GAO: The Air Force Has Improved Promotion Rates for RPA Pilots

Maj. Jay, an MQ-9 pilot with the 6th Attack Squadron, flies the squadron’s first Block 5 MQ-9 Reaper from inside a new Block 30 ground control station at Holloman AFB, N.M., on July 10, 2017. (Note: USAF doesn't publish the full names of remotely piloted aircraft pilots.) Air Force photo by SrA. Chase Cannon.

The promotion rates for remotely piloted aircraft pilots, which were a point of concern for the community during its 2013 review of overall morale, have increased to rates commensurate with those of other aircraft; however, more oversight of the process is needed, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.

The high demand for the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance has led to an increased requirement for RPA pilots, who were faced with a high operational tempo, along with limited chances for promotion and career progression. In an effort to improve low morale stemming from these challenges, USAF implemented several changes to the RPA community, some still ongoing, including providing an additional $3 billion for more personnel and aircraft and better chances for promotion.

“In April 2014, we found shortages of RPA pilots and that the Air Force faced challenges recruiting, developing, and retaining pilots and building their morale,” the GAO states in the report, released Thursday. “Additionally, we found that RPA pilot promotion rates were lower than those for other career fields.”

For example, at the end of December 2013, 42 percent of RPA pilots were temporarily assigned from manned aircraft pilot billets and manned aircraft training graduates. These pilots were not going to progress in the RPA community since their tour was temporary, and they would return to manned aircraft. By September 2018, Air Force changes to the career field and training meant that only 17 percent of the RPA pilots were temporary and 83 percent were permanently assigned to fly RPAs. The 18X RPA pilot career field was created in 2010, and is much newer than other pilot career fields.

“Air Force officials stated that they believed the trend of increased promotion rates for RPA pilots from 2013 through 2017 mostly reflected the change in the population of eligible pilots who were recruited and specialized as an RPA pilot (i.e., the 18X career field),” the report states. “According to Air Force officials, the creation and establishment of this career field resulted in an increase in the number of skilled and more competitive promotion candidates.”

Additionally, in the previous years, the Air Force said commanders “generally transferred less competitive pilots” to RPA squadrons under the increased demand, and since those pilots were less competitive they would generally not be promoted as quickly as their peers, the report states.

Another limiting factor was that only about one-tenth of the staff positions at headquarters required someone with an RPA background. This meant that pilots with backgrounds in fighter or bomber aircraft had more opportunities to be promoted to staff jobs. For example, in Fiscal 2018, there were 83 staff jobs requiring RPA experience, compared to 330 for fighter pilots.

The GAO stated that though the Air Force has made progress in improving the promotion rates for RPA pilots, it had not reviewed its management oversight process of filling non-operational staff positions “to identify opportunities for increased efficiency and effectiveness.”

The Air Force agreed, but maintained its process is efficient.