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AF rolls out details to improve RPA mission

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- In response to a critical shortage of remotely piloted aircraft pilots, the Air Force rolled out more details of its plan to fix the problem in both the short and long term. The most recent initiatives include creating bonuses for RPA pilots of $15,000 per year beginning in fiscal year 2016; placing some newly minted pilots in RPA squadrons beginning in August; and investing more than $100 million to buy more ground control stations, simulators and contract instructors.

"In a complex global environment, RPA pilots will always be in demand," said Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James. "Remarkable Airmen have ensured the success of the (MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper) programs. We now face a situation where if we don't direct additional resources appropriately, it creates unacceptable risk. We are working hard to put solutions in place to bring needed relief to our Airmen and ensure our actions show their value to our mission."

Bonus pay

The Air Force is looking at special and incentive pays to enhance recruiting and retention, as well as recognize RPA pilot contributions to the mission, according to officials. Under this proposal RPA pilots would be able to choose between a Critical Skills Retention Bonus of five years at $15,000 per year or nine years at $15,000 per year. This bonus is similar in value and commitment to what has been offered to aviators in the past who have similar training and experience. Members who choose either the five- or nine-year option would also be eligible to receive 50 percent payment upfront.

"We will continue to maintain a persistent focus on this mission set and bring about the necessary relief to sustain operations responsibly," James said. "This is a high demand mission set. It is a national security imperative that we get this right."

Undergraduate pilot training graduates to RPA

As another part of the solution, about 80 UPT graduates over the next 12 months will be assigned to RPA positions for one assignment tour to help alleviate growing pressure on overtaxed RPA crews. Air Force pilot training bases are at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi; Laughlin AFB, Texas; Vance AFB; Oklahoma; and Sheppard AFB, Texas. The current plan is to only use the UPT pipeline for one year while the RPA-unique training pipeline increases from approximately 190 to 300 RPA pilot graduates per year. The last time the Air Force placed a UPT graduate directly into the RPA career field was 2011.

“The most critical challenge we face in this mission area is a shortage of RPA pilots and the UPT grads are the fastest way to address that shortfall without sacrificing mission capability in other platforms,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III. “Actions we take today will allow the Air Force to continue to provide world-class, strike-ready (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) over the battlefield and enhance overall combat capability."

As part of the get-well plan, the move to place UPT graduates as RPA pilots addresses a constant demand for real-time ISR in support of combatant commander needs. Those UPT graduates selected will get the requisite RPA training for the MQ-1B or MQ-9.

"Those selected for RPA duties will serve one tour and then be placed in manned aircraft if desired after completion of that tour," Welsh said. "This will help the Air Force achieve a healthy steady state for the RPA enterprise as soon as possible."

Additional RPA investments and improvements

In addition to the initiative to place UPT graduates directly into the RPA enterprise, the Air Force increased the use of Guard and Reserve Airmen as well as contractors in order to bring relief to a community in high demand. In April, Air Force leadership worked with the Defense Department to bring relief as the secretary of Defense adjusted the number of required combat air patrols from 65 to 60 by October. Air Force leaders are currently working reprogramming actions within the DOD and Congress to reallocate funding to critical areas like the RPA program.

The $100 million is part of the omnibus and subject to congressional approval. The omnibus is a tool available to move funds to areas identified as critical mission need areas. Initiatives include buying six next-generation ground control stations, more training simulators and associated facilities, improved software tools, and accelerating the development of automatic takeoff and landing capability.

“On average, an MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper pilot flies up to 900 hours per year,” James said. “In comparison, fighter pilots fly an average of 250 hours. Due to the demand for services, the MQ-1/9 enterprise is the second largest in the regular Air Force behind only C-17 (Globemaster III) pilots.”

The Air Force is also turning its attention to ensure appropriate manning deficits are addressed in MQ-1/9 training and at the RPA schoolhouse. The Air Force will increase instructor pilot manning at the MQ-1B and MQ-9 Formal Training Unit from 61 to 100 percent due to the combat air patrol reduction and the Air National Guard assistance.

"We must fully man the MQ-1/9 schoolhouse in order to increase student throughput and replenish the force," Welsh said. "The current demand puts requirements for active-duty RPA pilots at about 300 per year, but our current active-duty training production output is only 180 pilots per year. We are projected to hit 3 million flight hours this fall. We have to get this right."

The first MQ-1 operation occurred in 1995. In August 2011, the Predator surpassed 1 million hours of total development, test, training, and combat. In October 2013, the MQ-1 and MQ-9 RPAs accumulated 2 million flight hours. It took 16 years for the community to reach 1 million hours and a mere 2.5 years to double those flight hours. The Air Force expects the undergraduate RPA pilot pipeline to produce enough RPA pilots to sustain current operations by 2017.