The Air Force is still on track for its so-called remotely piloted aircraft get well plan to address strains on the drone workforce, according to the service’s top two officials.

Given the global demand for persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, the RPA force was overworked trying to keep up with what was as many as 65 daily combat air patrols a few years ago. A combat air patrol, or CAP, typically consists of four aircraft that rotate to provide persistent, "unblinking" eyes on a target.

The decision by former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to lower the Air Force’s CAPs from 65 to 60 a few years ago was "probably the most important decision that we’ve made in this business was when we stopped the exponential growth of combat lines and CAPs," Gen. David Goldfein, Air Force chief of staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 6. "Just about the time we started trying to get the weapon system healthy, we’d have three more CAPs added. And who can blame sailors, soldiers, airmen and Marines on the ground who want to have someone overhead who’s telling them what’s behind the town, what’s behind the village, what’s behind the hill before they go in?"

Goldfein also said that when the force stopped the growth at 60 CAPs, that allowed them to start building the force to a "healthy weapon system" targeting a 10:1 crew ratio. "That begins to get to a healthy force and we will achieve that this year," he said.

Other efforts that were undertaken by Goldfein’s predecessor, Gen. Mark Welch, sought to provide bonuses, cost of life improvements and allowing enlisted personnel to pilot RPA — specifically the RQ-4 Global Hawk, not the armed MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper — to assuage the overworked RPA force.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told the Armed Services Committee that he fiscal 2018 budget continues to fund the get well plan for the RPA pilots. They now have about 2,200 RPA pilots, including that first group of enlisted operators.

To help meet the global demand, the Air Force announced in recent years contractors will operate an additional 10 CAPs, bringing the service’s total global CAP contribution to 70. However, officials were sure to note that contractors will not be operating armed aircraft, which would violate certain international legal restrictions; only uniformed personnel may pull triggers.

"This budget also supports 60 RPA combat lines, with a surge capability of an additional 10 government-owned, contractor-operated, combat lines funded with [overseas contingency operations]," Maj. Gen. James Martin Jr., Air Force deputy assistant secretary for budget; said during a briefing on the Pentagon budget in May.

Global ISR demand continues to persist given the proliferation of violent extremist groups in regions across the globe from all corners of Africa to the Philippines. As such, the Pentagon sought to increase global CAPs by nearly 50 percent in four years moving to 90 CAPs by 2019.

Under the plan, the Air Force would continue to operate its 60, contractors would operate 10, the Army would operate up to 16, and Special Operations Command would operate up to four.

A Pentagon spokeswoman told C4ISRNET that OSD maintains the Army and Air Force are on track to meet CAP requirements while DoD is continually assessing how best to make use of the CAPs it has, evaluating allocations and improving fielded capabilities.

Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.

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