Unmanned Aerial Systems:
Actions Needed to Improve DOD Pilot Training
GAO-15-461: Published: May 14, 2015. Publicly Released: May 14, 2015.
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What GAO Found
The Army and the Air Force face challenges ensuring that the pilots who remotely operate their unmanned aerial systems (UAS) complete their required training. Specifically, a March 2015 Army review showed that most pilots in certain Army units did not complete fundamental training tasks in fiscal year 2014—a finding that GAO corroborated through discussions with pilots in focus groups and unit responses to questionnaires. In addition, Army unit status reports do not require UAS pilot training information, and as a result, the Army does not know the full extent to which pilots have been trained and are therefore ready to be deployed. In addition, Air Force training records from a nongeneralizeable sample of seven UAS units showed that, on average, 35 percent of the pilots in these units completed the training for all of their required missions. Pilots in all of the seven focus groups GAO conducted with Air Force UAS pilots stated that they could not conduct training in units because their units had shortages of UAS pilots.GAO found similar shortages of UAS pilots in April 2014 and in particular, GAO found that the Air Force operated below its crew ratio, which is a metric used to determine the number of pilots needed in units. At that time, GAO made four recommendations including that the Air Force update its update crew ratio. The Air Force concurred with these recommendations and has taken actions, or has actions underway. For example, an Air Force Headquarters official stated that, in February 2015, the Air Force completed the first phase of a three-phase personnel requirements study on the crew ratio and expects to update the crew ratio in 2015. However, at this time, the Air Force has not fully implemented any of the recommendations.
The Army and the Air Force are taking actions to increase the number of UAS instructors, but the Army has not fully addressed the risks associated with using less experienced instructors and the Air Force faces instructor shortages. In order to increase the number of its instructors in response to an increase in the number of UAS units, the Army waived course prerequisites for about 40 percent of the UAS pilots attending the course to become instructor pilots from the beginning of fiscal year 2013 through February 2015.The Army originally established these prerequisites—such as a minimum number of flight hours—for UAS pilots volunteering to become instructors to help ensure that instructors were fully trained and ready to instruct UAS pilots. The Army has taken some steps to mitigate the potential risks of using less proficient UAS instructors. For example, beginning in fiscal year 2015, the Army no longer grants waivers for course prerequisites related to proficiency. However, the Army can continue to grant waivers for additional course prerequisites related to experience. As a result, the Army risks that its UAS pilots may not be receiving the highest caliber of training needed to prepare them to successfully perform UAS missions. Furthermore, as of March 2015, the Air Force had staffed its UAS training squadrons at Holloman Air Force Base at 63 percent of its planned staffing levels. This shortage is a key reason that the Air Force has shortages of UAS pilots across the Air Force, according to an Air Force headquarters official. The Air Force is studying the personnel requirements for its school and expects to report the results of this study by spring 2016.
Why GAO Did This Study
The Department of Defense's (DOD) UAS portfolio has grown over the years to rival traditional manned systems, and, as of July 2013, DOD had acquired over 10,000 UAS, according to a 2013 DOD report. Training DOD UAS pilots, most of whom are in the Army or the Air Force, is an integral part of DOD's strategy to accomplish its mission. Senate Report 113-176 included a provision that GAO review DOD's efforts to train UAS pilots.
This report examines, among other things, the extent to which the Army and the Air Force (1) face challenges ensuring that their UAS pilots complete required training and (2) have taken steps to ensure they have sufficient numbers of UAS instructors. GAO analyzed DOD guidance on training UAS pilots, distributed a questionnaire to Army and Air Force headquarters and units, examined nongeneralizeable training records of seven Air Force UAS units selected because they have the same mission requirements, and interviewed DOD officials. GAO also conducted 18 focus groups with active duty UAS pilots who were selected based on rank and other factors. The results of the questionnaire and focus groups are not generalizable.
What GAO Recommends
GAO recommends, among other things, that the Army require unit status reports to include information on the readiness levels of UAS pilots; and the Army take additional steps to mitigate potential risks posed by its waiver of course prerequisites related to experience for pilots attending the course to become instructors. DOD concurred with each of GAO's recommendations.
For more information, contact Brenda S. Farrell at (202) 512-3604 or FarrellB@gao.gov.
Recommendations for Executive Action
Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation. In August 2018, Army Headquarters officials stated that the Army plans to update Army Regulation 220-1, Army Unit Status Reporting and Force Registration to "bring UAS Operator reporting in line with other Army weapon systems, as UAS readiness was not previously captured." However, as of May 2018, the revision to the Army Regulation had not been published.
Recommendation: To provide greater visibility over the extent to which Army UAS units have completed required training to leaders responsible for deployment decisions, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Army to require unit status reports to include information on the readiness levels of UAS pilots in UAS units.
Agency Affected: Department of Defense
Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation. In October 2016, Army Headquarters officials stated that the Army had taken additional steps to mitigate potential risks posed by waiving course prerequisites for less experienced UAS pilots attending the course to become instructors. Specifically, by the end of fiscal year 2016, the Army had put 50 of 106 planned Universal Mission Simulators in place for active duty units and reduced the number of waivers granted for three of four course prerequisites. Army officials also provided documentation to show that the number of waivers granted had decreased in fiscal year 2016. However, an Army official from the Training and Doctrine Command stated that the Army had not provided additional training or preparation for instructors who had previously received a waiver of one of the course prerequisites to attend the instructor course as we had recommended. In July 2018, Army Headquarters officials indicated that the Army continued to use simulators to reduce the need for waivers but they also indicated that they continue to grant waivers to less experienced less experienced UAS pilots to enable them to enter the instructor operator course.
Recommendation: To help ensure that Army UAS pilots receive the highest caliber of training to prepare them to successfully accomplish UAS missions, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Army to take additional steps to mitigate potential risks posed by its waiver of course prerequisites for less experienced UAS pilots attending the course to become instructors, such as by providing additional preparation for current and future instructors who do not meet one or more course prerequisites to enhance their ability to successfully provide training.
Agency Affected: Department of Defense
Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation and stated the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness was in the process of revising its draft "Department of Defense Training Strategy for Unmanned Aircraft Systems" to address inter-service coordination to enable the department to train more efficiently and effectively as a whole. In October 2016, the Director stated that RAND had completed the draft strategy and that the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Readiness) had begun revising the strategy. An Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Readiness) official working on the revisions stated that the strategy would address our recommendation and coordination among the services. However, as of October 2016, the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Readiness) had not yet issued the department-wide UAS training strategy. In May 2018, the Director Military Training and Ranges in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Readiness)/Force Training engaged a team to review the 2016 draft strategy to recommend a way forward. According to that official, the review was nearing completion and he anticipated presenting their recommendation to the current Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Education & Training in late July 2018.
Recommendation: To increase opportunities to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of UAS pilot training across DOD, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to address how the services should coordinate with one another in the strategy on UAS pilot training that the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness is current drafting.
Agency Affected: Department of Defense