The US Air Force's increasing reliance on remote-control drones has placed a well-documented strain on its operators. But a new measure could bring some much-needed relief to the all-officer corps of drone pilots.
Enlisted USAF personnel will now be eligible for service as a drone pilot, Air Force officials announced late yesterday, Foxtrot Alpha reports. The move has been kicked around for a long time. In late September, Air Force Times reported that a decision could come in early 2016.
The pilot program would see enlisted men and women take the controls of the RQ-4 Global Hawk, a hulking, unarmed recon drone with a wingspan of almost half a football field. And strictly speaking, said enlisted personnel wouldn't be flying anything. Unlike the image of an RQ-9 Reaper pilot shown above, RQ-4's are directed via mouse clicks rather than controlled with a joystick. That's not to say armed, directly-controlled drones like the Reaper won't be opened to enlisted personnel.
The Air Force's need for drone operators is so great – current drone pilots can score a $125,000 signing bonus for re-upping for another five years, FA reports – that it'd be downright short-sighted of it to limit enlisted personnel to the Global Hawk. It's also worth mentioning that the USAF's Global Hawk inventory is barely a third the size of its 93-drone Reaper fleet. That fact makes it extremely unlikely that enlisted personnel will be limited to the RQ-4 for long.