Air Force officials announced a new initiative Dec. 17 to enhance the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance mission by integrating enlisted remotely piloted aircraft pilots into the force.
Air Force officials stated a dynamic threat environment calls for innovative approaches to high-demand missions. After careful consideration and with an eye toward potential future force needs, service officials plan to deliberately integrate the enlisted force into flying operations, starting with the RQ-4 Global Hawk.
“Our enlisted force is the best in the world and I am completely confident they will be able to do the job and do it well,” said Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James. “The RPA enterprise is doing incredibly important work and this is the right decision to ensure the Air Force is positioned to support the future threat environment. Emerging requirements and combatant commander demands will only increase; therefore, we will position the service to provide warfighters and our nation the capability they deserve today and in the future.”
The secretary and chief directed Air Combat Command to develop an implementation plan over the next six months to address items like entry requirements, training plans, career path development, delineation of duties, compensation details and an appropriate force mix. Implementation is focused on the Global Hawk community, not the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper force.
“This action will make the most of the capabilities of our superb enlisted force in order to increase agility in addressing the ISR needs of the warfighter,” James said. “Just as we integrated officer and enlisted crew positions in the space mission set, we will deliberately integrate enlisted pilots into the Global Hawk ISR community.”
In the space mission arena, the Air Force took a deliberate approach to incorporate enlisted personnel into satellite operations. During the space mission transition, the Air Force ensured enlisted Airmen were prepared to successfully assume these new responsibilities. Phasing the conversion also allowed squadrons to build expertise and transition officers into other areas that faced shortages, officials said. As a result, the Air Force grew leadership opportunities and normalized operations, posturing for a more congested and contested environment in space.
“We are taking action now to address future ISR needs,” said Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Mark A. Welsh III. “Not too long ago, we took the best of both officer and enlisted development tracks to lead the space mission. A similar model can be applied to our Global Hawk operations.”
This initiative to incorporate enlisted pilots is the first step to developing future operating concepts within the multi-domain ISR enterprise. The Global Hawk is the most stable RPA community and presents an ability to integrate new capabilities in an effort to better posture the force for the dynamic future operating environment.
“The Global Hawk mission is a strategically vital mission,” Welsh said. “The transition to enlisted pilots will be managed with minimum impact on current Global Hawk pilots. As always, we will continue to assess and balance our force to meet warfighter needs while ensuring appropriate force development.”
The service plans to be deliberate in its approach, ensuring learning occurs along the way.
“What we learn from flying Global Hawks with enlisted pilots under the supervision of rated officers will inform whether we apply a similar approach to other weapon systems,” Welsh said. “It is too soon to speculate on any expansion of enlisted aircrew beyond the Global Hawk program.”
Air Force officials are confident this decision will enable flexibility heading into the future.