Heinrich: Expansion of U.S. Drone Flights Prompts Concern Over Personnel Shortfalls

"There is indeed a need for broadened surveillance and intelligence collection, but I remain very concerned that the anticipated growth is unsustainable without corresponding growth in recruitment, training, and retention"

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Following the Pentagon's announcement that it will sharply expand the number of remote piloted aircraft (RPA) flights over the next four years, U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) Secretary Ash Carter urging the DOD to promptly complete its report to rectify personnel shortfalls.

"There is indeed a need for broadened surveillance and intelligence collection, but I remain very concerned that the anticipated growth is unsustainable without corresponding growth in recruitment, training, and retention," Sen. Heinrich wrote. "Our nation's operational units and formal training units must have adequate personnel and resources if they are expected to meet military commanders' requirements."

Holloman Air Force Base is the nation's premier RPA training location and Cannon Air Force Base hosts a special operations RPA mission. Senator Heinrich included language in the fiscal year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act requiring the Air Force to submit a report on remotely piloted aircraft career field manning policies and actions the Air Force will take to rectify personnel shortfalls, including recruitment and retention bonuses, incentive pay, use of enlisted personnel, and increased weighting to remotely piloted aircraft personnel on promotion boards.

Full text of the letter is available here and below:

The Honorable Ashton Carter
Secretary of Defense
The Pentagon 
Washington, DC 20301

Dear Secretary Carter: 
I write in regards to recent reports that the Department of Defense (DOD) plans to sharply expand flights by remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) and to urge the DOD's prompt completion of its report to rectify RPA personnel shortfalls. 

The Senate Armed Services Committee--in committee hearings, briefings, and the fiscal year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (FY16 NDAA)--has repeatedly expressed its concern and demanded immediate action to rectify personnel shortfalls in the RPA community.  These calls for action were prompted by recognition that the RPA community was already facing increased demand overseas and that the service was losing more RPA pilots than it could train.  The increased demand has resulted in lower crew ratios working longer hours and longer assignments. 

The Air Force's FY16 budget request increases the number of MQ-9 combat air patrols from 55 to 60 at a time when the Air Force already faces a projected annual shortfall of nearly 400 MQ-1/9 aircraft pilots to sustain the regular Air Force requirement of 1,200 pilots.  Now, reports indicate that DOD intends to increase by 50% the number of daily flights in order to cover locations such as Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, the South China Sea, and North Africa. 

There is indeed a need for broadened surveillance and intelligence collection, but I remain very concerned that the anticipated growth is unsustainable without corresponding growth in recruitment, training, and retention.  Our nation's operational units and formal training units must have adequate personnel and resources if they are expected to meet military commanders' requirements.

I therefore want to emphasize the importance of adhering to Sec. 572 of S. 1376, the FY16 NDAA, the text of which passed the Senate by a vote of 71-25, and request the required report's prompt completion as described in Senate Report 114-49:

"The committee recommends a provision that would limit the availability of more than 85 percent of fiscal year 2016 operation and maintenance funds for the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force until the Secretary submits a report, not later than 60 days after enactment of this Act, on remotely piloted aircraft career field manning policies and actions the Air Force will take to rectify personnel shortfalls. Such actions should include a description and associated timeline of actions the Air Force will take to increase remotely piloted aircraft career field manpower authorizations and manning levels to at least the equal of the normative levels of manning and readiness of all other combat aircraft career fields, and also recruitment/retention bonuses, incentive pay, use of enlisted personnel, and increased weighting to remotely piloted aircraft personnel on promotion boards as well as ensuring the school house for remotely piloted aircraft personnel is sufficient to meet increased manning demands."

Thank you for your continued leadership and service to our country.  I look forward to the department's proposed solutions to this critical issue. 

Sincerely,

MARTIN HEINRICH
United States Senator