IRBIL, Iraq - The Air Force will allow enlisted personnel to become drone pilots for the first time to help meet demands for increased surveillance over global hot spots, according to a new policy announced Thursday.
The decision, which follows months of study, is the latest Air Force effort to overhaul the growing drone program, which has struggled to recruit and retain enough officers to serve as drone pilots.
Counterterrorism operations including the battle against the Islamic State have created constant demand for aerial intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR. Drone pilots say they are overworked and badly stressed.
"This group of people have been front and center of the war effort for the past 15 years," Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in an interview. "If you talk to combatant commanders around the world, which I do regularly, and ask them, 'What is the one more thing you need from the Air Force?' they will always reply, 'I want more ISR.' "
Under the new policy, qualified enlisted personnel will be allowed to pilot the unarmed RQ-4 Global Hawk spy drone. They may eventually be permitted to operate the missile-firing MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones.
"We're going to take it one step at a time, and step one will be Global Hawk," James said.
The Army Air Corps, predecessor to the Air Force, allowed enlisted airmen to pilot warplanes during World War II. But only officers could become pilots in more recent years, even for drones.
In fiscal year 2014, the most recent data available, the Air Force trained 180 drone pilots, and 240 veterans left the field.
James has directed Air Combat Command, which oversees drone operations, to develop a plan over the next six months to clear the way for non-officers to serve as drone pilots by next year. The study will address entry requirements, training, career path development, and compensation.
The Air Force will start with Global Hawk because the high-flying jet is easier to operate. It is largely flown autonomously via computer control rather than a joystick like the Predator and Reaper.