Pilots or Operators? The Big UAV Dilemma

15 September 2008

The demand for UAVs (or unmanned aircraft systems) for missions in Afghanistan and Iraq is at an unprecedented high. There is a clear and distinct call for more ‘eyes in the sky’ to provide ground troops with a tactical advantage and improved situational awareness for the challenges they face in an asymmetric battlefield.

A U.S. Army soldier in a Shadow UAV ground control station. The Army enlists mid- to junior-grade personnel to fly the Shadow.

In April, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates criticized the U.S. Air Force for not doing its part, and for being “stuck in old ways of doing business.” With respect to the UAV issue, Gates has insisted that more Predator UAVs need to be deployed in theater - fulfilling an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) role. Achieving this, he says, has been akin to “pulling teeth.”

It turns out, the bottleneck is not the lack of aircraft, but the Air Force’s insistence that rated pilots must operate UAVs.

To meet the growing demand, the Air Force has been pulling F-16 pilots from their cockpits and reassigning them to Creech AFB in Nevada, where the Air Force remotely operates its Predators. Pilots sit in Predator control stations, loosely based on the familiarities of conventional manned cockpits, for shifts lasting up to 13 hours a day. Needless to say, few of those who joined the Air Force to fly fighter jets are happy to have their wings clipped by this reassignment.

On the other hand, the U.S. Army’s Shadow UAV carries out many of the same ISR missions as the Predator and has accumulated roughly the same number of flight hours (close to 350,000). Technologically, both aircraft are similar – but the operational philosophies are polar opposites. Shadow operators are not rated pilots. Rather, Shadow is flown by mid- to junior-grade enlisted personnel.

While Predator pilots sit in control stations equipped with flight controls and throttle levers, Shadow operators fly using a keyboard and trackball with a point-and-click interface (similar to an air traffic controller’s screen). The Shadow control station is specifically designed not to imitate a cockpit but rather present information and controls to the operator pertinent to operating a UAV in an effective and organized manner.

Shadow operators are essentially ‘systems managers,’ leveraging more of the autonomy of today’s unmanned systems compared to their Air Force counterparts. They do this by allowing the complex electronics onboard the UAV to take care of basic flying tasks and other operations ­normally requiring a pilot. Unsurprisingly, the modern generation of computer literate soldiers is remarkably effective at flying UAVs – and unlike the F-16/Predator pilots, these young operators jump at the opportunity to fly the Shadow.

Unlike the Shadow, the Predator can be armed with Hellfire missiles. Proponents of the Air Force philosophy argue that an ­aircraft armed with munitions requires a highly trained professional, like an F-16 pilot, to make the critical decision to engage a target. Interestingly, the Army has procured the Sky Warrior UAV, a larger variant of the Predator, which can also carry Hellfire missiles. The Army will be using a very similar control station to the Shadow to fly the Sky Warrior. There is no doubt the Army will need to provide Sky Warrior crews with substantial training, specifically in areas such as weapons ­management. The cost of this, however, will be significantly lower than the millions of dollars it takes to train a fighter pilot  only to task him or her to something they were not originally trained to do.

It is not difficult to see why the Air Force has been hesitant to adopt the Army model. With a culture deeply steeped in flying aircraft rather than managing them, there is a natural resistance to the notion of non-pilots operating flying machines – the very idea is a threat to the livelihood of an agency of aviators.

The question of whether the issue is based on cultural barriers or not, is irrelevant. It is glaringly obvious that the mission is of primary importance. Meeting the pressing demands of soldiers in theater – the need for round-the-clock ISR in a hostile environment – means there is an immediate need for more UAV assets in the sky.

It appears that Gates’ calls for a paradigm shift are beginning to have an impact. The Air Force announced recently that it was implementing a new initiative allowing active-duty officers with no flying experience to be trained to operate UAVs. Although the Army has proven in practice that properly trained non-pilots can operate UAVs extraordinarily well, the Air Force must proceed attentively. Trained operators coupled with control station interfaces engineered with a strong focus on safety and human factors are necessary ingredients for safe and effective UAV operations.

North of the border, Canada presses forward with its own UAV programs and procurements. Based on the experiences of our American neighbours, we have insight into which model is more economically and operationally sound. I am confident Canada will see the merit in the Army model and while much remains to be done, I am delighted to see an Air Force initiative helping to keep pilots where they belong: in the sky.

Sundeep Kharey is a Business Development Engineer at CDL Systems Ltd.)
© Frontline Defence 2008