RPA Manning in Shambles, Air Force Enacting Desperate Fixes

MQ-9 Reaper. Photo: Military Technology Magazine.
MQ-9 Reaper. Photo: Military Technology Magazine.

A recent report from Air Force Times showcased an Air Force project to assess and address the health of its Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) community. The objective of the bottom-up review, according to officials, is to “help airmen” by finding ways to enhance morale in the community. A focused review is now seen as necessary after a long period of unsustainable operations tempo, the peculiar stressors of which have created widespread burnout.

It’s tempting to see this as a positive development. It seems to demonstrate that senior officials understand there is a problem in the RPA world that cannot be left unaddressed, and it appears to show them doing something about it.

Then again, careful observers will wonder if this so-called review is a genuine effort to achieve RPA sustainability or simply a pro forma exercise attempting to soften the harsh reality — unmistakably telegraphed by the Chief of Staff during a recent visit to Creech Air Force Base — that no genuine help is on the way anytime soon.

(Note: Gen. Welsh later disputed JQP’s version of events while admitting in the same interview that he hadn’t read the article. JQP stands by the original report, which was constructed using first-hand accounts from trusted sources).

It appears, based on other signals emerging from the community, that the answer lies somewhere in the middle. The Air Force recognizes that it has a crisis in RPA morale based on insufficient manning, and is trying to do something to address it. But what it is doing demonstrates the crisis is much worse than anyone is willing to openly admit, and that despite this, it lacks the will or ability to effectively break the inverted spin within which the RPA world is currently locked.

In his interview with Air Force Times, Colonel Jim Cluff, commander of Creech’s 432nd Wing and by most accounts a solid leader caught in an impossible situation, made the following remark:

“Right now, they love what they do, they love being a part of it. The challenge is because of the reduced manning, and the demand signal that puts on them … they need to do more and more and more, and we give them less time off. That’s what causes the stressors.”

This is a clear acknowledgement that there is a problem and that it is tied to manning. What Cluff didn’t mention was a raft of radical policies currently being fielded to address manning shortfalls in the near term.

According to reports given to JQP on the condition of anonymity, those measures include:

Lockdown. Pilots assigned to the RPA are reportedly not being allowed to leave. Scheduled rotations are being cancelled, even for those who are already on “overtime” in the community after fulfilling their scheduled tour lengths. Gen. Welsh reportedly dispatched an officer from the Pentagon to personally deliver the happy news to Creech that no one would be leaving until at least the middle of 2016. Needless to say, it wasn’t well received, and seemed a curious remedy for flagging morale.

Recall. Sources say pilots who previously flew RPAs and have since migrated back to their home weapon systems are being brought back to the community on temporary orders. JQP is aware of one such case involving a mobility pilot recalled to Creech on 179-day orders after having been released from the RPA well over a year ago. Given the roughed up state of squadrons in the mobility world, which is itself undergoing tectonic shifts in manning and training while contending with an endemically strenuous tempo, robbing Peter to pay Paul in this way smacks of desperation.

Redirect. It is said newly winged pilots sent into the pipelines of other weapon systems are being abruptly plucked from their formal training courses and sent packing for the RPA community. The Air Force’s willingness to absorb the systemic disruption this causes, and to inflict the individual trauma it produces, again reflects a level of desperation not evident in the rhetoric accompanying the bottom-up review.

MQ-1 Predator. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
MQ-1 Predator. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

These drastic measures are playing out against the backdrop of a thrice-yearly reassignment process that continues to pull huge numbers of pilots from other Air Force communities to keep the RPA roster as stocked as possible. This inflicts secondary crises in these feeder communities.

A recent debacle in one airlift group underscores the way in which RPA problems have become liberated from their home commands, creating force-wide impacts. There, a pair of squadron commanders found themselves paying a non-negotiable assignment bill for around one dozen RPA candidates in a single cycle. This forced the two commanders to chip destructively away at either their current or future expertise bases, and to savage manning and morale in their own squadrons even as they retain responsibility to conduct a relentless mission of their own. Their plight is representative of what happens across the service every four months.

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What’s almost as interesting as what is happening around this issue is what’s not happening. The Air Force is not holding on to its pilots.

Last year’s drawdown was a bloodbath for some communities, particularly in the mobility world. Hundreds of qualified pilots left active duty, some voluntarily and some against a wish to continue serving.

