Defense Department Needs to Improve Drone Pilot Training

Many Pilots Not Getting Full Training, GAO Reports

Air Force Predator
US Air Force Predator Drone Takes Off On A Mission. Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

Dateline May 16, 2015 

Four months after a U.S. unmanned aircraft strike targeting an al Qaeda compound in Afghanistan accidentally killed two innocent hostages – one an American -- the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has urged the Department of Defense (DOD) to give drone pilots better training.

The DOD’s collection of remotely-controlled, unmanned aerial systems (UAS) – drone aircraft – has now grown to over 10,000 planes, mostly flown by the Army or Air Force.

“The size, sophistication, and cost of the (DOD’s) unmanned aerial systems portfolio has grown to rival its traditional manned systems,” noted the GAO’s report.

Clearly, training drone pilots is a key part of DOD’s strategy to accomplish its mission of using drones on the battlefield.

However, the GAO reports that the Army and Air Force “face challenges” in ensuring that drone pilots complete their required training.

For example, the GAO cites a March 2015 Army audit found that most of its drone pilots in certain units failed to complete “fundamental” training courses in 2014. GAO confirmed the findings through questionnaires and interviews with drone pilots.

“For example, a pilot in one of our focus groups stated that during his 3 years as a UAS pilot, he had been regularly tasked to complete non-training-related activities, and as a result he completed a total of 36 training flight hours even though the requirement is 24 flight hours per year,” noted the GAO.

In addition, the Army units are not required to include drone pilot training updates in their status reports. As a result, stated the GAO, “the Army does not know the full extent to which pilots have been trained and are therefore ready to be deployed.”

As for the Air Force, a GAO review of training records from seven drone units showed that an average of only 35% of the pilots had completed the training for all of their required missions.

Pilots in the seven Air Force units told the GAO they were often unable to conduct training because their units lacked enough pilots qualified to conduct the training.

Training in Manned Aircraft?

Many current and former military pilots feel that drone pilots should also receive training in traditional, manned aircraft. However, in the Army, no drone pilots receive manned-aircraft flight training. In the Air Force, Navy and Marines, all drone pilots receive manned-aircraft flight training.

In the Air Force, only officers trained and qualified to pilot manned aircraft are assigned to pilot drones, while the Army recruits and assigns enlisted personnel to this position, who receive no manned-aircraft flight training.

What the GAO Recommended

Among other things, the GAO recommended that the DOD require Army drone units to report regularly on the readiness levels of its pilots, and to take steps to offset the potential risks of battlefield accidents posed by its policy of waiving course prerequisites related to experience for pilots attending the course to become drone instructors.

The DOD agreed with all of the GAO’s recommendations.