June 19, 2024

The Air Force’s approach to developing unmanned aviation falls well short of the potential of autonomous systems. Its programs still struggle for resources amidst massive investment in modernization of manned tactical fighters and strategic bombers.

The Air Force has an unfortunate tendency to confuse the ends and means of war. For more than a decade, the U.S. Air Force has struggled to keep pace with wartime requirements for more combat air patrols flown by unmanned aircraft. Despite the high demand for these aircraft, the Air Force has suffered high pilot attrition, and repeated delays in fielding adequately organized, trained, and equipped unmanned aircraft units. These problems have many causes, yet they could have been mostly avoided had the Air Force fully embraced the potential of unmanned aircraft and the value of the Airmen who fly them. U.S. Air Force culture is limiting new ways of thinking about employing airpower whenever these break existing paradigms. The Air Force must be cautious of repeating the missteps of the past that have damaged both its credibility and, more important, its ability to project airpower.

Jack Welch, a former CEO of General Electric, famously said, “Control your destiny, or someone else will.” A strong indicator of cultural stubbornness is when an organization requires an external intervention to correct an internal problem. Facing an urgent need to change, the Air Force has two choices: it can do so willingly, or unwillingly. It appears to be choosing the latter option.

Airpower theorists as well as ranking civilian leaders cite “enduring institutional preferences for human-inhabited air vehicles and an unwritten hierarchy among its core competencies,” as restraining forces that prevent the U.S. Air Force from real commitment to unmanned aircraft development, which are anathema to the pilot-centric Air Force culture. In a 2011 speech at the Air Force Academy, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said, “[The Air Force’s] traditional orientation has been air-to-air combat and strategic bombing, and members of those communities have so dominated service leadership…that other critical missions and new capabilities have been subordinated and neglected.” To date, the Air Force’s approach to developing unmanned aviation falls well short of the potential of autonomous systems. Its programs still struggle for resources amidst massive investment in modernization of manned tactical fighters and strategic bombers.

Observing Air Force cultural and institutional intransigence, the U.S. Congress has addressed the unmanned aircraft pilot shortage by mandating the integration (against Air Force desires) of enlisted pilots into the entire unmanned aircraft enterprise. However necessary, outside interventions do not resolve the underlying cultural problems. This cultural stubbornness is not a new phenomenon. Had Air Force leaders been more open minded and better aware of institutional history, the organization could have avoided such interference.

The fear of losing a mission to another service has too often been the motivation necessary for the Air Force to make crucial investments in systems it would otherwise ignore. Air Force history — short as it is — is rife with examples of failing to invest in programs that challenge traditional airpower paradigms. The U.S. Navy and Army’s lead in unmanned aircraft research and development echoes Air Force experiences in the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile programs of the 1950s. In the final months of the Third Reich, V-2 rocket systems revealed the destructive potential of ballistic missile systems. Recognizing their value, the U.S. Army and Navy — and the Soviets — invested heavily in ballistic missile programs.

The Air Force, on the other hand, had little interest in ballistic missiles, seeing them as a threat to jet aircraft delivery systems. In The Icarus Syndrome, Carl Builder describes how fear drove the Air Force to embrace ballistic missiles. Following the Soviets’ successful 1957 launch of Sputnik, the Air Force scrambled to gain control of missile development. Builder writes, “Unless the Air Force dominated missiles and space, the role of airplanes in the Air Force of the future could be threatened.” Sputnik acted as a catalyst for the inclusion of space and missile operations, though cautiously accepted and subordinated to traditional aviation. The Air Force responded to a similar catalyst during the late sixties involving a perceived threat to its close air support mission. In Boyd, Richard Coram writes the Air Force was “frightened” into developing an airplane it never desired (the A-10) because of Army plans to develop the Cheyenne close air support helicopter.

By the mid-1990s, the Air Force was again repeating past mistakes when the Army and Navy, assisted by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), surpassed the Air Force in the number and use of unmanned aircraft. Few in the Air Force were willing to embrace something other than traditional, manned platforms. Army, Navy, and Marine pilots flew the first Predator combat deployment in 1995 from Albania…tellingly the Air Force sent none.

In 1996, General Ronald Fogleman, then the Air Force Chief of Staff, took notice of the service’s lagging performance and pushed against institutional biases to gain “service lead” responsibilities for unmanned aircraft from the Navy. In Predator: the Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution, Richard Whittle writes that when the Navy briefed these responsibilities to General Hawley (former Commander, Air Combat Command) and his staff of fighter, bomber, and U-2 pilots, they were openly contemptuous. As the Predator’s picture, speed, range, and capabilities were presented, the Air Force officers greeted it with “scoffing laughs . . . wisecracks and snorts.”

It was in this caustic environment that on October 1, 1997 the Air Force gained control of the entire Predator program. It took another visionary four-star, General John Jumper, to take the next logical step, by developing a weaponized, unmanned killer-scout version of the Predator. Deploying on September 12, 2001, the Predator was the first U.S. aircraft over Afghanistan. The first Predator Hellfire combat strike soon followed on October 7, 2001 – and it has been there ever since; demand for it never ended.

the Air Force must transcend its cultural biases and tribal fraternities organized around traditional weapons systems.

Between 2007 and 2015, unmanned aircraft combat lines increased by 800 percent, quickly outstripping the quantities of airframes and operators. With an inadequate force to sustain more combat lines, the enduring reality of extended duty cycles — while operating at surge capacity — has resulted in pilot burnout, low morale, broad community disenchantment, and high attrition rates. Stoking these outcomes were well-documented low promotion rates, remote basing, and institutional perceptions of the community’s lesser value. Respondents to one Air Force study lamented that “institutional reluctance to plan or provide for these Airmen’s attempts to improve their circumstances” added significantly to their desire to leave.

