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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation. With the conclusion of the Air Force's extensive review of the MQ-1/9 RPA community and its completion of its manpower studies for these units, a new Air Force Manpower Standard (AFMS) was issued in April 2017. In addition to updating crew ratios required for mission execution, this AFMS included support staff manpower requirements needed to run an operational unit in total. Further, in accordance with FY 18 Presidential Budget approval timeline, Unit Manning Documents are currently being updated to reflect the new standard which will help the Air Force present a clear picture of the number of these units' health consistent with other weapon systems. This action by the Air Force helps it know if it has any UAS pilot shortfalls even after its current requirement is met which could exacerbate existing strains on this workforce, and as such, meets the intent of GAO's recommendation.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Air Force concurred that establishing a minimum crew ratio would provide a clear service standard for use when the Air Force receives a request for forces. Officials said that on 30 November 2015 the Air Force established 10:1 as the minimum Crew to Combat Line ratio as directed by the Air Force Chief of Staff which was later formalized in a March 2017 Air Force Manpower Standard (AFMS). As such, this action by the Air Force helps it ensure that RPA units are operating at acceptable levels of risk to mission and safety and it meets the intent of GAO's recommendation.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation. In December 2015, Air Combat Command concluded its RPA community Culture and Process Improvement Program (CPIP) which resulted in over 140 initiatives many of which are still in process as of July 2018, and according to Headquarters Air Force officials, these CPIP initiatives collectively were designed by the Air Force to serve as a comprehensive strategy for addressing such challenges as, among other things, the recruiting and retention of personnel within the RPA career field. Other recruiting related actions these officials told us about include having officers with RPA pilot experience currently serving at the US Air Force Academy as instructors and as the ROTC company commanders and instructors at several large, nationally recognized universities, thus giving attention to the career field among future Airmen. They said this and the overall growing national interest in RPAs and their uses has provided other avenues to identify and recruit pilots and as such increased the inventory of new dedicated RPA pilots from 18% at the time of our 2014 report to 54% as of April 2018. Further, in July 2018, Headquarters Air Force officials stated that they believe many other initiatives are designed to specifically address RPA pilot retention. Some of these changes include decreasing the number of combat lines that RPA crews are flying; expanding services and RPA operations to additional locations; designating eight RPA reconnaissance squadrons to attack squadrons; authorizing RPA aircrews to log combat time when flying aircraft within designated hostile airspace regardless of the aircrew's physical location; and increasing personnel requirements primarily to stand up new squadrons to get enough personnel to institute an established combat-to-dwell ratio. Most significantly, in July 2018, officials said that they established a new division to be the Headquarters focal point for overseeing RPA personnel matters throughout the Air Force. They also stated the Air Force established a career field manager (CFM) specifically for RPA personnel, placing the career field on par with manned aircraft pilot career fields. Because of these actions, we believe the Air Force met the intent of our recommendation and it should be closed as implemented.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD partially concurred with this recommendation. In December 2015, the Secretary of the Air Force established a program to train enlisted pilots to operate the RQ-4 Global Hawk UAS which conducts high-altitude reconnaissance missions. In a March 2018 report to Congress, the Air Force stated it was implementing a deliberate plan that integrates enlisted pilots in the RQ-4 Global Hawk UAS and at that time, eleven enlisted pilots had completed all training requirements and were flying operational missions. Additionally, another 30 enlisted pilot students were in various stages of flight training and 30 more enlisted pilot candidates had been selected for training during the FY 19 training year. Further, an Air Force selection board met in July to consider total force officer as well as civilian candidates for various test pilot positions to include test UAS pilots and selected 63 primary and alternate students to attend U.S. and allied test pilot schools starting this summer. Therefore, these actions by the Air Force shows that it is using alternative personnel populations as RPA pilots which could help it meet and sustain required RPA pilot staffing levels.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation. In an effort to address concerns identified by Airmen and family members in the UAS community, in August 2015, the Air Combat Command initiated the Culture and Process Improvement Program (CPIP) which was designed to take place across 12 Air Force active-duty, Reserve and Guard bases. In December 2015, officials announced the results of this study of the UAS community in an attempt to improve operations and ensure long-term mission success. The Air Force reports that the CPIP generated 143 initiatives that were derived from nearly 2500 inputs across the UAS community and were focused on improving all aspects of the UAS community including, but not limited to, quality of life, career progression, and operations. As of February 2018, officials stated that the Air Force was almost 60 percent complete with implementation of the 143 initiatives. Given that the Air Force has collected direct feedback from the UAS pilots and others and has implemented a substantial level of actions directed at improving and managing this career field which should help address recruiting, retention, training, and other challenges related to the UAS community, GAO believes the Air Force's efforts meet the intention of this recommendation.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD partially concurred with this recommendation. In August 2015, the Air Combat Command initiated the Culture and Process Improvement Program (CPIP) which was designed to take place across 12 Air Force Active Duty, Reserve and Guard bases. In December 2015, officials announced the results of this study of the UAS community in an attempt to improve operations and ensure long-term mission success. This study revealed, among, other things, that the MQ 1/9 UAS lacks an established requirement for a "dwell" period for the squadron members that would provide opportunities for other activities like various types of training, attend professional military education programs, take personal leave, etc. In January 2017, the Air Force Chief of Staff approved a memo that established a "combat-to-dwell" ratio requirement as a new concept tailored for deployed-on-station combat operations. By formally establishing a model that includes the establishment of additional RPA squadrons which helps ensure enough personnel to institute the dwell requirement for the deployed-on-station forces, members of one squadron will always be in a "dwell" status-or in other words, not trying to juggle or balance their warfighting duties with other personal responsibilities. The Air Force's action to establish a requirement for MQ 1/9 squadron members to be away from combat operations on a planned basis should help address the effects of being deployed-on-station and help improve UAS pilots' quality of life.

    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: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOD partially concurred with this recommendation. As of October 2017, the Air Force had not included the career field effect of being a UAS pilot in its analysis of promotion rates. In its written response to our report, the Air Force stated that it tracks UAS pilot promotion rates as subset of the Line of the Air Force and therefore, factors related to promotions identified in the analysis of the Line of the Air Force are directly related to the UAS pilot promotions. Officials from the Air Force Personnel Center in June 2018 told us again that they have not included the career field effect of being an RPA pilot into any of their analyses and they know of no plans to begin analyzing that as a factor. Therefore, the Air Force does not plan to take any action related to this recommendation.

    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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