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ACC commander addresses RPA health to Senate Armed Services Committee

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- Gen. Hawk Carlisle, the commander of Air Combat Command, addressed plans to improve the health of the Air Force remotely piloted aircraft enterprise March 16 during a hearing of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee’s Airland subcommittee in Washington, D.C.

The purpose of the hearing was to receive testimony on Air Force RPAs and Army unmanned aerial vehicles as part of the committee’s review of the 2017 defense budget.

Joining Carlisle as witnesses were Gen. David G. Perkins, the Army Training and Doctrine Command commanding general, and Brenda S. Farrell, the director of defense capabilities and management, Government Accountability Office.

As the lead command for the Combat Air Force, ACC is responsible for organizing, training, equipping, and employing Air Force RPAs from U.S. bases.

“Combatant commanders heavily rely on the RPA enterprise, specifically the MQ-1 (Predator) and MQ-9 (Reaper),” Carlisle said.

Currently, RPA aircraft fly 60 combat lines daily with each line lasting upward of 22 hours. In comparison, as of 2006 the Air Force only flew 12 combat lines. There are currently 15 bases with RPA units with which 13 have a combat mission.

“Today we have almost 8,000 Airmen solely dedicated to the MQ-1 and MQ-9 mission. Over 1,400 of this 8,000 are Guard and Reserve personnel dedicated to the MQ-1 and MQ-9 mission,” Carlisle said. “Seventy-seven percent of our four cockpits are dedicated to flying combat lines every single day. The other 23 percent are dedicated to sustaining combat capacity though formal training and test.”

Carlisle said that another particularly unique aspect to the RPA enterprise is the fact they conduct combat sorties from their home station.

Due to these demands, the enterprise has adopted a grinding schedule to support combatant commanders.

“Their regular work days are 10 hours long. They fly for six days straight, conduct nonflying duties for one day, and then receive two days off,” Carlisle said. “Instead of a seven day week, they work a nine-day week and their two days off are not guaranteed to coincide with a weekend.”

According to Carlisle, the first step needed to ease the tension on the field is to increase the number of RPA crews by increasing the number of training graduates. It is estimated that 384 members will graduate the initial training course next year, surpassing previous years by 200 or more.

“Increasing the instructors available to train our pipeline students will decrease the number available to fly combat lines,” Carlisle said. “This delicate balance is challenging but achievable thanks to the secretary of defense’s authorization to decrease our daily combat lines from 65 to 60. This slight reduction has allowed the Air Force to begin the process of righting our training pipeline and continuation training requirements by reinvesting those pilots into the schoolhouse.”

Along with reduced number of daily lines being accomplished, a revised focus on the training pipeline for RPA pilots not only shortens the time required for completion, but also eases the strain on other flying communities.

RPA pilots were originally pulled from other aerial platforms such as fighters, bombers, airlift and special operations. Currently, only one-third of the force are career RPA pilots while two-thirds come from manned flying communities.

The goal according to Carlisle is for the community to be 90 percent manned by career RPA pilots; however, the biggest challenge the Air Force faces in achieving that goal is retention.

“When an RPA Airman separates, we do not just lose a body in the cockpit. We lose their expertise and experience too,” Carlisle said. “While on paper, personnel may be a one-for-one swap that populates spreadsheets, their experience is incalculable and irreplaceable.”

Currently, RPA pilot authorizations are manned at roughly 80 percent, which leaves the force over 200 pilots short.

“The surge that our RPA enterprise has experienced in recent history is now no longer a surge, but the new normal. It has become routine, and is taxing our Airmen and our RPA enterprise beyond their limits. Sustained high operations tempo and the corresponding high levels of stress is negatively impacting the RPA enterprise,” Carlisle said. “It is robbing our Airmen of the quality of life necessary to withstand grueling schedules and maintain a healthy force. This leaves many of our Airmen with just one option: to separate; a decision they have chosen at an extremely high rate.”

In late 2015, ACC initiated a Culture and Process Improvement Program for the MQ-1 and MQ-9 enterprise, with the goals of providing relief to highly stressed crews and constructing a sustainable plan for the future. The field-influenced program conducted 1,195 in-person interviews and 1,164 electronic surveys with RPA Airmen and their families, casting light on the individual issues they experience.

“We are evaluating base services to meet the personal and family requirements of our RPA Airmen, and we are also taking a further look at other quality of life initiatives, compensation, and developmental opportunities,” Carlisle said. “We are committed to investing resources to meet our sustained requirement of 361 MQ-9s and 271 cockpits.”

With plans in place to address the current challenges and expand the enterprise, one thing is clear. Continual support of American military operations around the world is a must, a point driven home in the hearing by Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton’s remarks on the importance of RPA operations to U.S. national security.

“Maybe our society should pay them the respect they deserve then honor their service and not attach any stigma to what they do since they are keeping us safe in our beds at night,” Cotton said.