With drones, this is a new area where we already do not have a lot of transparency, and with contractors operating drones there’s no clearly defined regime of oversight and accountability.”

Erika Yepsen, a spokeswoman for the Air Force, said the missions flown by the contractors “have oversight from both a government flight representative and a government ground representative.”

She added that “additionally, planning and execution of these missions are carried out under the same oversight currently provided for military aircrews, and the resulting sensor information will be collected, analyzed, transmitted and stored as appropriate by the same military intelligence units.”

The US Air Force has been tight-lipped in regards to information on their civilian pilots, partially for the sake of secrecy and partially because extensive information concerning salaries and compensation packages could lure active-duty members away from the force.

“The Air Force is the one creating unmanned pilots who have experience — there is nowhere else to draw on pilots from,” said Frederick F. Roggero, a retired major general who compares the situation to the post-Great War era.

“We are at the same point now culturally- the only pilots with drone experience are coming from the Air Force, and that industry is going to experience exponential growth for unmanned pilots.”

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  • Andy Wolf

    Andy Wolf is an Appalachian native who spent much of his youth and young adulthood overseas in search of combat, riches, and adventure- accruing decades of experience in military, corporate, first responder, journalistic and advisory roles. He resides in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains with his K9 companion, Kiki.

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