HOW SHOULD UNMANNED AIRCRAFT BE MANNED?
James Hasik,* Stanton Coerr†
Both the US Air Force and the US Army operate similar versions of MQ-1 aircraft on
similar missions, but their approaches to manning them differ radically. As the two
services each seem remarkable effective despite their dissimilar approaches to personnel
management, we ask which approach is more cost-effective. We find a considerable
difference in cost-effectiveness between the two, but can attribute it entirely to the
Army’s approach to asset management. We close by recommending an alternative
organization for the Army’s MQ-1 units.
Both the US Air Force and the US Army operate similar versions of MQ-1 aircraft on similar missions,
but their approaches to manning them differ radically. Army controllers are enlisted soldiers who proceed
from high school to flight school; Air Force pilots are college-educated officers. Most Army fliers have
never flown manned aircraft; until recently, all Air Force drone pilots were required to have done so. The
Army rotates its flight crews to war zones along with their planes; the Air Force keeps the planes in-
country, and the flight crews in Nevada.
Yet both services seem to be operating their aircraft successfully, albeit according to their own ideas of
how a military force should operate. After all, when disruptive military technologies are tested against
battlefield realities, planners frequently rely first with their hitherto proven methods. These choices,
however, may be simple artifacts of conservative, if differing, military cultures. In new circumstances,
these proclivities may be beneficial or hindering. Thus, rather than accepting the differences as
immutable, we should want to know under what circumstances aspects of each approach are more
effective for troops on the battlefield. We should also want to know which is more cost-effective, given
the expectation that military budgets in much of the world may decrease considerably in the future. And
our conclusions should be of interest to more than just these two services, for unmanned aircraft seem
well on their way to becoming an increasing substitute in many roles which are now substantially or
totally the domain of manned aircraft.‡
The US Air Force organizes all its MQ-1B Predators and MQ-9 Reapers into a single formation, the
432nd Wing, largely based at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. The 432nd is composed of two groups,
one each for operations (flying) and maintenance. The former comprises a support squadron, a training
squadron, a testing squadron, and four reconnaissance-attack squadrons. All told, in late 2010, the 432nd
had approximately 140 Predators and 35 Reapers.§ Official figures are not publicly available, but the Air
* Principal, Hasik Analytic LLC, 4306 Marathon Boulevard, Austin, Texas 78756
† Reston, Virginia
‡ Kenneth Anderson of American University, in William Warr and Peter Finn, "Global race on to match U.S. drone capabilities,"
Washington Post, 4 July 2011.
§ US Government Accountability Office, Unmanned Aircraft Systems: Comprehensive Planning and a Results-Oriented Training
Strategy Are Needed to Support Growing Inventories, GAO-10-331, 26 March 2010.
Force's plan recently held that the personnel strength of the wing would have been approximately 600
aircrew and 900 ground crew (a sizable fraction contractors) by the end of that year, and mostly located at
this single base.* This centralization of assets and personnel matches the service's foundational view of
the importance of centralized control of military aviation, a corporate viewpoint dating to the 1930s and
The US Army approaches the organizational question quite differently. The ground force ethos of the
Army has generally more valued decentralized execution—and increasingly so in recent years, as the
counterinsurgency experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has necessarily foist greater responsibility upon
captains and corporals. Since losing the Predator mission to the Air Force in the early 1990s, the Army
has chafed at its lack of direct control. As one Grey Eagle pilot in Iraq recently rejoiced, “ten years ago
the Air Force had Predators and they were working for three-letter agencies. When this thing goes full
production, every aviation brigade is going to have it.”‡ Thus, the Army is parceling out its drones rather
as it has long done with its manned helicopter fleet. The aviation brigade of each division is receiving a
single company of twelve MQ-1Cs, at a rate of about three companies standing up annually.§
Organizational details have been sketchy. The first Quick Reaction Capability (QRC) flights sent to Iraq
consisted of just four aircraft, but included sixteen aircrew.** Strength per fully formed company has since
been variously reported as 115 and 128 troops in headquarters, flight, and maintenance platoons.
Automation has been perhaps the most widely discussed difference in the Air Force and Army
approaches. While the original MQ-1B was not designed for automated takeoffs and landings, the MQ-1C
has been ab initio. As the commander of the first QRC unit said of the Grey Eagle, “you don't have to be a
certified pilot to fly it. The aircraft is very autonomous.”†† After comparing its own accident rates to those
of the Army, the USAF is now more than considering this feature for current and future drones. In theory,
full automation of these functions would mean that no pilots—even the current contractors—would need
to deploy to overseas wars, allowing for completely centralized management of aircrews stateside.‡‡
Rank and experience are the next obvious differences in approach. As is widely known and remarked
upon, the Air Force's drone pilots initially came entirely from officer ranks and from the cockpits of
manned aircraft. The Army's pilots, however, have always been enlisted soldiers, and generally without
prior flight experience. In the past decade, however, the Air Force has altered this approach as its demand
for drone pilots has increased. First, it began placing pilots straight from undergraduate pilot training
* Lisa Burgess, “Reactivated wing is first combat unit with UAVs,” Stars and Stripes, 3 May 2007.