This year’s Lieutenant Colonel selection board passed over 369 pilots for at least the second time, making their separation mandatory unless continuation is offered. No longer focused on climbing the career ladder, these aviators could be leveraged to assuage the severity of manning gaps across the service. But reports indicate that the service is actually offering early retirement to most of these people rather than working to retain them, a humane and decent policy that does nothing to capitalize on their skills amid an ongoing manpower shortage at the heart of mission capability. This feels like a repeat of 2011, when the service forced out hundreds of pilots through reduction-in-force and non-continuation, even as a previous ripple of the RPA crisis played out.

To be sure, none of this is simple. Without sufficient budget latitude, the service can’t hang on to everyone it might want to keep. Still, neither Welsh nor his deputies have been on-record arguing for more personnel funds with which to grow the pilot corps.

It’s also the case that many of the pilots released in the last few years could not have been pressed directly into RPA service. But their continued presence could have eased the secondary shortages created by the recurrent feeding of the RPA beast. If they couldn’t be used to pay Peter, they could at least have helped compensate Paul for his losses.

From all of these reports, facts, and decisions arises the conclusion that there is no master plan. There is no strategy for contending with a chronic issue that has plagued the service for years. The Air Force is now leaping headlong into another community wide review of morale absent the willingness to do the one thing most necessary: until the mismatch between RPA demand and RPA manpower is structurally addressed, nothing leaders say or do will improve morale.

To the extent unfolding crisis management measures are a gambit to stabilize morale until better solutions can be attempted, the juice will likely be unworthy of the squeeze. If the Air Force isn’t even holding on to pilots it already has, the chance it will infuse itself with new manning is nil, and without more manning, nothing else will matter.

RPA pilots know all of this. Knowing all of this is what slays their morale, and no bottom-up review that leaves these basic truths untouched will do anything to resurrect it. They can do the task assigned under arduous conditions so long as there is a visible terminus. When there is no end in sight, or when escaping the community does nothing to foreclose against sudden recall, they become understandably and irretrievably deflated. Too much more of this, and they’ll surrender to the banality of staring into the distant horizon like their quasi-catatonic would-be protagonist in a recent film on the subject.

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There are at least three ways to understand this story.

In one sense, this is a story about the hazards of mismatch between rhetoric and reality. The Air Force wants stakeholders to believe it is working genuinely to help RPA airmen, but in reality, it’s letting the resources necessary to address their problems walk out the door. In some cases, it’s literally firing the exact people it says it needs. This doubles the damage inflicted. Not only do airmen continue to deal with the conditions that torched morale in the first place, but they also lose confidence in leaders they see wasting energy on doublespeak that should be spent on developing real solutions. This deepens the pathology and puts recovery further beyond reach.

In another sense, this is a story about fixing leaks caused by overpressure with patches instead of bigger pipes. There is a long-term sustainability problem with the RPA community. Lockdowns, recalls, and redirects can slow the leaks, but until the system is built big enough to contend with the throughput that it is evident will be perpetually demanded, leaks will continue, and airmen will continue to be pressed into those leaks as human patches. It’s clear that even with a modest downtick in requirements, the community is not close to sustainability. The Air Force should consider a force-wide bottom-up review to determine what it can stop doing in order to start doing RPA business properly.

In the interim, it’s understandable that service leaders refuse to rest passively in the face of a crisis. They are compelled to do something. This illustrates the grave danger of failing to plan, which is the same as planning to fail. The best way to understand this debacle is to consider it a vivid example of the dangers of a centralized, modernist human resource paradigm that lacks foresight and imagination, reducing airmen to static commodities. Because it has no brain, it doesn’t plan. Because it has no heart, it doesn’t care about the consequences of its failure to do so. 

The Air Force has lost its ability to anticipate and build a bridge to its own future, largely because of steps taken over the past decade to inappropriately quantify, computerize, and impersonalize the human element of airpower. Software has become a proxy for leadership and faceless memos a proxy for relationships. To fix the RPA community is no longer sufficient, even if it could be done in isolation. What is called for now is a wholesale re-imagination and re-ordering of the way human resources are managed across the range of Air Force operations and subsidiary functions. Otherwise, this will be just another in an endless series of similar troubles.

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Thucydides wrote, in recounting the Melian Dialogue, that “the strong do what they can, while the weak suffer what they must.” He was describing power relationships between states, but his words also apply to changes in organizational power and stature over time.

An organization should do what it can when it is strong, lest it be forced to do what it must when it is weak. The Air Force failed to posture itself for enduring RPA operations when it had a robust budget and strong resource arguments. Now, weakened, it has no meaningful choice and must simply keep the mission going without regard to much else.

The only way to break the cycle is to get strong again.

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