The U.S. Air Force is poised to make a dramatic about-turn on its decision to have enlisted pilots ‘fly’ (it’s a semi-autonomous system) RQ-4 Global Hawk reconnaissance drones. Four years into a much-heralded experiment to have noncommissioned ranks operate the high-flying unmanned aircraft systems, the service is now looking to return those enlisted pilots to other roles.
Rachel S. Cohen of Air Force Times
reported yesterday that Chief of Staff Gen. Charles ‘CQ’ Brown, and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass jointly wrote a letter last week calling for the change. That decision, if taken, will affect the careers of around 75 enlisted airmen currently operating the RQ-4. That number of some way short of the original target of 100 enlisted drone pilots by 2020.
Once again, it needs to be emphasized that the plan is not yet set in stone, but the fact the Air Force boss and its highest noncommissioned officer are pushing for the change is highly significant and it’s a message clearly aimed at enlisted pilots to provide some indication of what might come next.
“Enlisted [drone] pilots deserve to hear directly from their leaders on the current status of the program so they can make informed decisions regarding future service options,” Master Sgt. Jarad Denton, a spokesman for Bass, told Air Force Times.
Under the Brown-Bass proposal, at least some of the enlisted airmen from the RQ-4 community would have the chance to continue operating the drones, but only after going through the officer training pipeline and receiving their wings. For those who want to continue enlisted careers, new posting options will include flight engineer, aircraft loadmaster, refueling specialist, and others. Another option would be to return to the job they did before becoming drone pilots.
The latest move is a major turnaround compared to the Air Force’s previous official position. As recently as August, Bass was talking about expanding the community of enlisted drone pilots.
“Enlisted pilots have proven themselves to be masterful in piloting [drones],” Bass said at the time. “I think if given the opportunity, they can continue to do that and more. We are shaping out what that looks like.”
Originally, the enlisted pilots had been introduced to the RQ-4 enterprise in 2017 as a way of helping meet the growing demand for the intelligence-gathering asset from combat commanders, not only in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, but also in the Asia Pacific region, in Europe, and elsewhere.