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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Air Force and the Army have not fully applied four of the five key principles for effective strategic human capital planning for managing pilots of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) that are important for resolving the Air Force's pilot shortages and the Army's training shortfalls (see table below). Consistent with the first principle, the Air Force involved top senior leaders, UAS pilots, and stakeholders to develop a plan to resolve its UAS pilot shortages—including reassigning UAS workload to Air National Guard units and supporting training and operations with contractors. The Air Force partially applied the second principle to tailor its strategy to address gaps, or shortages, in UAS pilots, such as by using temporary personnel. As of March 2016, 37 percent of the personnel filling UAS pilot positions are temporarily assigned manned-aircraft pilots. Air Force headquarters personnel stated that no other career field in the Air Force relies on temporarily assigned personnel to this extent. Without tailoring its strategy to provide more permanently assigned pilots, the Air Force risks losing the experience that temporarily assigned manned-aircraft pilots have acquired. The Army partially applied the second principle because its strategy is not fully tailored to address its shortages in unit training. The Army experienced training shortfalls—61 of 73 UAS units flew fewer than half of the 340-flight-hour per unit annual minimum training goal in fiscal year 2015. A Senior Army official acknowledged the continued training shortfalls was a concern for the Army. Without revising its strategy to address the remaining training shortfalls, the Army risks that its UAS units may continue to train at levels below Army goals.

Extent to Which the Air Force and the Army Applied Key Principles of Effective Strategic Human Capital Planning

Key principle

Air Force

Army

Involve Top Senior Leaders, Employees, and Stakeholders

Develop Strategies Tailored to Address Gaps in Critical Skills and Competencies

Monitor Progress toward Meeting Human Capital Goals

Build Capability to Support Human Capital Strategies by Using Flexibilities

Determine the Critical Skills and Competencies Needed

Legend: Applied ● Partially applied ◒ Not applied ○

Source: GAO key principles (GAO-04-39); GAO analysis of Air Force and Army data. | GAO-17-53

The Air Force and the Army have not evaluated their workforce mix—that is the mix of military, federal civilian, and private sector contractor personnel—to determine the extent to which these personnel sources could be used to fly UAS. Furthermore, although neither the Air Force nor the Army have evaluated how and to what extent federal civilians could be used as UAS pilots, both services are using private sector contractors to fly some UAS. Without evaluating their workforce mix, the Air Force and the Army do not have information on alternatives for meeting UAS pilot personnel requirements to meet mission needs. In addition, although the Air Force and the Army decided to use private sector contractors to meet mission needs, they did not conduct cost analyses to inform this decision. Without such an analysis, the Air Force and the Army may not be using the most cost-effective workforces to achieve UAS missions.

Why GAO Did This Study

The demand for UAS combat operation support has grown dramatically in the last decade. Since 2008, the Air Force has more than quadrupled its requirements for UAS pilots but faced challenges meeting the requirements due to UAS pilot shortages. Meanwhile, a 2015 Army review found that Army UAS units' mishap rate was higher than for other aircraft and Army officials stated that training shortfalls had contributed to the mishaps.

Senate Report 114-49 included a provision that GAO review Air Force and Army UAS personnel strategies. GAO assesses the extent to which the Air Force and the Army have (1) applied key principles of effective strategic human capital planning for managing UAS pilots and (2) evaluated the workforce mix to meet UAS pilot requirements. GAO compared its previously developed key principles of effective strategic human capital planning with Air Force and Army actions. GAO analyzed data on required and actual Air Force UAS pilots and data on Army UAS training.

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Recommendations

GAO's 11 recommendations include that the Air Force tailor its strategy to address UAS pilot shortages; the Army revise its strategy to address UAS training shortfalls; and that both services evaluate their workforce mix for UAS pilot positions and conduct analysis to ensure cost effectiveness of workforce decisions. DOD concurred with 2 recommendations and partially concurred with 9, noting actions that it believed addressed the intent of GAO's recommendations. GAO continues to believe that DOD needs to take actions to fully address the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Defense To help the Air Force in its effort to address UAS pilot shortfalls, and to help ensure that the Air Force strategies to address UAS pilot shortages are tailored to address remaining issues, such as the significant amount of pilots who are temporarily assigned to the UAS pilot career, the limited amount of cadet interest in the UAS pilot career, and the workload of UAS pilots, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force to revise the Get Well Plan to address these issues.
Open

Recommendation status is Open.

