The post 9/11 wars have cast UAS as America’s foremost eyes in the sky. Because of the capabilities, relatively low cost, and no pilot-risk factor, unmanned systems continue to multiply and fly extensively, replacing traditional systems such as manned reconnaissance, attack, and aerial imagery intelligence while creating new missions based on new capabilities. With the high demand for numerous systems in a relatively short period, the Navy thus far has tended to react to staffing those systems with a traditional mindset: “It flies, so it must be staffed by someone with brown-shoe flight experience.” 3 But manned aviation experience should be just one facet of filling UAS crew positions.
The Navy to date has selected from manned aircraft pilots and even some non-flight-qualified maintenance personnel on individual augmentee assignments to fill UAS pilot-operator and mission commander positions. That manned-aviation mindset in the UAS workforce, however, overlooks the fact that several other disciplines in the Navy can enhance a crew’s skills.
While the Navy has stayed on that path, other services have taken diverse approaches. The Army, for example, gives its Military Intelligence branch control of UAS resources. One logical approach to crew selection for the Navy is to bring to bear all available skills transferable to flying unmanned systems. After all, flying a UAS is not a seat-of-the-pants or dead-reckoning experience, thus that kind of experience does not necessarily produce superior UAS operators.
The UAS industry grew out of recreational remote control (R/C) devices. People from that background have shaped equipment development, manufacturing, and maintenance. An example would be the pilot control box (PCB). The PCB is a larger version of the hand-held controller that R/C hobbyists use. To learn the skills required, one must first understand the internal ground-control station operational environment.
A UAS pilot never feels turbulence, seldom sees the sun, and uses only a limited number of aviation instruments such as those required in an aircraft cockpit. The pilots of unmanned systems use computer applications, software, and other systems to control the unmanned aircraft. They must be able to understand radio communication as it relates to electronic equipment data relay. In most cases, troubleshooting and conducting emergency checklists involves not much more than the touch of a computer mouse. UAS control during takeoff and landing now is primarily an autonomous event for many small and medium unmanned systems.
Traditional means of launching and landing UAS by using a hand-held device have become rare and are primarily a backup in case the laser altimeter or other autonomous landing devices malfunction. In short, UAS with wingspans exceeding 6 feet seldom are flown by hand anymore, thus reducing demand for traditional R/C pilot skills. In essence, we inadvertently have developed a lasting R/C culture for professionals operating mid-level UAS, but staffed it primarily with manned-aircraft aviators. The result is an environment that may not necessarily offer the only—or even the best—way to achieve the UAS mission. It would make more sense to base staffing on system and mission requirements, not an incidental culture.
The Value of Broader Disciplines
Broader disciplines need to be brought to the table—though not to the exclusion of manned aircraft aviators—to diversify our force with additional skills. That synergistic approach will assist in the evolution of crew staffing, resulting in the best aggregate of skills for the future of UAS.
The primary role a Navy UAS fills is intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), which is primarily a function of the small-to-medium UAS tier. It is initiated either by field commanders or the intelligence community and executed by ISR operators—of which UAS are one element. Missions and outcomes include full-motion video, still images, battle-damage assessment, over watch, identification of targets, and the like.
Intelligence professionals in the ground-control station or linked remotely can conduct real-time analysis from live video feed, manipulating the camera to confirm or deny suspicions. They may prove to be more big-picture- centered and mission-focused and can instill better mission awareness to the rest of the crew or supported ground commanders. That intelligence ingredient can become a great UAS culture attribute and enhance its relevance. As individuals with strong intelligence backgrounds progress through the UAS coterie, they can impart operational improvements to the process and to platform/payload development as it relates to ISR.
Those with a computer science or information technology background can conduct ground station network troubleshooting resulting in higher mission efficiency. That type of professional has capabilities centered around computer processing and the system as it relates to computer automation and connectivity. Someone with a strong IT background could understand the automation dynamics and assist in producing UAS training and operation documents, procedures, and troubleshooting. Understanding IT and the UAS—and the connectivity both rely on—can provide a tactical win.
