JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. – Col. Ray Alves flew F-16s over Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq. But since then, he has trained to "fly" remotely piloted aircraft.
"There's no difference between what I wanted to do in an F-16 [versus] what I wanted to do in an MQ-1 when it came time to prosecute a target," he said.
RPA pilots like Alves, known throughout the Air Force as the airmen who "play on video game consoles," are starting to make their way to the cool(er) kids' table.
After years of wrestling with the term "real pilots" and still pushing for a medal to recognize their work, these pilots are seeing a cultural shift. Part of the reason is former pilots of manned aircraft like Alves are cross-training into the RPA world.
"When I sit down with my former colleagues who are still flying fighters ... they don't ... sneer at me," Alves told reporters Nov. 17. He now advises the MQ-1 program for Air Combat Command here.
As of last December, there were more than 1,360 drone pilots operating almost 65 combat air patrols, falling short of the projected 1,650 pilots needed by fiscal 2017, according to a Government Accountability Office report released in April.
But a Brookings Institution report published in August 2013 by Air Force Col. Brad Hoagland, who served as the director of operations for the White House Military Office, had some units rethink their strategy for not only bringing in more pilots, but bringing in more experienced pilots.
The Air National Guard's 178th Fighter Wing, for example, recruited experienced manned pilots, which saved the unit "both time and money," Col. Bryan Davis, commander of the wing's 178th Reconnaissance Group, told the Dayton Daily News in Ohio last year.
It's that melding of different pilot backgrounds that's changing the conversation.
During the Nov. 17 briefing, Alves sat next to Col. Kyle Robinson, a former B-1 and F-15 pilot now at the Pentagon directing an Air Force strategic studies group. Both wore their bomber jackets overt their flight suits during the briefing.
A lot of what fighters and bombers do "relies on what's being done with the Predators and Reapers," Robinson said.
"The [RPA pilots] are the ones doing the yeoman's work day in and day out. All the targets we [fighter and bomber pilots] go and hit, they come from someplace. ... So the realization is we cannot do our job without that going on," Robinson said.
The culture shift also comes in lock step as technology advances, Robinson said.
The strikes produce results regardless of which aircraft does the job, Alves said.
His shift from flying an F-16 to an MQ-1 was "not that tactically different," he said.
"It's a shift in techniques, how you fly ... but the tactics in how we think, that strike piece, ... it's the same feeling of getting ready to execute a strike in an F-16 in support of dudes on the ground, it's the exact same feeling I got in an MQ-1," he said.
Both strikes hit the spot, emotionally and literally speaking, Alves said. And just as for manned pilots, the job can affect RPA pilots in the long term, too.
The Defense Department in February 2013 proposed a Distinguished Warfare Medal to recognize RPA pilots, offensive cyber war experts or others directly involved in combat operations but not physically in theater. Combat veterans were outraged by the new medal's rank in the official Order of Precedence that placed it above the Bronze Star. After Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel took over the Pentagon's top job the same month, he took the unusual measure of overturning his predecessor's decision and eliminated the medal.
"Right now, the Air Force says they don't equate — physical risk does not equate to the same level of medals, and I will say that in some instances that's probably true," Alves said.
"I'll also say there are some instances out there where an MQ-1, an RPA pilot, did something to save lives on the ground, which may or may not have been able to be done by a manned platform. To not be recognized for something that brought home American soldiers, I think, is not the right way to do business."