Although the Air Force has taken some steps to address issues such as the use of pilots temporarily assigned to the UAS pilot career and has accelerated its efforts to increase recruit interest in this particular field, high operational tempo, manning shortages and increased workload among UAS pilots still exist. As noted earlier, in July 2018, the Air Force established a new office within its headquarters a focal point for overseeing RPA personnel matters throughout the Air Force and it established a career field manager (CFM) specifically for RPA personnel, placing the career field on par with manned aircraft pilot career fields. These latest efforts show that the Air Force is taking actions to address challenges to the RPA community beyond the stated goals of the Get Well Plan that we identified and on an enterprise-wide level. Because the Air Force efforts are newly instituted and it remains to be seen how UAS aircrew workloads will be affected, we believe that as of November 2019 this recommendation should remain open until more progress is made.
Department of Defense To help the Air Force in its effort to address UAS pilot shortfalls, and to help the Air Force ensure that its strategies are having the intended effects, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force to monitor the extent to which that achieving the human capital goals in its strategy helps the Air Force achieve its programmatic goals.
Open

Recommendation status is Open.

DOD partially concurred with this recommendation. According to headquarters Air Force officials, the Air Force has three program goals that are related to addressing UAS pilot shortfalls: to (1) meet combat demand, (2) staff enough personnel to UAS units to allow UAS pilots time to train and take part in development activities, and (3) provide surge UAS combat capabilities when needed. As of September 2019, the Air Force does not have enough personnel in UAS units to allow UAS pilots time to train and take part in developmental activities-known as being in "dwell." As of November 2019, Air Force officials state that they are able to "meet combat demand" but are not able to provide enough manpower to "surge UAS combat capabilities when needed." Therefore, we believe this recommendation should remain open.
Department of Defense To help the Air Force in its effort to address UAS pilot shortfalls, and to help the Air Force ensure that it is poised to meet future needs for UAS pilots, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force to explore the potential use of additional flexibilities that would enable it to increase the number of UAS pilots in its workforce.
Open

Recommendation status is Open.

DOD partially concurred with this recommendation. In a March 2018 report to Congress, the Air Force stated it had developed a deliberate plan to integrate enlisted pilots in the RQ-4 Global Hawk UAS as it provided the ideal environment to expand mission flexibility. Further, as another way to build capability in support of human capital strategies by using flexibilities, an Air Force selection board met in July 2017 to consider total force officer as well as civilian candidates for various test pilot positions to include test UAS pilots. Finally, the Air Force is seeking legislative changes to allow the Air Reserve Component to perform full time, 24/7, 365 operational missions such as the UAS mission, in Active Guard Reserve status. Additionally, in July 2018, Air Force is in the process of establishing a new division to be the Headquarters focal point for overseeing RPA personnel matters throughout the Air Force and 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. Further, the Air Force is working on an initiative that would enable it to provide UAS pilots with "dwell time"-a time during which servicemembers are at their home station during which they are able to take leave, attend training, and recuperate. As of November 2019, the Air Force had not implemented this initiative. Additionally, the Air Force has increased the maximum annual retention pay for UAS pilots (and all other pilots) to $35,000. While the Air Force has taken some steps, it is too early to tell whether these steps will result in effective workforce planning outcomes that reduce Air Force UAS pilot shortages. Therefore, we believe that this recommendation should remain open until more progress is made.
Department of Defense To help the Army in its effort to address UAS unit training shortfalls, and to help the Army identify challenges that UAS pilots face in completing their training, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Army to collect feedback from UAS pilots in UAS units, such as by surveying, or conducting focus groups with them.
Open

Recommendation status is Open.

DOD partially concurred with this recommendation. In its initial comments, DOD stated that incorporating feedback from the field is already an element of the Army's strategy for improving the sustainability, maturity, and health of its UAS workforce. DOD stated that our findings will reinforce the importance of using feedback to improve and refine the Army's overall strategy. In September 2019, Army Headquarters officials reiterated previous statements that they made that the Army has multiple agencies and systems that gather feedback to refine and improve UAS programs. However, the Army has not collected feedback from UAS pilots in UAS units via surveys, focus groups, to help the Army identify challenges that UAS pilots face in completing their training.
Department of Defense To help the Army in its effort to address UAS unit training shortfalls, and to help the Army identify challenges that UAS pilots face in completing their training, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Army to incorporate such feedback into the Army's strategy to address UAS training shortfalls.
Open

Recommendation status is Open.

