There are a few reasons the U.S. uses drones in its modern military strategy, but the primary reason is because it saves lives.
Before drones, U.S. military commanders had to send in a scout team, usually on foot, to perform reconnaissance on potential targets. This was dangerous as a reconnaissance mission often put scout teams in danger. If the reconnaissance mission was discovered, someone could get killed.
If it was successful, another team was advanced to perform the planned attack, which put more personnel at risk. In the case of the U.S. Air Force, such strikes meant sending manned aircraft into harm’s way, risking the lives of those pilots.
Thanks to RPAs, commanders can now just order an attack that puts no American lives at immediate risk. If the attack succeeds, enemy combatants or civilians are lost, U.S. military assets are in safe territory thousands of miles away. If the drone attack fails, commanders lose some fancy equipment that cost taxpayers a lot of money.
Presidents usually don’t want to send letters to moms and wives (or husbands) and say they are terribly sorry that their son or spouse won’t return home. Drones are a solution that saves lives.
The Unique Challenge of Being an RPA Pilot
If your name is Tom Cruise, you have a dangerous job pretending to be a Top Gun pilot. If you are a real Top Gun pilot, your job is even more dangerous. While it’s pretty cool to shoot another plane out of the sky and get a ribbon pinned to your chest for it, it’s not so cool if you’re the pilot of the other plane, and that could really happen to you.
Of course, as previously stated, if you’re an RPA pilot, you’re pretty safe. Even if your plane gets shot out of the sky, the worst it will do to you is bruise your ego.
That’s because you don’t actually fly the plane from inside a cockpit where you could potentially get shot in the face. Hence, the “remote” in Remotely Piloted Aircraft. You’re actually standing on the ground somewhere thousands of miles away from where the action is, safely out of danger.
However, there are still challenges. In fact, the Air Force still has not fully come to grips with understanding how being daily engaged in combat while still fathering children and eating home cooking affects pilot morale. But they know that it does (2).
It’s called “Deployed-on-Station,” a fancy military term that means you can kill someone you can’t see and in thirty minutes give your wife a warm nine-month glow. Not to make light of it, but for the first time in history, military technology allows for combatants to actually be involved in the execution of military missions and maintain close contact with family and friends in the same work day.
This poses some real obstacles for RPA pilots, which includes the very real possibility that because they are considered combatants they and their families could potentially be a target for a counterattack or a terrorist act at any moment.
A more realistic scenario is the decline in pilot morale. Many RPA pilots are saying they’d rather deploy in theater for six months and focus full-time on killing from afar then return home after a ribbon ceremony rather than listen to the lady-love drone on about how she’s ready to try for a girl this time. In other words, airmen only want to focus on one critical mission at a time.
The Law of RPA Supply and Demand
Military occupational specialties operate on a natural law known as the Law of Supply and Demand. It works like this:
U.S. leadership has discovered that remotely piloted aircraft usage for military missions leads to fewer U.S. casualties and fewer equipment losses while still creating positive headlines about how America is winning the war on terrorism.
Therefore, it serves as a useful recruiting tool to attract starry-eyed young lads who want to learn a useful skill before going to college. That means there is a need for more drone pilots (3).
Unfortunately, drone pilots don’t make as much money or get the same attractive bonus packages as Top Gun pilots, so they tend to leave the military sooner, which only leads to a bigger shortage.
In order to attract more drone pilots, the military might have to start offering more attractive bonus packages to retain pilots already trained. And that’s not really a bad idea because RPA missions will likely be around for years to come.