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Document created: 1 March 05
Air & Space Power Journal - Spring 2005

At the Crossroads

Future “Manning” for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Maj James C. Hoffman, USAF
Charles Tustin Kamps*

I think it’s reasonable to set a goal to have one-third of our deep strike tactical aircraft remotely piloted within 10 years, and to have one-third of our ground combat vehicles remotely operated perhaps in an equal number of years.

—Senator John Warner, R-VA

The current and future state of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) presents a number of challenges to the US Air Force. For example, how can the service deal with the cultural changes needed to make optimal use of an airframe that brings significant increases in capability at lower cost without a resident pilot? Additionally, what staffing procedure will make the best use of advanced UAV systems?

The presence of a human pilot in an aircraft imposes a variety of cost and weight penalties, such as constrained forebodies (the tapered front part of the airframe as distinct from the cylindrical midbody and the [usually tapered] afterbody), displays, and environmental-control systems. The pilot also restricts an aircraft’s maneuverability because of physiological limits regarding G tolerance. Removing the pilot, however, gives rise to new “out-of-the-box” design freedoms that can produce smaller, more efficient, lighter, and more affordable aircraft. A UAV such as the Global Hawk does not need a pilot because flying it requires no stick and rudder skills. But experts contend that an engineer with some pilot background (knowledge of basic flight dynamics, weather, instrument flight rules, Federal Aviation Administration [FAA] rules, etc.), experience with home-computer flight-simulator games, extensive familiarity with flight systems and mission planning, and 250 to 500 hours of simulator time would be a model candidate as a remote pilot for the Global Hawk.

Cultural Roadblocks to Unmanned Progress

There certainly are aviators out there who feel threatened. I think, though, that most warfighters really believe there is a very viable niche for these types of vehicles.

—Lt Gen George Muellner, USAF, Retired

The cultural attitudes of military services are important to the progress, or lack thereof, of future changes in doctrine and materiel. In his insightful study The Icarus Syndrome, which treats the Air Force’s cultural baggage at length, Carl H. Builder traces the origins of Air Force attitudes to the early days of aviation, dominated by young men of action not overly given to thoughtful analysis of air operations as warfare in the medium of the air—a part of general war theory. Primarily interested in platforms rather than effects, early aviators sought higher, faster, and farther performance for manned bombers and fighters.1

The Air Force’s senior and midlevel leadership, controlled by the pilot community, could become a cultural impediment to the UAV “revolution,” just as it hindered the proliferation of cruise missiles in the latter part of the Cold War. The idea of unmanned systems supplanting some manned fighters and bombers may appear threatening to anyone who does not take a holistic view of war in the air.

A new generation of leaders, however, may perceive UAVs as more of an opportunity than a threat. With education, they may appreciate these aircraft for their high-performance maneuvers, their effortless embodiment of the airpower tenet of persistence, or their ability to furnish a squadron’s worth of platforms for the cost of a single manned aircraft. Indeed, only a concerted effort in education will effect cultural change in the acceptance of UAVs as part of “the real Air Force.”

Human Resistance

Before the war, the Predator had skeptics because it did not fit the old ways. Now it is clear, the military does not have enough unmanned vehicles.

—Pres. George W. Bush

Over the history of aircraft system development, people in some arenas have strongly resisted new ideas, new concepts, and even change itself. Whether the vision involved breaking the sound barrier, landing on the moon, or just getting off the ground for the first time at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, we have always had skeptics who scoffed at such efforts. The same holds true of today’s vision for the unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV)—in many ways, this resistance is even worse.

Some pilots appear wary of the usefulness of UAVs and UCAVs, primarily because they simply don’t like the idea of being replaced by a robotic aerial vehicle. In 2000 a military pilot told one of the authors that “it will be a long time before any of us will be comfortable releasing bombs and betting the ranch using UAVs.” Since that time, we have gained enough confidence in the UAV’s reliability, positioning, and target accuracy that slinging bombs from this aircraft has become a foregone conclusion. However, the culture still has a long way to go in accepting unmanned technology for other potential missions.

This change problem entails moving from one state to another. To do so, military leadership must set up and define clear goals of what it wishes to attain. The analysis of such a problem includes defining the outcomes of the change effort, identifying the processes that produce these changes, and then finding ways to implement them.

