Gen. Hawk Carlisle, the head of Air Combat Command, listened to remotely piloted aircraft pilots, sensor operators and other airmen in the career field for nearly four hours Friday as they laid out recommendations about how to fix problems that RPA operators deal with.
Those recommendations include putting a general officer in charge of the career field to implement long-term improvements, adding more bases for RPA operators and having commands develop a strategic plan for the career field, said Col. Troy "Rev" Jackson.
Jackson led a team of about 40 people that spent about a month interviewing airmen about how to fix the RPA career field, which is facing a manning shortage that is only expected to get worse over the next two years.
On Friday, Jackson led a discussion with members of the RPA community and Carlisle about the recommendations stemming from the review.
"I did not coach them," Jackson told Air Force Times. "They were able to say what they wanted to say to COMACC [commander of Air Combat Command]. The only caveat I put on them: As long as they are professional they can tell COMACC anything they want, and they did. At some point, I had to pull them out their seats and at some point they were pushing me out of the way so they could talk to COMACC."
ACC will now work with Headquarters Air Force, Air Forces Special Operations Command, and the Air National Guard and Reserve about which of the recommendations can be implemented, Jackson said.
"I'm not sure people realize but sometimes even a four-star may not have the power to — as people say — wave the magic wand and make it happen," Jackson said.
For example, one pilot in the 18X career field suggested adding more bases for RPAs, Jackson said.
"He at one point looked at me and said, 'Sir, I've got two years before I am going to get out' — and that's the way he said it to me,' " Jackson said. " 'Are you going to have me a new base for me to go to in two years, otherwise I'm pretty much done.'
"I looked at him and said: 'I would be lying to you to say yes because it's a political process and it can take up to five years to do that. So I can't make you that promise, but I can tell you that — loud and clear — I hear that we need to get more places for you to go and we need to extend that overall base so that we can build you a viable career path in the future.' "
Carlisle seemed open to the idea of adding RPA bases, but he didn't say it could be done within a year, Jackson said.
"But he said: 'Yes, that sounds reasonable,' " Jackson said. "He will have to talk to the other four-stars, which usually happens in a Corona [leadership summit]. I think you'll hear some of that come of his discussions with other four-stars as well as direct conversations with the chief of staff of the Air Force."
The Air Force has been struggling to stem attrition of RPA pilots, who are typically promoted less often than manned aircraft pilots and have fewer opportunities to become senior leaders in the Air Force.
Capt. Michael Byrnes, an MQ-9 Reaper instructor pilot, outlined many of the problems facing the career field in a Sept. 1 article in of Air University's Air and Space Power Journal: "Dark Horizon: Airpower Revolution on a Razor's Edge."
Byrnes, who talked to 114 RPA pilots and sensor operators, found evidence that one of the greatest obstacles that RPA pilots face comes from fighter pilots, who treat their RPA brethren as "second-class citizens."
One RPA squadron commander found that his predecessor had arbitrarily awarded extra points to pilots with fighter experience when ranking the top pilots in his unit, Byrnes wrote.
"The behavior was consistent with community perceptions of fighter culture and inspired cynicism: that commander betrayed their trust by quietly propping up fellow members of the 'fighter fraternity' and never admitting the action," Byrnes wrote. "Such behavior, once exposed, intensified the rift of distrust between the RPA community and outsiders seen as arriving for 'drive-through' commander credit."
The perception that RPA pilots are inferior airmen manifests itself in how RPA pilots are evaluated for promotion, Byrnes wrote.
"One pilot reported that an operations group commander at Creech deliberately limited the types of tactical accomplishments that could be included in performance reports," Byrnes wrote in the article. "Whatever the intent, the effect was to downplay the contributions of RPA crews and render their reports less competitive than they might have been otherwise."
RPA pilots also reported that they received an "illegal strat" when rated by fighter pilots, such as "#1/28 RPA Majors," Byrnes wrote. This type of language may have contributed to RPA pilots' low promotion rates compared to fighter pilots.
"Whatever the subjective sentiments, observed outcomes were that several personnel at the FTU [formal training unit], even an MQ-9 flight examiner with otherwise commendable records, were passed over for selection to major while all F-22 pilots were promoted, many with school follow-on assignments," Byrnes wrote.
Byrnes was unavailable to be interviewed for this story, an ACC spokesman told Air Force Times.
Jackson said that airmen in the RPA career field who were interviewed felt that they were in engaged in what he called a "running gun battle" with the fighter pilot community.
"The challenging part is we — in this process that I just ran — are not going to be able to go back and fix those wrongs," Jackson said. "Our promotion process is not clear cut. There is a personal tie into those decisions into who is going to be recommended for promotion or given a stratification. That's in some way almost a larger Air Force issue — and all of these other problems become more prevalent because of the conditions they are operating under."
Byrnes also sharply criticizes Air Force Personnel Center for adding several months to the active duty service commitments for about 200 RPA pilots in the 18X career field because AFPC allegedly realized that the pilots did not have enough time left on their contracts for the Air Force to involuntarily assign them to Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.
While Byrnes' article was in its peer review phase, the RPA pilots who were interviewed said their active-duty service commitments had returned to their original lengths, but it is unclear why and whether all of the roughly 200 RPA pilots affected had their service commitments returned to normal, Byrnes wrote in a footnote.
A spokesman for AFPC told Air Force Times that the changes to the pilots' service commitments were not meant to facilitate assignments to Holloman or any other duty location.
For all rated career fields, active-duty service commitments begin on the day when pilots receive their official aeronautical rating, said AFPC spokesman Mike Dickerson. As the Air Force was developing the 18X career field, it decided to award RPA pilots their aeronautical rating earlier in their training.
"During a routine ADSC [active-duty service commitment] audit in 2013, an anomaly was identified with the ADSCs for RPA pilot training," Dickerson said. "When the award of the aeronautical rating moved to an earlier point in training, not all airman had been given the correct ADSC dates.
"The auditors adjusted all of the ADSC dates for every RPA pilot to the date in which the aeronautical rating was awarded, thus some airmen's ADSCs were shortened and some were lengthened. All of the ADSCs remained at six years, which was the expectation."