Air traffic controllers develop skills scanning multiple pieces of information concurrently. They monitor several systems and track of large amounts of actionable information strictly from memory. An air traffic controller has knowledge of the national airspace system far exceeding any other discipline and can contribute strong systems-scanning technique, accuracy, and precision to the UAS culture. A traffic-control professional may lend practical experience to developing display layout, scanning technique instructional procedures, airspace design, and communications. Many of the tasks performed in a UAS ground-control station are similar in nature to those of an air traffic controller. Both disciplines involve performing multiple tasks at one time, monitoring multiple systems, and reacting to radio communications, weather, and navigation simultaneously.
A manned aircraft aviator has the background of flight systems, crew resource management, aviation maintenance management, and the characteristics of flight. Every year the Navy Reserve takes in more trained aviators than it can employ in manned aircraft flying roles. Their talents and the taxpayers’ return-on-investment improve if they are kept flying. Their experience spans weight and balance, navigation, atmospheric effects, operational judgment, and aircraft characteristics. Some may have weapon-launch and/or remote detachment management experience as well.
While that aviation experience is good to have, it certainly is not so required that expensively trained manned-aircraft aviators need to have their careers diverted and potentially derailed while gaining UAS expertise. We are not aware of any objective studies of effectiveness or mishap rates correlated to UAS pilots’ backgrounds, but it merits study, especially when comparing the fixed and marginal costs of training manned aircraft with those for UAS aviators.
Finding the Right Mix
Today’s use of UAS only scratches the surface of what the systems can and will do. While all the skills described here bring attributes to the table, not all are required if we are to build a professional UAS culture from a blank slate. We need to develop synergized cross-team skills that will ensure future UAS crews a foundation optimized for the systems and missions they will operate. By staffing from a variety of disciplines we can rely on those individuals to enhance the culture and assist in the evolutionary phase of UAS development.
Now is the time to build the right team and determine the correct mix of crew based on the needs of the mission, as it is clear that UAS will play increasingly important roles in both preventing and fighting conflicts in the future. Once a more optimal UAS team is manned, trained, and equipped, we must preserve and nurture it through regular assignments, a career path, and promotion potential. Thus far, the Navy has not sustained and enhanced the cadre of UAS professionals. In addition to keeping this as a predominantly brown-shoe-only assignment, the Navy has not created a dedicated enlisted rating or an officer designator on which those with UAS skills can advance to the level of their potential. Officers and senior enlisted who are most knowledgeable and experienced with UAS may be effectively penalized at selection boards because they have not been in assignments typical of a more conventional manned aviation career path.
Until the UAS becomes its own sub-cohort—with its own designators/ratings, and multiple, progressive assignments within the field—and stops becoming a one-way trip toward the door, the Navy will continue to bleed away hard-earned progress made thus far. If immediate community independence is too radical, an alternative may be a different career model, such as the Army’s functional area or the specialty career path recently begun in the Navy.
Both aviation and information dominance should have a hand in career management until the community develops its sea legs. Aviation’s input on maintenance, operations of the systems, and airframe/platform program development and intelligence’s voice in mission management and sensor-program development would make a potent synergy. They would need to stay close to the operations they are supporting; their focus for success criteria should be customer needs, not platform management. Solid maintenance and operations career fields are needed, with a non-background-specific leadership position that is appreciated by selection boards for its multifunctional, independent detachment leadership experience.
The Reserve Role
The Navy Reserve Component (RC) could add tremendous value to this area. People with intelligence, computer science, air traffic control, manned aviation, and other capabilities serve there already. In many cases, commissioned officers and petty officers with supportive UAS backgrounds who choose to continue serving in the Reserve are unlikely to return to the computer lab, control tower, cockpit, or the sensitive compartment information facility. Thus, their talents could be better employed in a UAS community. If admitted into the field and cultivated, tactical and operational proficiency will synergize over time. We should build the structures to capture that potential and optimally sustain a UAS community.
