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Air Force senior leadership addresses need to stabilize RPA enterprise

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- During a State of the Air Force address held at the Pentagon, Jan 15, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James announced immediate preliminary steps to develop a get-well plan to improve the health of the MQ-1B Predator and MQ-9 Reaper enterprise in light of extensive combatant commander operational needs.

“(Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) operations have been sustained on the shoulders of Airmen responsible for the high demand weapon system, creating sustained stress on the force,” James said. “Our combatant commanders expect and demand the unique ISR capabilities that the Air Force provides.

The Air Force surged remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) operations nine times over the last eight years, flying more than 2,200 sorties in Iraq and Syria in the last four months alone. The service is looking to study the effectiveness and efficiency of the high-demand capability in order to reduce service RPA pilot training and retention issues.

Currently the Air Force is executing 65 combat air patrols, which is above the current steady-state capacity of 55, to provide the warfighter with the air support requested.

With increased operations tempo, expiring active duty service commitments, reductions to the force, the current environment has resulted in projections reflecting more RPA pilots departing the service than the Air Force is able to produce as replacements via the training pipeline. Balancing Air Force ISR capability with finite resources remains a top priority for the Secretary of the Air Force.

“Airmen have delivered time-critical data, prosecuted targets and supported combatant commanders without fail but we cannot sustain this pace indefinitely,” James said. “While threats have evolved, the demand for this capability remains constant.”

The Air Force is exploring a number of options to increase manning and incentivize career RPA pilots in an effort to stabilize the career field while meeting constant combatant commander ISR demands. Dubbed the “RPA get-well plan,” the initiatives launched by the secretary and Chief of Staff of the Air Force have a goal to provide near-term relief to stressed crews and help build a long-term future for the RPA community.

To sustain RPA pilot manning, the Air Force will temporarily retain a portion of pilots who are on-loan from other airframes. Additionally, they will increase Guard and Reserve utilization and seek recently qualified MQ-1/9 pilot volunteers to deploy for 179-days to stressed RPA units.

“The demand signal for this capability and stressors placed on the force continue to trend upward,” said Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Mark A. Welsh III. “We must find a way to provide relief to the force and provide appropriate incentives to retain this critical skill set. Modern ISR has changed the face of warfare with technology requiring wide skill sets that only a combination of our active duty and air reserve component team give us.”

Compensating and incentivizing the RPA force is one of the keys to improving RPA pilot retention.

In the past, policy did not permit the Air Force to offer retention bonuses to RPA pilots who are only qualified to fly unmanned platforms, Department of Defense and Air Force leaders are exploring alternative pay authorities to compensate and incentivize career RPA pilots whose undergraduate RPA pilot training service obligation is expiring. Presently, all actively flying RPA pilots receive monthly assignment incentive pay.

“As our experienced operators near the end of their initial commitment, we are increasing monthly incentive pay to $1,500 for those RPA pilots while we explore other bonus opportunities,” James said. “We want these Airmen who are very much in demand to realize how much we value their experience and leadership.”

The measures represent only initial RPA get-well plan initiatives.

“These are short term actions to immediately reduce some of the stress on the force,” Welsh said. “We recognize long-term RPA enterprise health is critical to operational mission effectiveness. We must remain committed to retaining our cadre of RPA pilots.”

Specific program details will be announced as decisions are finalized.