Change-management specialist Fred Nickols identifies five factors in selecting a change strategy for dealing with resistance to UAVs: understanding the level of resistance involved, knowing the population, understanding what is at stake, knowing the time frame, and involving the experts.2 In order for these aircraft to succeed, UAV experts must not only convince leadership of the value they add to the war fighter, but they must also clearly define the goals of the system as derived from extensive research and models concerning future mission demands and requirements.

Finally, successful change depends upon appropriate integration of both formal and informal change processes that leaders must recognize in the development of UAVs and apply to support decisions designed to attain specific goals. Just as change requires new ways of thinking, so does it involve rethinking the “architecture” of the future force structure. Otherwise, if not implemented, future UAV development programs will surely face an early demise.


More than likely, we will need a separate, formal career UAV/UCAV force to retain UAV pilots in the field, allowing them to stay highly proficient and experienced, much as we do currently with the missile- and space-command forces. A recent study of skills/capabilities for flying UAVs/UCAVs conducted by the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Human Effectiveness Directorate showed that some flying experience is required (e.g., a private pilot’s license with an additional 150 hours of flight time as a minimum). The challenges of landing a UAV, reading approach plates, making critical system inputs, understanding weather conditions, having to deal with simultaneous emergencies, evaluating last-minute threats, and sustaining situational awareness make such proficiency necessary. In February 2002, final results of the study concluded that T-38 or T-1 aircraft time in specialized undergraduate pilot training (SUPT) is not required for flying UAVs.3

The Air Force currently suffers from a critical shortage of aviators for manned aircraft. After combining this shortage with the need for more UAV pilots, one understands the attractiveness of instituting a separate UAV/UCAV training track/formal schoolhouse. Today, the Air Force involuntarily removes young pilots from the cockpits of manned aircraft for 36 months to “fly” UAVs such as the Predator MQ-1. This practice negatively affects not only the UAV community with its high deployment rates and operations tempo, but also the manning of major weapon systems, which already suffer from pilot shortfalls. In addition, it disrupts pilots’ normal career-progression milestones (e.g., upgrades, experience levels, promotions, etc.). Currently, only rated pilots and navigators who possess an FAA commercial instrument rating can fly Air Force UAVs, but the service is reengineering its navigator-training program to address the growing need for UAV operators. This program will produce Airmen known as combat system operators, who will have proficiency in employing both manned aircraft and UAVs.4

Until now, the rated force has provided midgrade officers to serve as UAV pilots. However, as the number of these pilots increases from its current level (approximately 60) to 400 in the next eight years (fig. 1), the rated major weapon system (MWS) community will not be able to meet the UAV manning demand. Having to assign approximately 170 rated officers each year will certainly exacerbate the current MWS pilot shortages and consume a significant portion of the annual 1,200 graduates of SUPT. Additionally, pulling rated individuals from other MWS’s for UAV duty will greatly hurt unit readiness. The Air Force currently struggles to find even 20 pilots a year to volunteer for UAV duty. The practice of requiring MWS pilots to fly the Predator would likely have a detrimental effect on morale in UAV squadrons. Finally, treating the Predator assignment as a one-time tour prevents the UAV community from developing a cadre of long-serving experts.

Figure 1. UAV manning requirements

Figure 1. UAV manning requirements

Properly training and qualifying nonrated—preferably junior—officers for Predator UAV initial qualification training (IQT) would alleviate many of the problems previously mentioned. The new plan would call for Air Force officers who have not attended SUPT to volunteer for the Predator and undergo the following three-phase training program: (1) use of contracted civil aviation or Air Force initial flight training (IFT) to obtain a private pilot’s license, (2) use of contracted civil aviation training to obtain the equivalent of a commercial instrument rating, and (3) attendance and completion of Predator IQT. This system would satisfy the instrument-rating and manned-flying experience required to fly the UAV. The nonrated officer—now a trained, fully qualified “UAV pilot” ready for mission qualification training—would serve a three-year tour (or longer). A private, Air Force–sponsored IFT program already exists, which includes a full check ride and solo flight for the pilots in a Cessna 172. At an additional cost of $4,800 per individual (for an extra 80 hours of training), each trainee would receive a private pilot’s license and an instrument rating.