† The Royal Air Force collocates its six MQ-9s with those of the USAF at Creech, and operates in a similar fashion. The unit, 39
Squadron RAF, comprises about ninety troops. Of those, 36 are control crew, in twelve teams of three: a pilot, a sensor operator,
and a (non-aircrew) mission coordinator. See Sean Rayment, “RAF bomb the Taliban from 8,000 miles away,” The Telegraph, 21
March 2009, and the RAF's fact sheet on the Reaper.
‡ Staff Sergeant Raymond Ballance, Grey Eagle pilot with QRC-1-R1, in Roland Hale, “Army unit flies new unmanned aircraft
in Iraq,” Army News, 28 November 2010.
§ David Pugliese, “U.S. Army To Order More Grey Eagle UAVs,” Ottawa Citizen, 18 January 2011; “U.S. Army Aviation and
Full-Spectrum Operations,” AUSA, December 2010.
** Guy Norris, “U.S. Army MQ-1C UAV Fires First Missiles,” Aviation Week & Space Technology, 11 December 2009.
†† Captain Mike Goodwin, a Black Hawk pilot commanding QRC-1-R1, a company of the 8th Attack-Reconnaissance Battalion,
229th Aviation Regiment, at Camp Taji since June 2010, in Jason Sweeney, “Armed and Dangerous: the Grey Eagle Goes
Lethal,” US Forces Iraq news release, 11 April 2011.
‡‡ Lt. Gen. Philip Breedlove, USAF, chief of requirements, in John Reed, “Auto UAVs Could Save Big Bucks,” DoD Buzz, 12
(UPT) into Predator squadrons. Later, it began training a corps of "combat systems officers" (CSOs)—
drone pilots of officer rank, but with merely civilian instrumented pilot ratings. Despite the service's
initial misgivings, the Air Force Research Laboratory's research indicated that CSOs and UPT graduates
have “performed nearly as well as the much more experienced pilots currently selected for Predator
Location is a third and dramatic difference. As noted, the Air Force bases its crews stateside. The Army,
however, bases its crews at the airfield from which its Grey Eagles fly in the war zone. One can imagine
how routine deployment leads to greater strain on aircrews, though it must be admitted that the ground
crews will endure this regardless—as will the ground troops they aviators support, and to a considerably
greater degree yet. As has been widely speculated, remote basing of combat troops may induce emotional
stress without physical risk.† There is also some reason to believe that face-to-face planning. briefing and
debriefing has some value, particularly when teaming with ground troops and gunship pilots. But as well
presently show, the costs of choosing one manning approach or the other are not the driving difference in
cost between the Air Force and the Army’s MQ-1 fleets.
The monies that the Army and Air Force want to spend on fixed-wing drones over the next decade rather
pale before what could have been spent if their missions could only have been accomplished by manned
aircraft. Even the most expensive of these planes, the Reaper, costs a mere fraction of an F-16, a J-
STARS, or a surveillance satellite. But the sums are still considerable. Through 2014, the Army is seeking
to spend over $4 billion on 107 more Grey Eagles; through 2020, the Air Force would like to spend over
$13 billion on 480 more Reapers. With an allowance for attrition, the US fleet of MQ-1s and MQ-9s
could total over 700 combat aircraft at the end of the decade.‡ Thus, if only to guard the unmanned nest
from efforts to raid its budget for competing priorities, it is reasonable to ask whether these amounts are
being spent smartly.
The difference in staffing costs between these comparative approaches is significant. For the Army, 115
or 128 troops in every company of twelve aircraft works on to either 9.58 or 10.67 people per plane. For
the Air Force, 1500 troops for a wing of 220 authorized aircraft means 6.82 people per plane. As figures
are admittedly sketchy, we will, for sake of the argument, round up the Air Force figure to seven, and
roughly average the Army's figure at ten. We will also note that this approach probably underestimates the
Army's staffing needs, as it assigns the cost of any headquarters staff overseeing the drone companies to
other, manned, units. If so, the Army is using at least about three more people per aircraft in its approach,
which should cost roughly $300,000 annually per plane.§
Since the operations and support cost of an MQ-1 is generally about $1 million annually,** the Army is
tacking roughly another 30 percent onto the cost of its aircraft operations, just through its federated
staffing model. With a long-term fleet of at least 120 aircraft, the overall marginal cost amounts to
* Brian T. Schreber et al., Impact of Prior Flight Experience on Learning Predator UAV Operator Skills, US Air Force Research
Laboratory Human Effectiveness Division, 2002, p. V.
† See notably the comments of Air Commodore Stuart Atha, the British Air Officer Commanding 83 Group, the RAF force in the
Middle East, at a recent speech in London, as reported in Paul McLeary, Sharon Weinberger, and Angus Batey, “Drone Impact on
War Draws Scrutiny,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, 8 July 2011.
‡ US Congressional Budget Office, Policy Options for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, June 2011.
§ Our broad estimate of the cost of one more solider is from David S.C. Chu and Jeffrey Eanes, “The Trajectory of Personnel
Costs in the Department of Defense,” Western Economic Association Conference, Honolulu, 30 June 2008.
