First World “Problems”

In the U.S. the politicians (Congress) are pressuring the U.S. Air Force to give officers who operate UAVs as many promotions as those who fly manned aircraft. Until recently, only pilots of manned aircraft could, for a few years at a time, serve as UAV operators. But this limited the number of UAV operators the air force could train and saw experienced ones leaving after three years. So now the air force allows non-pilot officers to serve as UAV operators. At the same time the air force is under a lot of pressure (from better civilian job offers for pilots) to give out as many promotions as it can to its pilots of manned aircraft. Congress limits the number of officers of each rank the air force can have at any one time. The organization chart allows for more jobs for higher ranking officers than Congress allows, which means there is always competition for promotion, even though you may be in a job that calls for someone of higher rank. The UAV operators believe they are being shortchanged and have now got Congress on their side. While the UAV operators don’t actually go into the air, they, arguably, suffer more stress because they spend more time in “contact” (even if remotely) with the enemy. Moreover, flying combat aircraft has become so safe that pilots are in more danger driving to and from the airbase than they are once aloft in a warplane. The UAV operators consider their ground based work more useful than the pilots in the air and want a fair share of the promotions. The air force leadership is dominated by pilots (of manned aircraft) so there is some friction over this issue.

The core of all this is the fact that software is replacing a lot of pilot functions and, eventually, taking the place of human pilots. Many larger UAVs already have the ability to take off, follow a predetermined course, carry out a mission, and then land, all by itself (or “autonomously”). One can make a case for officers being in charge here but as commanders of the autonomous UAVs, not their operators.


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