By instituting this program, the Air Force would obtain UAV volunteers for the right reasons. Today, manned MWS pilots “volunteer” for MQ-1 Predator duty to escape the stress of high operations tempo and TDY commitments that accompany MWS systems. Increased morale within the UAV squadron would also emerge as a long-lasting benefit. Nonrated officers would have more motivation to fly a combat UAV than the MWS pilots the Air Force currently uses. If implemented, the program would also allow the retention of an experienced cadre within the UAV community to work future planning issues and/or serve in leadership positions such as squadron commander. Currently, at the end of a Predator pilot’s three-year tour, he or she quickly resumes flying a manned MWS. Other UAV communities, such as the RQ-4A Global Hawk and the X-45 UCAV, could capitalize on the experience that pilots will acquire in the Predator program. Furthermore, having the opportunity to move to other UAV programs would enhance career progression and increase command opportunities for Predator pilots. However, one finds the most dramatic benefit in the cost savings associated with the implementation of this plan (tables 1–3). It is very expensive to move fully trained MWS pilots to mission-qualification status and then divert them to UAVs for a three-year tour that does not require advanced pilot skills.

Table 1. Cost of current system per pilot (B-52)

Table 2. Cost of proposed UAV plan per pilot

Table 3. Savings with a squadron of 15 pilots

This innovative approach of selecting nonrated individuals to become qualified UAV pilots would alleviate many of the problems noted above. If implemented, however, it would surely create a need for a dedicated career field for unmanned aviation that the rated community might not embrace. Such a reaction, in turn, could serve as a major roadblock to fulfilling the requirements of our future UAV force structure and thus delay the full application of unmanned technology to a multitude of missions.


Entertain every idea like royalty because one may prove to be the king.


The burgeoning capabilities of the UAV make it a military phenomenon whose time has come. Clearly, in the near future, technological factors will no longer restrain the development of unmanned aircraft. However, it remains to be seen if the Air Force’s operational community will wholeheartedly embrace the UAV. If it does, then the service will have to apply a rational force structure and doctrine in order to optimize future mission areas. Only a substantial educational effort—and probably a generational change in midlevel leadership—will overcome deep-seated institutional and personal biases against unmanned aircraft.

UAVs hold the promise of delivering on a wide range of airpower tenets difficult to realize with current manned systems. Furthermore, the lower acquisition and operating costs of the UAV can provide for an expanded force structure—one that the Air Force can support only by nurturing a new crop of air warriors who require far less formal pilot training and who do not owe primary allegiance to manned systems. As outlined, the cost and length of training for UAV operators are substantially less than they are for pilots of manned aircraft.

The reasonable expansion of mission areas that could be addressed by UAV technology in the future is limited only by our imagination. Aside from natural extensions into areas where pilots normally find themselves at high risk (such as suppression of enemy air defenses and urban close air support), UAVs could assume homeland-defense duties, such as flying long-duration patrols over high-value assets (e.g., nuclear power plants). The US Air Force is indeed at a crossroads. It can either embrace the UAV phenomenon and press forward or languish with methods and vehicles that will become progressively less relevant in the new dynamics of war.

Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar
Maxwell AFB, Alabama

*Major Hoffman is chief of UAV Reconnaissance Operations, 609th Combat Operations Squadron, Shaw AFB, South Carolina. Mr. Kamps is professor of war gaming at Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell AFB, Alabama.

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1. Carl H. Builder, The Icarus Syndrome: The Role of Air Power Theory in the Evolution and Fate of the U.S. Air Force (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1994).

2. Fred Nickols, “Change Management 101: A Primer,” Distance Consulting, 2004, http://www.nickols.us/change.htm.

3. Brian T. Schreiber et al., Impact of Prior Flight Experience on Learning Predator UAV Operator Skills (Mesa, AZ: US Air Force Research Laboratory, Human Effectiveness Directorate, Warfighter Training Research Division, February 2002).

4. Stephen M. Bishop, “Training for Unmanned Systems,” Unmanned Systems 21, no. 5 (September 2003): 29.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University. 

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