The Real Story on Enlisted RQ-4 Pilots

Global Hawk flying environmental mapping missions in Latin America, Caribbean

After a review lasting longer than most presidential campaigns, the Air Force announced with considerable glee last month a “new initiative” to integrate enlisted pilots into remotely piloted aircraft (RPA). You can review the official propaganda here.

The bottom line artfully obscured by that propaganda is that Big Blue is opening the door, very narrowly, to allow a few token enlisted pilots to join the RQ-4 Global Hawk community.

The Air Force’s official narrative tries to make this initiative sound bold and innovative. “This action will make the most of the capabilities of our superb enlisted force in order to increase agility in addressing the [Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR)] needs of the warfighter,” crowed Secretary of the Air Force Debbie James, not making clear how complicating the personnel process feeding ISR will make it more agile.

Chief of Staff Mark Welsh opined “we are taking action now to address future ISR needs.” Well, one would certainly hope so, given that addressing future warfighting needs is pretty much his whole job.

Despite their flaws, these two statements are wonderfully uplifting and indeed quite palatable. They don’t, however, explain the reasoning behind the decision. How does this “increase agility”? Why enlisted pilots and not warrant officers? Why is the program limited to the RQ-4 Global Hawk? How does this address future needs? [and so on].

When you start asking these questions (in other words, engaging in critical thinking), you quickly realize that the Air Force isn’t really telling us what this is about. They’re showing us a manicured trailer instead of screening the whole movie.

But it’s important everyone understand what it’s about, because this, like any other personnel initiative, will ripple through the service … creating new potentialities while also creating lasting impacts, many of them unintended and unfavorable. Exposing this for what it truly represents is the first step in mitigating those foreseeable harms.

Why don’t we start with what this is not about.

This not, contrary to what is implied, about capitalizing on the capability of enlisted airmen or giving them a chance to move that capability closer to the core of our flying mission. If it was about these things, it would have been much more generalized. We’d let enlisted airmen compete for pilot training slots without first earning commissions. When they earned a slot through demonstrated aptitude, we’d let them go through pilot training like anyone else and earn whatever follow-on assignment their flying performance dictated. No doubt in my mind that if we did this, every community in the Air Force — from F-22 to C-17 to MQ-9 to T-6 — would be swiftly hybridized.

The Air Force’s program is not so ambitious. It limits enlisted airmen to an aircraft that carries no weapons, can’t fly in congested airspace, can’t fly through weather, doesn’t fly in formation, doesn’t fly low level routes, and doesn’t carry munitions. The RQ-4 is semi-autonomous, meaning its pilots monitor performance from a ground control station and occasionally input manual instructions to reprogram its course. They don’t even manually land the thing under normal circumstances, and even the onboard sensors operate without manual input.

Limiting enlisted pilots to the RQ-4 is an implicit signal that the Air Force does not consider them capable of performing the task of piloting as it is ordinarily and commonly understood. Or at least it’s not ready to admit they’re that capable. This being the case, it should say so explicitly rather than slapping a fake beard on the RQ-4 and pretending to give enlisted airmen full and legitimate access to the pilot career field.

This is also not about fixing RPA manning. The Global Hawk community doesn’t have a manning problem. Both Beale and Grand Forks have more pilots than they need. The MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper communities are the ones screaming for bodies, and this does nothing to address their shortages … nor those in the fighter, special operations, mobility, or trainer communities.

This is certainly not about addressing the long-term health of the ISR enterprise — at least not in the way Welsh seems to suggest. That can only be done through a structural and systemic overhaul of the community, from the size and design of its training pipeline to its basic organization, operating construct, and baseline expectations for manning, tempo, and quality of life. This is a tiny bandaid on the neck of a community with a sliced jugular. It’ll do nothing to staunch the hemorrhage of talent currently underway as a result of years of institutional neglect.

So if it’s not about affirming the value and capability of enlisted airmen by giving them bona fide flying opportunities … and it’s not really about fixing ISR, what is this about?

Maybe just propaganda. The Air Force is noticeably limping at the moment, beset with service-wide manning and morale problems and disfavored by both Congress and the administration. Too distracted, too dogmatic, too budget-obsessed, and embarrassingly devolving into a social engineering summer camp, it could use a few “feel good” stories touting “feel good” initiatives.

What — other than promoting the vampiric Spencer Stone to Major General — could be better than allowing the under-appreciated working class of the service to enter the elite domain of its most beloved and timeless vocation? It makes for good copy, and that’s not unimportant given the current circumstances.

But more likely, this is about something much simpler: money. When Welsh mentioned “future ISR needs” without elaborating, here’s what I speculate might be on his mind. If the Air Force can carve out an operations community that can be run exclusively by enlisted airmen, it can sharply reduce the manpower costs associated with operations as that community expands in the future. It can have the same job performed by someone drawing half as much pay and a much smaller pension (and who, by the way, is easier to control and needs less “care and feeding” from a general officer perspective).

What better community to select under such a strategy than the RQ-4, which is so different from traditional military aviation that allowing enlisted operators to populate it does little to threaten the longstanding cultural order of things in the Air Force. Welsh isn’t letting airmen fly fighters, bombers, or cargo jets. Therefore, he’s not giving them authority to deliver munitions, to command formations, to command aircrews under conditions of life-or-death risk, or to make the sorts of combat decisions many traditionalists believe, right or wrong, should be reserved to officers.

He’s letting them operate herbivorous, semi-autonomous, clear-weather, single-ship RPAs orbiting 60,000 feet above sea level. This is the equivalent of letting them wade in the kiddie pool of aviation while pretending everyone is at the same pool party. Nothing bold or innovative about that. It’s just shrewd, money-driven personnel strategy.

Of course, I could be wrong. Educated speculation is inevitable when you’re dealing with an institution that refuses to explain its decisions. But even if I am wrong in particular elements, I believe I’m right about one overarching thing: the service is making a mistake by not talking openly about this. If the moment has arrived to rethink who gets to earn and wear pilot wings in the Air Force, let’s rethink it out loud and have an earnest discussion around competing ideas and rationales. The future of the service is at stake. That’s no time to hide the motives behind potentially significant personnel policies.

Without an open discussion, and without decisions undertaken on clear and articulated reasoning, we’ll continue the cultural drift that has already damaged the Air Force’s basic identity and collective sense of itself. Much more drift, and we’ll never be able to get back on course.

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