Air Force:

Actions Needed to Strengthen Management of Unmanned Aerial System Pilots

GAO-14-316: Published: Apr 10, 2014. Publicly Released: Apr 10, 2014.

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farrellb@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

The Air Force has managed its remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) pilots using some strategic human-capital approaches, such as planning for the different levels of experience that it needs in these pilots. However, it continues to face challenges. High-performing organizations manage human capital to identify the right number of personnel and to target the right sources to fill personnel needs. In 2008, the Air Force determined the optimum number of RPA pilots—the crew ratio—for some units, but it did not account for all tasks these units complete. Air Force officials stated that, as a result, the crew ratio is too low, but the Air Force has not updated it. Air Force guidance states that low crew ratios diminish combat capability and cause flight safety to suffer, but the Air Force has operated below its optimum crew ratio and it has not established a minimum crew ratio. Further, high work demands on RPA pilots limit the time they have available for training and development and negatively affects their work-life balance. In addition, the Air Force faces challenges recruiting officers into the RPA pilot career and may face challenges retaining them in the future. High-performing organizations tailor their recruiting and retention strategies to meet their specific mission needs, but the Air Force has not tailored its approach to recruiting and retaining RPA pilots nor considered the viability of using alternative personnel such as enlisted personnel or civilians. Without developing an approach to recruiting and retaining RPA pilots and evaluating the viability of using alternative personnel populations for the RPA pilot career, the Air Force may continue to face challenges, further exacerbating existing shortfalls of RPA pilots. Moreover, the Air Force has not used direct feedback from RPA pilots via existing mechanisms, or otherwise, to develop its approach to managing challenges related to recruiting, retention, training, and development of RPA pilots.

The Air Force has taken some actions to address potentially difficult working conditions RPA pilots face, but it has not fully analyzed the challenge pilots face to balance their warfighting roles with their personal lives. RPA pilots operate RPAs from bases in the United States and live at home; thus they experience combat alongside their personal lives—known as being deployed-on-station—which RPA pilots stated negatively affects their morale. While the Department of Defense has committed to maintaining high morale for servicemembers, the Air Force has not fully analyzed the effects on morale related to being deployed-on-station, and thus it does not know whether it needs to take actions in response.

The Air Force monitors RPA pilot promotion rates, but has not analyzed factors that may relate to their low promotion rates. Statistical principles call for researchers to account for potential key factors in analysis because when they omit key factors, the relationships between other factors may not be accurately estimated. The Air Force analyzed promotions across a group of officers, including RPA pilots, and found factors that related to promotions in general. However, the Air Force has not analyzed the factors related to RPA pilots' promotions specifically and, as a result, it does not have the information to determine what factors may affect their promotions. Consequently, the Air Force may not be targeting actions it is taking to raise RPA pilot promotion rates at the appropriate factors, and information it has reported to Congress may not be accurate.

Why GAO Did This Study

Since 2008, the Air Force has more than tripled the number of its active-duty pilots flying RPAs, which is the term the Air Force uses to refer to unmanned aerial systems such as the MQ-1 Predator. Due to increases in demand, RPA pilots have had a significant increase in workload since 2007. GAO was asked to evaluate the Air Force's approach to managing its RPA pilots as well as their quality of life and promotion rates. For this review, GAO evaluated the extent to which the Air Force (1) has used a strategic human-capital approach to manage RPA pilots; (2) has addressed concerns, if any, about the working conditions of RPA pilots that may affect their quality of life; and (3) analyzes the promotion rates of RPA pilots.

GAO analyzed personnel planning documents, Air Force studies, and officer promotion data. GAO also interviewed unit commanders at selected Air Force bases and Headquarters Air Force officials and conducted focus groups with RPA pilots. While the results of these focus groups are not generalizable, they provide valuable insights.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that the Air Force update optimum crew ratios; establish a minimum crew ratio; develop a recruiting and retention strategy; evaluate using alternative personnel populations to be pilots; use feedback from RPA pilots; analyze the effects of being deployed-on-station; and analyze the effect that being an RPA pilot has on promotions. The Air Force concurred with four recommendations and partially concurred with the remaining three recommendations.

