As Air Force Academy cadets dream of soaring into the wild blue yonder, they might want to stop and contemplate taking that trip from an office chair instead of a cockpit.
That's because the Air Force's focus has shifted toward Unmanned Aerial Surveillance (UAS) via Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPAs) and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Drones, they're commonly called, and the Air Force needs more capable people to operate them.
While the academy has been the quintessential incubator for the next generation of fighter pilots since it opened 55 years ago, the evolving demands of war have brought a sharp turn toward a different kind of flying. It's not likely these days that pilots will engage in air-to-air dogfights. Now they're locating and destroying ground targets or conducting search operations — missions that can be handled with RPAs hovering over the Middle East but piloted from two Air Force bases in Nevada, Creech or Nellis.
"It's changing the way we conduct war as an Air Force," says Col. Dean Bushey, who helps teach RPA classes at the academy. "It's important these cadets are exposed to what's out there."
Some academy applicants and cadets have raised questions on blogs about whether their future as pilots rests with a joystick.
One wrote, "There is a great deal of debate about if those UAV pilots will ever be released from that career path, even the active duty getting the UAVs wonder how long they will fly by remote control."
One response might lie in the following statistics: The number of Aerial Achievement Medals awarded by the Air Force to drone operators since January 2009 outpaced the number awarded to pilots of manned aircraft 3,497 to 1,408, according to Air Force figures recently cited in Harper's magazine.
Tracking a red turban
Cadet Second Class Daniel Rule of Kiowa has dreamed of being a fighter pilot since childhood.
"I love being in the sky," he says, standing at ease last week outside the RPA training rooms at Fairchild Hall. Asked if running an RPA at a desk is the same thing, Rule says, "I'm still saving people's lives. What's more important: living my dream or making sure someone gets to go home?
"If I do finish pilot training," he continues, "and they want me to go to RPA, it's a fantastic career." He then proceeds to tell what RPA training is about and how it works, saying the first step is to have a high-value target identified. "A man wearing a red turban," he says. "I mean, a red hat. We'll follow him for hours until we gather intel."
Inside the multi-room training area equipped with dozens of PCs, live images of the Jacks Valley outdoor training space on the academy's north side fill huge, wall-sized screens. Pictures of trees, rocks and the people they're tracking come from unmanned aerial vehicles 4 feet, 6 inches long with a wingspan of 10 feet, 8 inches. The 40-pound aircraft fly 1,500 to 2,000 feet above ground, carrying a camera in their tail sections.
The UAV crew in the Fairchild Hall lab consists of a mission coordinator, a pilot and a sensor operator, with Rule instructing. The mission coordinator oversees the pilot, who steers the UAV, and the sensor chief, who operates the camera. They sit close together, and no one turns a head as visitors and their military escorts come through the door.
Academy officials say it's the only service academy where UAV flight operations are taught. But considering unmanned reconnaissance flight took root in the '90s with the Predator, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates began emphasizing drones in 2006, the academy seems tardy in embracing UAV training; it didn't happen until mid-2009.
But the academy is catching up fast. It awarded 24 cadets their UAS/RPA "wings" in March and added 90 cadets to the program this year. Next year, the program will nearly quadruple to 325.
More drones, fewer fighters
Bushey emphasizes that whether cadets participate in drone training will have little to no influence on their orders after graduation.
"We make it real clear," he says. "If you're part of this program, you are not destined to UAVs. Our three graduating seniors [who took part in UAV training] are going to pilot training. This could be a good background to a pilot career. Even if a cadet doesn't operate UAVs, we're inspiring the cadets that this is an important part of our Air Force."
Newsweek magazine reported a year ago that the Air Force would train more UAV pilots than fighter and bomber pilots in that upcoming year, quoting Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz as saying, "If you want to be in the center of the action, this is the place to be. It's not a temporary phenomenon."
In February, the Air Force announced incentive pay for officers and enlisted airmen who commit to flying or operating sensors on RPAs. The incentive pay equates to aviation incentive pay, putting RPA career fields on equal footing with other aviation careers.
At that time, 400 airmen were in the RPA career fields, but the Air Force wants more than 1,000 as the need increases from about 40 combat air patrols round the clock, primarily over Iraq and Afghanistan, to 65, the academy says in a news release.
Or as Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michael Gould told the RPA cadets, "Now, we can't build them fast enough to satisfy demand."
By some estimates, the Air Force has 7,000 UAVs in operation. Consequently, it's under the gun to train pilots to fly them. National Defense, a business and technology magazine, reports the Air National Guard also has ambitious plans to expand UAV use.
Some experts say the sky's the limit, considering the demands for information in real time by ground troops, the main fighting force in today's wars, and other military uses. An unarmed Air Force drone flew missions over Haiti, for example, to help direct resources to victims of the January earthquake. But the military isn't the only market. Other agencies that conduct search and rescue, border patrol, firefighting, crowd control and myriad other uses want a view from overhead.
Eyes still in the sky
Some cadets with fighters buzzing in their heads will be glad to know not everyone thinks drones are the answer.
Barry Watts, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C., says it's shortsighted to trade fighters for UAVs. Although F-22 production has ended, the need for air superiority could re-emerge, he says.
"If you go up against a mid-level adversary like Iran, they would shoot those [drones] down like gangbusters," Watts says, adding the Chinese could post an air threat that only fighters could tackle. "In most scenarios," he says, "gosh, you may need some of these capabilities."
The Air Force seems to agree. Pilot slots for academy graduates have remained relatively stable in recent years — 553 in 2000 and 526 in 2008, according to the most recent figures available. The percentage of AFA grads who get pilot slots has fallen only minimally, from 57 percent in 2000 to 52 percent in 2008.
"I don't see right offhand, with growth in UAV slots, a huge reduction in the manned-aircraft side of the universe," Watts says.