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After Thousands Of Missions, Air Force To Cut Drone Flights


In the last year, the U.S. military has flown over 3,000 drone missions in Iraq alone. The U.S. also operates drones in several other countries, including Libya, Pakistan and Yemen. But this week, Dave Philipps of The New York Times reported a shortage of drone pilots is forcing the military to reduce the number of missions. I asked him why the Air Force was unprepared for the increased demand.

DAVE PHILIPPS: A couple years ago, we had sequestration, as you may recall, and budget cuts were across the board in the military. So the Air Force really thought, well, we can start to dial this back. And at the same time that they were slowly dialing down the program, ISIS really started to erupt in Iraq and Syria, and suddenly there was this huge new demand that very quickly overtook their ability to do all they thought they needed to do.

RATH: And you also write about the difficult time that the Air Force has holding on to the drone pilots that they have. Can you explain the problem with attrition?

PHILIPPS: So one of the reasons that they're suddenly shorthanded is because more people have left than they expected to. These are both pilots who are getting out of their fulfilling their contract to the Air Force and then also enlisted operators who work the censors, who - their four years are up, and they're opting not to reenlist. The reason for that is these men and women are being so overworked. The demand for their services is so high that they're working oftentimes a 12 hour shift, five days a week, sometimes six. And there's no time for them to go to the different schools or trainings that they need to get promotions. There's also very little time for them to rest and relax. And so, quite frankly, they're just burned out, and after years of this demanding work they oftentimes have little to show for it in their careers.

RATH: So what kind of jobs are these former pilots moving on to?

PHILIPPS: Almost all of these pilots are - were pilots of traditional aircraft - traditional manned aircraft - before coming to the program. And so they have all the training that any other Air Force pilot has, which makes them very marketable. And in some instances having training with drones makes them even more marketable, especially the enlisted folks, because there's a big interest in the private sector, both from defense companies that contract with the military and with, you know, commercial enterprises that are very interested in figuring out how they can apply drones to business.

RATH: And what is the Air Force doing to reduce burnout and hold onto the pilots they have?

PHILIPPS: The first is that they're trying to really make the situation as resilient as it can be for the crews that are there now. And so they have these human performance teams - is what they call them - teams of doctors, psychologists and chaplains who are there to try and optimize the crews that are there.

And then also in the future, what they're trying to do is move some pilots over - that are now instructors - over into seats on active mission crews. And, then, they're also going to grow the school, probably by using contractors, most of whom are former pilots in the program, so that they'll grow the school, which is now training about 180 a year to closer to 280 a year. And they think that within a couple of years that will close the gap. But I don't know if they really have a big answer to how do you - how do you solve the burnout, because it's still a very high-stress job, and they still don't have many people that they can spare.

RATH: Dave Philipps is a reporter with The New York Times. Dave, thanks very much.

PHILIPPS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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