Keep the MQ-9 Pilot Flying – War on the Rocks

We are seeking two positions on our editorial team: Editor / Researcher and Membership Editor. Apply by October 2, 2022.

Imagine a first lieutenant with 3.5 years of active duty who has amassed over 1,500 combat hours, executed multiple air-to-ground kinetic weapons strikes, supported special operations and conventional forces, and spurred innovation and positive change within their community. Now, with their platform set to start retirement During the next decadeThey don’t have clear instructions about where they are going and what they are going to do. This is the uncertain future facing MQ-9 pilots.

for Sixteen years nowThe US Air Force was lamenting that pilot shortage. The latest reports indicated that the Air Force is 1,650 pilots short of their target, with 1,100 of those positions in the combatant community. However, the service has no plans for what to do with its more than 2,000 highly skilled remote pilots as it transitions to an increasingly self-driving fleet. Prudent management of human capital can solve both of these problems, enabling people who currently fly on systems like the MQ-9 to get into the cockpits of the country’s manned aircraft.

The Air Force has a strict classification system for its classified personnel, which consists of pilots, remotely piloted aircraft pilots, combat system officers, and air battle managers. Since the establishment 18X functional area For remote pilots in 2010, this path was completely separate from the manned test path. Initially, this was a reasonable response to address the critical shortage of drones. But now, as the Air Force’s needs change, a more flexible model is needed.

Today, the only option for remote pilots to transition into manned pilot crew positions is to start the process from scratch by attending traditional college pilot training. The Air Force should create a transition program to enable remote pilots to fly any aircraft in the fleet. Adopting a flying style model into the MQ-9 pilot community with tailored training will save time, money and effort. In this way, a rated officer reform and a professional registered pilot organization can help retain the combat flight experience needed for strategic competition.


Autonomous aircraft and artificial intelligence are within the reach of the operational joint force. The Air Force was committed in its quest to acquire these modern weapons systems in order to maintain its global military supremacy, by choosing Bypassing next-generation remotely piloted aircraft And go directly to standalone systems. Artificial intelligence and autonomy They are critical to concepts of the family of systems and the Air Force’s broader plans for acquiring weapons. This can already be seen in wing loyalty the program The next generation of air domination Platform Advanced battle management systemAnd recently announced Low Side Effects Interception Program.

Meanwhile, remotely piloted aircraft platforms are scheduled for service Retire during the decade. MQ-9 pilots and sensor operators may have a role in overseeing the development and use of new autonomous platforms as they emerge online, but this will likely require a small subset of the existing community. As noted by pilot and analyst Alex Biegalski in War on the Rocks, the growth of automation and artificial intelligence “Likely to reduce remote pilot management requirements. ” These papers One of the largest communities From the Air Force pilots with combat experience and tactical minded people with no path forward.

Human capital

The Air Force went to Great lengths to reimagine how their pilots are made Without considering the capabilities already within its current rated strength. When launching the Pilot Training Next trial, which aims to rapidly produce manned pilots through custom training, the Air Force did not conduct custom experiments to examine how remote combat system pilots and officers could transition to manned aircraft. Despite the fact that the initial training of each remote pilot took place in a manned single-engine aircraft, the Air Force did this Avoid any attempt To increase the power of a sick manned pilot with remote pilots.

Unfortunately, this is not surprising. Remote piloted aircraft and their operators have long been despised by many manned pilots. This stems, in part, from the Air Force Poor management of floors from its experimental community. For years, manned pilots have been taken out of the cockpit to fill remote involuntary aircraft missions at some of the less convenient bases in the continental United States. This affected the power of manned pilots. To make matters worse, the Air Force has significantly reduced training requirements for remote pilots in order to reduce costs and mitigate the loss of manned pilots. Meanwhile, manned pilots assigned to fly MQ-1s and MQ-9s performed exactly the same job as their remote pilot counterparts, although their longer training times incurred service commitments that were nearly twice as long. This combination of factors led to Unfavorable view for remote pilots by some of the same pilot officers who were assigned to command them.

To make matters worse, the Air Force does not have a proven track record when it comes to adaptive training to help officers move between closely related areas of specialty. Like Mike Burns argue, the Air Force is “notably weak at recognizing overlapping experiences and interchangeable skills.” This seems to be especially true for rated officer positions which is ironic given the service’s commitment to The concept of multi-capability pilots.

If Pilot Training Next, a roughly six-month program with a focus on VR simulation learning, can prepare pilots without any classified experience to fly the most technologically advanced in the world. Fighter, bomber and mobile aircraft As winged pilots, it is certain that many already trained, experienced, instrument-classified remote pilots can do this as well.

Beyond that, the service should consider reactivating the now defunct The career field of a multi-field war officer With MQ-9 pilots in mind. While making all the pilots in Multidisciplinary experts Attractive, remain unrealistic. Having a dedicated cadre of multidisciplinary officers at the forefront of integrated, multi-domain operations would serve the combined force more effectively. With some additional training, MQ-9 pilots can make a significant contribution to multi-domain operations. These pilots can fill critical positions and enhance the capabilities of air operations centers and multi-domain joint task forces around the world.

One of the obstacles is the lack of current training capacity. But even if this continues 8 to 10 years into the future, the Air Force can implement a phased transition approach so as not to overwhelm the aircraft’s pipelines. This progressive approach, along with dispatching an advanced T-7A Red Hawk trainer, will enable the service to deliver Advanced Tactical Aircraft Training and reduce the burden on fighter and bomber platforms. A phased transition program will also allow leaders to ensure that career milestones are achieved, without harmful delay. Classified and unclassified career transitions in the Air Force today are not unique. With years of carefully planning professional field transitions for remote pilots, the service should be able to mitigate negative impacts on school and staff schedules.

Finally, the actuators of the MQ-9 sensors also play an important role. These profession enlisted pilots bring great tactical acumen to combat. They should have the opportunity to train for manned flight crew positions if they are medically qualified. Their skills are already on par with their manned counterparts, and many of them are directly transferable. Sensor operators who do not meet medical qualifications must also be able to transfer to another functional area that will allow their combat experience to be used effectively. For example, sensor operators already have first-hand experience of target analysis from strike planning and weapon engagement. In this role, they can provide the Air Force with an experienced cadre of multi-capability pilots.


The Air Force’s future combat fleet will require the diverse backgrounds of an air force that is broadly rated in service to succeed. The MQ-9 community is full of tactical experts who thrive on innovation. With older remotely piloted aircraft set to retire, the Air Force cannot afford to leave this community wither without a possible transition option. If it can overcome existing cultural barriers, the service has the opportunity to address the pilot shortage while retaining critical combat experience in its ranks. As the MQ-9 is phased out over the coming years, the Air Force must look inward and draw on the trained talent it already has.

Tyler Jackson is a US Air Force officer. He graduated from Howard University and the University of Oklahoma, and is currently assigned to the Naval Postgraduate School as a graduate student. He is a senior remotely piloted aircraft pilot and former combat systems officer who has accumulated more than 1,700 hours of combat and combat support. The opinions expressed are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force, Department of Defense, or any part of the US government.

Photo: US Air Force photography First Class Pilot Nicholas Baczkowski.

Leave a Comment