DOD partially concurred with this recommendation, and in its initial comments, DOD stated that incorporating feedback from the field is already an element of the Army's strategy for improving the sustainability, maturity, and health of its UAS workforce. DOD stated that our findings will reinforce the importance of using feedback to improve and refine the Army's overall strategy. In July 2018, Army Headquarters officials stated that the Army has multiple agencies and systems that gather feedback to incorporate and improve UAS programs. The officials listed a number of the systems in place to gather feedback on UAS units. However, the Army did not describe any efforts to collect feedback from UAS pilots in UAS units such as by surveying them or conducting focus groups with them. In September 2019, Army officials reiterated their 2018 comments and stated that Army has a number of the systems in place to gather feedback on UAS units. However, the Army has not collected feedback from UAS pilots in UAS units such as by surveying them or conducting focus groups with them and incorporated such feedback into an Army strategy to address UAS training shortfalls.
Department of Defense To help the Army in its effort to address UAS unit training shortfalls, and to help ensure that Army Shadow units meet minimum training requirements, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Army to revise its strategy to address UAS training shortfalls to ensure that it is fully tailored to address training issues and address factors such as lack of adequate facilities, lack of access to airspace, and the inability to fly more than one UAS at a time.
Open

Recommendation status is Open.

DOD partially concurred with our recommendation that the Army revise its strategy to address UAS training shortfalls to ensure that it is fully tailored to address training issues and address factors such as lack of adequate facilities, lack of access to airspace, and the inability to fly more than one UAS at a time. DOD stated that the Army has already taken steps to continuously improve its training strategy and that our findings will underline the importance of those initiatives, but that additional direction related to our recommendation is not necessary. In their July 2018 written update, Army officials responded to this recommendation by discussing a regulation regarding readiness reporting; however, the response did not clarify how the regulation might address our recommendation. As of November 2019, the Army has not issued an updated UAS strategy that addresses UAS training shortfalls including a lack of adequate facilities, lack of access to airspace, and the inability to fly more than one UAS at a time.
Department of Defense To help the Army in its effort to address UAS unit training shortfalls, and to help the Army ensure that it is basing its decisions to select individuals for UAS pilot training on sound evidence and to help it take advantage of the key benefits associated with effective personnel selection that could include reducing training costs, improving job performance, improving retention of qualified personnel, enabling leadership development, and enhancing organizational effectiveness, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Army to validate that the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery is an effective predictor of UAS pilot candidate performance in UAS pilot training and job performance.
Open

Recommendation status is Open.

DOD partially concurred with our recommendation that the Army validate that the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery is an effective predictor of UAS pilot candidate performance in UAS pilot training and job performance. DOD stated that it believes that the current graduation rate of soldiers from its UAS pilot school of 98 percent is an indication that the existing personnel resource predictors and practices are sufficient. It also stated that periodic re-validation is prudent, but specific direction to do so is not necessary. In its July 2018 written update about this recommendation, Army officials stated that the successful graduation rate from UAS Advanced Individual Training and suggested that this graduation rate may indicate that the existing Army approach is adequate. As we stated in our report, Army officials told us that senior Army leaders pressure officials at the Army UAS pilot schoolhouse to ensure that UAS pilot candidates make it through training. As a result, graduation rates may not provide the Army with reliable evidence that its approach to selecting personnel to serve as UAS pilots is providing the Army with personnel who have the aptitude for this career. Validating that the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery is an effective predictor of training and job performance of UAS pilot is an important step that would help the Army ensure that it is basing its decisions to select individuals for the UAS pilot career field on sound evidence. As of November 2019, the Army continued to maintain that the successful graduation rate from UAS Advanced Individual Training and suggests that the existing Army approach is adequate.
Department of Defense To help the Army in its effort to address UAS unit training shortfalls, and to help the Army ensure that it is basing its decisions to select individuals for UAS pilot training on sound evidence and to help it take advantage of the key benefits associated with effective personnel selection that could include reducing training costs, improving job performance, improving retention of qualified personnel, enabling leadership development, and enhancing organizational effectiveness, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Army to assess existing research that has been performed that identifies UAS pilot competencies.
Open

Recommendation status is Open.