A Reserve Component UAS enclave could evolve into a positive center of excellence, expert in the training and operating of UAS. Longer or multiple assignments could be better tolerated in the RC than the tight career gates usually found in the Active Component. Often, Reserves provide extensive joint-service experience that would be helpful because it is increasingly likely that such a UAS unit would respond to needs of joint task forces as well as Navy needs. Years of drill-weekend flight experience and occasional deployments could help that force build synergies over time. Some Reservists probably would be interested in full-time duty, either as cadre or in preparation for mobilization. IDC officers and enlisted could work with them in periodic independent-duty status. Potentially UAS or IDC officers with experience would logically be in a position to lead UAS detachments.
One quick win would be to base the first detachments where naval resources are already co-located with acceptable and accessible special use air space for training. The Navy could use existing assets at its Wallops Island, Virginia, facility, integrating the ships in the sand/sea systems with the air-architecture piece of UAS into the equation. At Wallops the Navy could add value to the Fleet and all components associated with UAS, providing an ideal Reservist training pipeline with operational support from the Reserve. Further, its location is well suited for drilling reservists to commute from the Washington, D.C., area as well as Norfolk, Virginia, and Dover, Delaware.
Over time, members of the UAS cadre would develop and advance their own knowledge of UAS-derived intelligence and tactics, techniques, and procedures. The platforms flown would change as new models emerge, but developed tactics will evolve and improve—and do so even more effectively if we retain and cultivate sailors with the necessary expertise.
The RC team would need to be modular and resilient. Flexibility remains a distinguishing characteristic the Navy brings to the joint table, so the group should deploy as a relatively independent capability, self-supported to the degree that the ratio of services offered vice logistical needs is a trade-off any supported ground commander would desire. Likely future requirements indicate that we should build on the small-detachment experiences in manned naval aviation, arriving with a smaller logistical footprint and quickly proving their value.
If we could move past reaction and into proactive planning ahead of the problem, and if the RC UAS community was large enough to support broad and increasing demand, the RC could service much of the demand. There may always be short-notice requirements better fit to the strengths of the active force structure, so we are not arguing to make this an RC only cohort, just that it could shoulder much of the future demand.
The Bottom Line
The Navy traditionally has used brown-shoe pilots as UAS mission commanders, but such a level of expertise may not be necessary at all times. The Navy should do this right—thinking about staffing for the mission, not the environment in which the equipment operates. Just because it flies does not mean it always needs a winged aviator or naval flight officer. Even more important, the Navy must stop wasting the human capital investment it already has in UAS by cultivating diverse and redundant expertise in this mission area. The RC can help make that more feasible.
If we believe UAS are essential to our future warfighting, it is wise to take proactive steps to nurture the performance expected. Manned naval aviation emerged from a hodgepodge of officers and enlisted whose formative experiences were in destroyers, infantry, and other disparate specialties. That diversity enabled them to enhance operations, procedure development, and formation of a distinct culture for manned aviation a hundred years ago. Now is the time to form a Reserve UAS coterie, then to professionalize and sustain the group so that it can better service the ISR mission that our warfighters will depend on.
2. Information Dominance Corps was created in 2010 by combining Intelligence, Information Professional, Information Warfare, Meteorology and Oceanography, Space Cadre, elements of C4ISR, and unmanned systems programs and resources into a unified organization under OPNAV N2/N6.
3. “Brown shoe” refers to U.S. Navy aviation officers and chief petty officers, who in some eras had exclusive authorization to wear brown shoes with khaki uniforms rather than the standard black shoes. The nickname has outlasted the rules for community-distinct footwear.
Commander Byington is a Navy Reserve intelligence officer and former naval aviator, in addition to his civilian career as a performance-improvement executive. While serving in an intelligence role in Iraq, he oversaw the organic integration of UASs with special-operations forces. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Georgetown University, U.S. Naval War College, and Harvard Business School.