Fast Facts

Since 9/11, demand has grown dramatically for the Air Force’s remotely piloted aircraft (“drones”), and their pilots and sensor operators. The intensity of operations, shift work, and other factors take a toll on these personnel. The Air Force is trying to reduce burnout and improve retention.

A goal of the Air Force is to have enough pilots and sensor operators by 2024 to allow breaks from combat operations. But we found the Air Force hasn’t met its staffing goals for these personnel and doesn’t track its progress in achieving the 2024 goal.

We made 2 recommendations, including that the Air Force better track its staff-building efforts.

A drone pilot flies a simulated mission

Pilot, computer screens, equipment

Pilot, computer screens, equipment

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Air Force does not have enough pilots and sensor operators to meet its staffing targets for its unmanned aircraft—also called remotely piloted aircraft (RPA). It also does not track its overall progress in accessing and retaining enough RPA personnel needed to implement its combat-to-dwell policy, which is intended to balance RPA units' time spent in combat with non-combat activities. Officials stated that to fully implement combat-to-dwell the Air Force needs to access and retain more RPA personnel because since fiscal year 2016 it has had fewer RPA personnel than authorized (see figure for RPA sensor operator example). The Air Force has provided financial incentives to address retention of RPA personnel, but it does not yet have enough historical data to help predict RPA pilot retention trends going forward given the newness of the career field. Officials additionally expressed specific concerns about sensor operator retention particularly due to the possibility of lucrative private-sector jobs. Further, the Air Force does not have a comprehensive metric (or set of metrics) to know whether its accession and retention efforts are on track to generate the additional RPA personnel needed to implement its combat-to-dwell policy by 2024. Without a metric (or set of metrics), it is unclear whether any adjustments are needed to meet its implementation timeframes.

Number of Assigned Air Force Active-Duty Remotely Piloted Aircraft Sensor Operators Compared with Requirements and Authorized Levels, Fiscal Years 2016 through 2019

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The Air Force has not fully identified the number of RPA pilot and sensor operator instructor positions needed at its formal training unit and since 2016 has experienced instructor staffing shortages. Specifically, the number of instructor positions required is understated because they are based on a 2009 program of instruction with 49 training days while the current program of instruction is 83 training days. Moreover, since fiscal year 2016, the formal training unit has had fewer assigned instructors than authorized positions even though those numbers of instructor positions are underestimates of actual needs. To help address the effect of the instructor gap, officials temporarily reduced the length of training. Without updated information to inform the number of required instructors, the Air Force does not know the correct number of instructor positions necessary to train RPA aircrews to be ready to complete their mission.

Why GAO Did This Study

High demand and constant combat operations have created challenges for Air Force RPA pilots and sensor operators who conduct missions across the world. In January 2017, the Air Force approved a combat-to-dwell policy to better balance RPA units' time in combat with non-combat activities. It plans to fully implement the policy in 2024.

Senate Report 115-262 included a provision that GAO review ongoing challenges in the Air Force RPA community. This report assesses, among other things, the extent to which the Air Force (1) met overall RPA pilot and sensor operator staffing targets and tracked its progress in implementing its combat-to-dwell policy and (2) identified and met instructor staffing levels at its RPA formal training unit. GAO analyzed selected Air Force accession, retention, and instructor staffing data; held non-generalizable focus groups at three RPA military bases; and interviewed officials at various levels of the RPA enterprise.

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Recommendations

GAO recommends that the Air Force establish a comprehensive metric (or set of metrics) to track the progress of its efforts to access and retain enough RPA personnel needed to implement its combat-to-dwell policy, and update the number of required RPA instructor positions. The Air Force partially concurred with the first recommendation and concurred with the second one. GAO continues to believe the first recommendation is valid, as discussed in the report.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of the Air Force The Secretary of the Air Force should ensure that a comprehensive metric (or set of metrics) is established to track the progress of its combined accession and retention efforts to obtain sufficient quantities of RPA pilots and sensor operators needed to achieve its objective of implementing the combat-to-dwell policy as planned. (Recommendation 1)
Open
DOD partially concurred with this recommendation. It stated that its ongoing efforts could be better integrated to allow for greater analysis in tracking progress toward meeting the combat-to -dwell policy. DOD also stated that it results from an ongoing study will inform the analysis for this recommendation. According to the Air Force Operations (A3) and Manpower, Personnel, and Services (A1) jointly monitor accession, production, and retention for the RPA pilots and sensor operators. The Air Force also noted that the trend analysis that is necessary to effectively analyze, monitor and manage accession and retention efforts is dependent on consistent historical data. The Air Force further stated that as the RPA career field matures, standard Air Force retention metrics used across other rated career fields such as Total Active Rated Service (TARS) and Cumulative Continuation Rate (CCR) will provide increased utility. We will continue to monitor the status of the study and any other actions the department takes to address the recommendation.
Department of the Air Force The Secretary of the Air Force should ensure that the number of instructor positions needed at the RPA training unit at Holloman Air Force Base is updated by applying more complete, accurate and timely information to better reflect the training curriculum and instructor needs. (Recommendation 2)
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DOD concurred with this recommendation. It noted that it is planning to conduct a study on the appropriate pilot and sensor operator instructor manning. According to the Air Force, in February 2020 it requested the Air Force Manpower Analysis Agency (AFMAA) conduct an updated study of the appropriate pilot and sensor operator instructor manning. The Air Force estimated that they study would be completed by May 2021. We will continue to monitor the status and results of the study.

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