** Eric J. Long, “Cost Valuation: A Model for Comparing Dissimilar Aircraft Platforms,” Naval Postgraduate School, December
perhaps somewhat more than $36 million annually, a notable but not overwhelming sum. The need for
more people is easy to grasp: with centralized staffing, the Air Force can employ fewer of the most highly
skilled support staff, as it will not need to duplicate the skills of individual technicians across ten or
twelve or thirteen separate companies. Pooling personnel, as in a call center, permits a lower level of
overall staffing, as well as a lower average required level of human capital.*
What is remarkable, though, is that this approach is actually more suited to the Army's full reliance on
unrated, enlisted pilots. Centralized staffing should actually lessen the need perceived in the Air Force for
more highly-trained, university-graduate pilots, as common operation from Creech or other stateside
locations would guarantee that one of these folks could always look over a shoulder when desired.
The difference in asset costs, however, is considerably larger. Earlier this year, the Congressional Budget
Office suggested that the Army could save $1.3 billion, through the forecast end of US involvement in
Afghanistan and Iraq, by adopting the Air Force's approach to remote operation of MQ-1s.† In its figuring
of this plan, the CBO did not even consider personnel costs, which would be lower, or satellite
communications costs, which would be higher.‡ Rather, its calculations were entirely based on pooling the
assets of the individual companies in a single large unit that would dispatch Grey Eagles to war zones
when needed. In this approach, individual division commanders would still control the aircraft directly;
the companies would just not be permanently assigned to their formations.
So, in light of the Army's preference for local control, is the added personnel cost all that unwarranted? It
seems hard to say so. In making measurements, there is a big difference between a dimensional parameter
like cost—an easily measured, technical issue that is scenario-independent—and actual measures of force
effectiveness—harder to gauge, military issues that are definitely scenario-dependent.§ But whatever its
efficacy, the location of the crews is not the real issue in assessing efficiency. The bigger question is
whether drone units should be managed separately from manned aircraft units, at consolidated locations.
The real issue is whether the aircraft inventory should be duplicated for each rotating formation that might
deploy to a war zone for an enduring campaign. Our quick calculation shows the difference in staffing
costs to be on the order of millions; the CBO's figuring shows the difference in asset management costs
on the order of a billion. However unmanned aircraft should be manned, the comparative costs of
differing approaches are insignificant in relation to the cost of effective asset management.
That said, there is a looming issue of airspace control that both services will face upon the full withdrawal
from Iraq and Afghanistan, and it is a matter of both staffing and basing. The Federal Aviation
Administration (FAA) and other airspace control authorities are quite leery of allowing unmanned aircraft
to fly about their national airspaces without rated pilots in control. (Frankly, they may not be thrilled
about permitting unmanned flight with rated aviators in charge.) For the Army, upgrading its unmanned
aircraft operators to the status of pilots is possible—the curriculum at Fort Huachuca already relies
heavily on a syllabus approved by the FAA for ground schooling. But even if the Army effectively
provides its operators the same training as Air Force CSOs, the service will face the additional problem of
where it can fly the planes. Operating aircraft from a single location in a sparsely populated state will be
much more readily accomplished than flying from a dozen bases all around the US.
* The RAF has about fifteen people per plane, but no scale economies with a six-plane fleet, so we do not infer much from that
† CBO, op. cit.
‡ Michael Hoffman, "Money could be saved by Army Grey Eagle program," Air Force Times, 19 June 2011.
§ Anthony Finn and Steve Scheding, Developments and Challenges for Autonomous Unmanned Vehicles: A Compendium,
Intelligent Systems Reference Library, vol. 3 (Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 2010).
Thus, the Army and the Air Force can continue to argue over where their pilots park their chairs, but the
Army should seriously consider parking its aircraft collectively—even alongside the Air Force's in
Nevada, where the infrastructure already exists. The Army could form a single "Grey Eagles" Regiment at
this or another single base, rather as the Air Force or the Navy puts whole fighter wings at single
locations. It could still deploy the operators as it likes, and assign them to the direct control of field
commanders, in a manner not unlike that of the Marine Corps. It could even park the pilots' consoles right
inside the division commander's headquarters or the aviation brigade commander's operations center, if
that would provide the highest level of comfort.* But it should not rotate its aircraft just to justify filling
out its force structure. A few years ago, the Defense Secretary himself instructed the Air Force to dispatch
the bulk of its drones to the battle, for they were doing the Army and the Marines little good waiting on
the ramp stateside. It is strange that the Army itself would appear to institutionally prefer that approach.
* A similar approach, devised for the Air Force, is described in some detail in Janie A. DeJoode, Nancy J. Cooke, Steven M.
Shape, and Harry K. Pedersen, “Guiding the Design of a Deployable UAV Operations Center,” pp. 311–327 in Nancy J. Cooke,
Heather L. Pringle, Harry K. Pedersen, and Olena O'Connor, eds., Human Factors of Remotely Operated Vehicles, Advances in
Human Performance and Cognitive Engineering Research, vol. 7 (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2006).