For more information, contact Brenda S. Farrell at (202) 512-3604 or farrellb@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: As of May 2015, Air Force officials stated that, in February 2015, the Air Force completed the first phase of a three-phase personnel requirements study designed to update the UAS unit crew ratio, which is a measure the Air Force uses to determine the personnel needs for Air Force aviation units. The Air Force expects to report results of this study by spring 2016, but Air Force officials stated that the preliminary results of the study indicate that the Air Force may be able to update UAS unit crew ratios and increase the required number of pilots in UAS units. Air Force officials stated that Air Force leadership is reviewing the results of the first phase of the study, but that they expect the Air Force to update the UAS unit crew ratio by summer 2015.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force to update crew ratios for RPA units to help ensure that the Air Force establishes a more-accurate understanding of the required number of RPA pilots needed in its units.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In September 2014, the Air Force reported that the three-phase personnel requirements study would also address our recommendation to establish a minimum crew ratio for UAS units. The Air Force discusses the components of a minimum crew ratio in the Air Combat Command's (ACC) Steady State Concept of Operations, which the Air Force published prior to our 2014 review. However, this minimum crew ratio is not in Air Force policy and Air Force officials stated that the Air Force is not enforcing this minimum crew ratio due to shortages of Air Force UAS pilots. In a December 2014 memo to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, the ACC?s commanding general also made this point when he stated that Air Force units are staffed below the minimum crew ratio. As of May 2015, the Air Force had not established a minimum crew ratio in Air Force policy since our review.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force to establish a minimum crew ratio in Air Force policy below which RPA units cannot operate without running unacceptable levels of risk to accomplishing the mission and ensuring safety.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: Previously, Air Force cadets who were preparing to join the Air Force and applying for undergraduate flying training volunteered for any of the four careers, including the manned-aircraft pilot career, the UAS pilot career, or two other aviation-related careers. According to Air Force officials, nearly all of the cadets applied for the manned-aircraft pilot career and few applied for any of the other careers. In fiscal year 2014, the Air Force began requiring these cadets to volunteer to serve in any of the four careers. This new process allows the Air Force to assign these cadets to any of the four careers based on a number of factors including the cadet?s performance and Air Force needs. An Air Force headquarters official confirmed that in fiscal year 2014, the Air Force met 123 of their 129 UAS pilot accessions goal, or the Air Force?s goal for the number of cadets who graduate from Air Force officer schools and agree to serve as UAS pilots. Regarding retention of UAS pilots, in January 2015, the Air Force increased the Assignment Incentive Pay for UAS pilots who are reaching the end of their 6 year service commitment to $1500/month. An Air Force official stated that this increase currently applies to 4 pilots. However, the Air Force does not have a recruiting and retention strategy that is tailored to UAS pilots. Air Force senior leadership and headquarters officials stated that the Air Force is in the process of developing other strategies to recruit and retain UAS pilots.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force to develop a recruiting and retention strategy that is a tailored to the specific needs and challenges of RPA pilots to help ensure that the Air Force can meet and retain required staffing levels to meet its mission.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: In April 2014, we reported that Headquarters Air Force officials stated that they have, at times, considered the use of enlisted or civilian personnel but have not initiated formal efforts to evaluate whether using such populations would negatively affect the ability of the Air Force to carry out its missions. Air Force officials stated that in fall 2014, the Air Force Chief of Staff requested that headquarters staff evaluate the potential of using enlisted personnel as UAS pilots. As of March 2015, Air Force officials were not able to provide any details about the assessment they were conducting but confirmed plans to report to the Air Force Chief of Staff by spring 2015.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force to evaluate the viability of using alternative personnel populations including enlisted or civilian personnel as RPA pilots to identify whether such populations could help the Air Force meet and sustain required RPA pilot staffing levels.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: In response to a DODIG request for information about this recommendation, the Air Force reported that it uses standardized feedback mechanisms across all units through the Air Force Unit Climate Assessment and other similar surveys. It also reported that "consideration should be given to assess whether this is appropriate to collect feedback from RPA pilots and at the appropriate levels desired and, if so, the Air Force will analyze and incorporate feedback from a validated survey and feedback process." However, as of July 2015, the Air Force has not incorporated feedback from RPA pilots by using existing mechanisms or by collecting direct feedback from RPA pilots.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force to incorporate feedback from RPA pilots by using existing mechanisms or by collecting direct feedback from RPA pilots.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: In response to a DODIG request for information about this recommendation, the Air Force reported that it has ample data showing the effects of RPA pilots being deployed-on-station over the last nine years. It went on to report that it had identified the stressors related to being deployed-on-stations and that these stressors likely could be addressed with personnel solutions to increase the number of personnel in RPA units. DODIG considers this recommendation to be closed. However, as of July 2015, the Air Force has not fully analyzed whether being deployed-on-station has negative effects on quality of life that are not attributable to the stressors that are related to low unit-staffing levels that we discussed above such as rotating shifts and long assignments.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force to analyze the effects of being deployed-on-station to determine whether there are resulting negative effects on the quality of life of RPA pilots and take responsive actions as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: In response to a DODIG request for information about this recommendation, the Air Force reported that it continued to track and analyze the promotion rates of RPA pilots and that the RPA career field is a subsection of the Line of the Air Force. The Air Force stated that, therefore, factors related to promotions identified in analysis is of the Line of the Air Force are directly related to RPA pilot promotions. Unfortunately, as of July 2015, AFPC has not included the career field effect of being an RPA pilot into its analysis of the factors that are related to promotions to determine whether and how being an RPA pilot is related to promotions. In addition, the Air Force may not take further action because DODIG closed this recommendation according to a DODIG recommendation follow up report dated July 2015.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force to include the career field effect of being an RPA pilot into the Air Force Personnel Center's (AFPC) analysis to determine whether and how being an RPA pilot is related to promotions and determine whether the factors AFPC identified in its analysis of Line of the Air Force officers are also related to RPA pilot promotions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

 

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