DOD partially concurred with our recommendations that the Army assess existing research that has been performed that identifies UAS pilot competencies. In its comments, DOD stated that incorporating findings regarding UAS pilot competencies is already an integral part of both workforce and community management and that effective and efficient resource management, as well as force shaping and management processes, will help ensure that the Army's selection of candidates is consistent with the findings of existing research in this area. DOD stated that it does not believe it is necessary to provide additional direction or guidance to the Army to leverage existing research that identifies UAS pilot competencies. In it's July 2018 written update about this recommendation, Army officials indicated that the Army will assess existing research on UAS operator competencies to improve UAS operator selection. As of November 2019, the Army continued to express interest in assessing existing research on UAS operator competencies to improve UAS operator candidate selection.
Department of Defense To help the Army in its effort to address UAS unit training shortfalls, and to help the Army ensure that it is basing its decisions to select individuals for UAS pilot training on sound evidence and to help it take advantage of the key benefits associated with effective personnel selection that could include reducing training costs, improving job performance, improving retention of qualified personnel, enabling leadership development, and enhancing organizational effectiveness, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Army to incorporate relevant findings from such research into the Army's approach for selecting UAS pilot candidates, as appropriate.
Open

Recommendation status is Open.

DOD partially concurred with our recommendations that the Army incorporate relevant findings from such research into the Army's approach for selecting UAS pilot candidates, as appropriate. DOD stated that incorporating findings regarding UAS pilot competencies is already an integral part of both workforce and community management and that effective and efficient resource management, as well as force shaping and management processes, will help ensure that the Army's selection of candidates is consistent with the findings of existing research in this area. DOD stated that it does not believe it is necessary to provide additional direction or guidance to the Army to leverage existing research that identifies UAS pilot competencies. In its July 2018 written update on this recommendation, Army officials indicated that the Army will consider a cost benefit analysis on techniques that would potentially improve a process, product, or result related to selecting UAS pilot candidates. Officials went on to state that once the assessment is complete, the Army will incorporate relevant findings into the approach for selecting UAS pilot candidates. As of November 2019, the Army expressed interest in incorporating findings from relevant research into processes for selecting UAS pilot candidates.
Department of Defense To help address personnel shortages and meet mission needs cost effectively, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, through the Under Secretary of Defense (Personnel & Readiness) should direct the Air Force and the Army to evaluate the workforce mix and the use of federal civilians for UAS pilot positions.
Closed - Implemented

Recommendation status is Closed - Implemented.

DOD concurred with this recommendation. In December 2017, the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Manpower and Reserve Affairs) issued a memo to the Air Force and the Army requesting implementation of actions to meet the recommendations from this GAO report on UAS Human Capital Planning. As part of that memo, the Air Force and the Army were requested to provide an assessment of current UAS workforce mix and plans and of potential modifications to that mix to be included in their program plans for fiscal year 2020. More specifically, they were instructed to include an assessment of the current military manpower allocations for UAS operations, evaluating military essentiality and identifying opportunities for military to civilian conversion when military essentiality does not exist and when such conversions would not compromise desired operational performance. Further, the Air Force and the Army were instructed to provide a detailed assessment of current UAS missions performed by contractors to evaluate if the work is inherently governmental, closely associated with inherently governmental, or should otherwise be performed by government personnel consistent with determining workforce mix procedures in accordance with DOD Instruction 1100.22. Because of the direction, the Air Force and the Army submitted their evaluation of their UAS workforce mix in May and June of 2018, respectively, and are in a better position to determine the most efficient combination of resources to meet their mission needs.
Department of Defense To help address personnel shortages and meet mission needs cost effectively, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, through the Under Secretary of Defense (Personnel & Readiness) should direct the Air Force and the Army to conduct cost analyses consistent with DOD guidance to inform their workforce decisions and ensure cost effectiveness of the UAS pilot workforce mix.
Closed - Implemented

Recommendation status is Closed - Implemented.

DOD concurred with this recommendation. In December 2017, the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Manpower and Reserve Affairs) issued a memo to the Air Force and the Army requesting implementation actions to meet the recommendations from this GAO report on UAS Human Capital Planning. As part of that memo, the Air Force and the Army were requested to submit, where military essentiality is proven, consideration of adjusting military manpower mix that is informed by a cost analysis consistent with DOD Instruction 7041.04 and a detailed assessment of current UAS missions performed by contractors to evaluate, among other things, where civilian performance would represent a more cost effective method of accomplishing the work, also consistent with cost analyses procedures in accordance with DOD Instruction 7041.04. Because of this direction, the Air Force and the Army submitted their evaluations of their UAS workforce mix in May and June of 2018, respectively, and are in a better position to determine the most efficient combination of resources to meet their mission needs. This action meets the intention of the GAO recommendation and therefore, the recommendation should be closed as implemented.

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