Air Force to Expand Contracted Drone ISR Missions


The U.S. Air Force acknowledged it’s expanding the number of drone surveillance missions flown by contractors in response to a chronic pilot shortage in the service.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh discussed the issue Monday during a “State of the Air Force” briefing with reporters at the Pentagon.

“What we’re talking about doing is expanding right now the use of contractors to actually operate government-owned systems for the near term until we can get our training pipeline mature enough that it can sustain the load over time,” he said.

“That’s what we’re talking about in the current plus-up for contractors assisting us in the ISR business,” he added. “We don’t anticipate at all that they would be involved in kinetic activity or direct targeting of forces on the ground. They would be doing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.”

Welsh didn’t specify any contractors by name, though General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., the San Diego-based maker of the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drone, has announced plans to set up a training academy for remotely piloted aircraft operators from the U.S. and allied countries.

The company last month reached a tentative agreement with the city of Grand Forks in North Dakota to set up an academy at Grand Sky, located on the Grand Forks Air Force Base, according to an Associated Press article.

The Air Force also last month said it will offer a new $15,000 annual bonus beginning in fiscal 2016 to entice more drone pilots to stay in the service.

The service announced the critical skills retention bonus for experienced operators of MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones who agree to a five- or nine-year service extension. Many airmen in the field have been leaving due to stress and burnout, creating a shortage that has forced commanders to scale back missions.

With total values ranging from $75,000 to $135,000 — half of which could be paid up front — the so-called re-up bonus will be offered to drone pilots in the 18X specialty code with at least six years of experience. It will take effect Oct. 1 and supersede a previous temporary increase in monthly incentive pay.

Drone pilots typically fly between 900 and 1,100 hours a year, while fighter pilots generally fly about a quarter as much. Exacerbating the problem is a cultural divide within the service related to the ongoing stigmatization of unmanned aircraft operators, who are still judged by some of their peers as not being “real” pilots.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • t1oracle

    Outsource the job to private domestic contractors in the US. Drone piloting is no longer a soldier’s job. This is no personal risk of life. Any civilian with the proper training can do it, no need for basic combat training. No need to have drone pilots mopping floors or cleaning bathrooms. The janitor can do that. To prevent conflicts of interests, companies that hire for this role should not be allowed to compete in any other business sector. Given the life and death nature of this work, I believe eliminating outside motivations would be a critical requirement.

  • blight_

    Move the drones to a different service that appreciates the work they do.

    Contractors will be the next branch of the armed services.

  • Dfens

    Defense contractors have done such a bang up job everywhere else, why not hire more?

  • PJ1108

    See what gets me when I see these stories is that the AF still require RPA pilots to come from the rated ranks. That means the age ceiling is 29. When these articles started to come out about the burnout and pilot shortage, I was 30. Instead of pulling jet pilots into the program, they should make a special pathway for RPA pilots. I’d quit my job tomorrow if they would accept me.

  • franklin

    I wonder what the pay scale difference will be for drone pizza delivery vs ISR for the military. In a pinch could the pizza pilot be delivering pizza by day and ordinance at night for a 16 hour work day?
    The bottom line is limited manpower verses autonomous systems. No joke this is a very big step towards Skynet or AI, and when the robots do the killing you have musk’s and Hawking’s nightwares come to life. As an avid syfi reader from the sixties I saw this coming half a century ago, and I can see where it is going as clear as day.

  • Sherman Kensinga

    The U.S. airlines are about to see half their pilots retire, there are very few young Americans in commercial pilot training, and the airline industry is expected to grow strongly with the economy. Corporate aviation will grow dramatically with huge aircraft orders and they are also facing high retirement numbers. Against this backdrop, how will civilian contractors keep pilots in trailers in Nevada? Military service comes with a unique commitment, something not legally possible for civilians, despite efforts to reinstate indentured servitude through onerous training contracts.

    There are few absolutes anymore in governance, but providing for the defense of the governed population and territory is still an absolute requirement. Abandoning that responsibility to an obviously ill-suited civilian contractor is not an option.

  • Belinda jane

    Sir said canadian several moved in on united states white house sir canadian moved in on action video plus springtown tx and my house brought me to ft worth sd get a job he springtown police chief dnt knw were jay is larry disappeard and earnie quentil dnt knw ken forced out sd by paula dnt think so