James: Crawl, walk, run on enlisted pilots flying UAS

Recently, the Air Force for the first time adopted a new plan to allow enlisted service members to fly the RQ-4 Global Hawk, an unarmed, high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned surveillance aircraft. Now the service's secretary is offering a cautious approach but noted more could come.

"What we're doing is we're opening up to the enlisted force the world of piloting for the Global Hawk. At the moment, that's our focus because it's something new and when you try something new, I'm a believer in crawl, walk run – do it, learn your lessons, do it well and then look at expanding down the line," Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said at a July 26 Washington event hosted by Defense One.

However, while the current approach is only focused on these large, non-weaponized aircraft, James said there could be opportunities to expand in the future depending on how successful the initiative is.

"I absolutely do see possibilities for further expansion beyond Global Hawk but again I think it's prudent when you start something new to start with something, what I call crawl, walk, run," James said.

Currently, the force's weaponized unmanned aircraft – the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper – are piloted by officers, and will be for the foreseeable future. As part of the Air Force's so-called "get well plan" to help alleviate a force strained by growing demand for global intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, contractors will take control of 10 daily combat air patrol sorties. The Air Force has been clear that the contractors will not operate weaponized aircraft, something James reiterated July 26.

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