To address retention problems, the Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Staff in 2015 announced new initiatives to reduce stress and build the sustainable readiness of unmanned aircraft units, including increased incentive pay, bonuses, and program funds; augmented crew manning; more reserve component and contractor personnel; increased training output; and normalized promotion rates. Additionally, the Air Force successfully pushed for a temporary reduction in combat lines from 65 to 60, enabling it to reduce operational strain and bolster staffing of its flight-training units. It will take time to determine if these initiatives work, and it is difficult to assess whether the right incentives are in place. Nevertheless, for Congress, it was too little, too late. It felt compelled to act on what it perceived the problem to be: chronic pilot shortages.

Seeing the other services’ qualifying of enlisted drone pilots, Congress mandated in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act that the Air Force implement an enlisted pilot program to alleviate shortages. Congress had urged the Air Force repeatedly to investigate “alternative personnel populations,” yet the Air Force continued qualifying only officers as pilots. The former Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, Lieutenant General Robert Otto, stated that the problem was not about a shortage of officer pilot availability but rather of instructor pilots to train them. Alleviating pilot shortages by increasing the candidate population will not be helpful while the instructor cadre is still being tasked with operational sorties. Nonetheless, the pilot shortage is a symptom of a complex, institutional and cultural problem that will continue until unmanned programs gain momentum against institutional friction.

Although the Congressional mandate directed implementation of an enlisted pilot program for all unmanned aircraft, the Air Force found room for interpretation. It has to date implemented only one enlisted organizational model, the RQ-4 Global Hawk program. The Air Force projects 100 enlisted RQ-4 pilots will be trained by 2020. However, Global Hawk units are currently overstaffed with officer pilots; therefore, it is not evident what problem will be solved by opening that particular program to enlisted personnel. As such, the Air Force is nevertheless certifying enlisted pilots to fly the RQ-4 Global Hawk: an unarmed, strictly intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft, flown not by stick and rudder, but by computerization.

In view of rapid advances in both small, unmanned aerial systems and artificial intelligence, the Air Force must develop new capabilities fit for airpower projection in the 21st century. Yet, in order to create and sustain an organization that innovates with unmanned aircraft and capitalizes on the potential of these revolutionary technologies, the Air Force must transcend its cultural biases and tribal fraternities organized around traditional weapons systems. Regardless of the debate surrounding such an enlisted program or any progress of incentive programs, unmanned aircraft technologies should be leveraged as survivable, lethal, and sustainable airpower options for core U.S. Air Force missions and Joint Functions well into the future.

One other factor increases the urgency for changing the Air Force’s approach to unmanned aviation: the emergence of artificial intelligence, and its transformation of air warfare. As unmanned aircraft become more autonomous, the definition of “pilot” becomes more ambiguous. Future systems will radically change pilot and operator requirements, as computers will fly individual platforms and humans will shift their attention to directing groups of platforms. For example, Paul Scharre, director of the Future of Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security, believes the U.S. is very close to a revolution in artificial intelligence that will lead to semi-autonomous technologies using human-like logic. With this technology, Scharre envisions an ability to employ swarms of low cost, small, remotely piloted aircraft that could penetrate highly contested airspace, collect immense data, or employ high volumes of precision fire. This kind of capability must not be ignored, yet Scharre states, “cultural resistance to multi-aircraft control in the Air Force has hindered progress.” He alleges that both the Army and Navy are well ahead of the Air Force, which itself admits there are “no strategic programming actions to acquire new [small, unmanned aircraft systems].” While it appears history is repeating itself, the world’s premier Air Force should be leading the way in this revolutionary approach to flying. Autonomous systems may eventually lead to the designation of a completely different career field, requiring different accession programs. This may present a great challenge to the pilot-centric culture of the Air Force.

The Air Force must be open to change. It must guard against parochial, internal interests that hinder innovation during a revolutionary period in military technology. For now, a balanced arsenal of traditional and unmanned aircraft systems is needed, especially in light of the Defense Innovation Initiative’s Third Offset, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff emphasis on countering current threats. The Air Force can do more to provide combatant commanders with a full spectrum of capabilities to enable faster decision-making, penetrate contested environments, hold any target at risk, and secure asymmetric advantages across the range of military operations. In the Icarus Syndrome, Carl Builder eloquently evokes the Air Force’s enduring problem of confusing the ends and means of war. He writes, “[W]hen other means such as unmanned aircraft, guided missiles, and spacecraft became available, it was the aviators who revealed, by deeds more than words, that their real affection was for their airplanes and not the concept of air power.” In Tomorrow’s Air Force, Jeffrey Smith echoes this argument. To innovate, Smith writes, the Air Force must recall that “its greatest strength comes from its ability to take advantage of all elements within the airpower domain.” In doing so, it will spend more time getting better at competing against the adversary, and less time competing against itself.


Robert Kinney is a Colonel in the Air National Guard and is a graduate of the academic year 2017 resident program at the U.S. Army War College. David Rayman is a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Air Force and is assigned to the U.S. Army War College as faculty in the Department of Military Strategy, Planning, and Operations. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, or U.S. Government.

Photo Credit:  Ethan Miller/Getty Images

1 thought on “THE DRONE ELEGY

  1. Good article, would like to see what my classmate GEN David Goldfein thinks of it.
    I would beg to differ tge Army tends to regulate UAS to ISR purposes only and is reluctant to use UAS for EW or other weapons. Leaving that role to USAF and Navy/USMC aircraft manned or unmanned.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Send this to a friend