The Afghanistan and Iraq wars have resulted in unmanned aircraft systems, or remotely piloted aircraft, providing more strategic-level effects than any other weapon system in the Air Force inventory. Besides regular use on the battlefield, these intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and strike aircraft are used as the weapon of choice for the White House to prosecute targets that are a risk to our national security (primarily the al Qaeda network).
As a result, the Air Force has aggressively enhanced its remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) capabilities over the last few years and is currently supporting 61 combat air patrols that operate 24-hours per day, predominantly in Afghanistan, Yemen and the North Africa coast. This capability will continue to grow over the next few years due to a secretary of defense-directed requirement of 65 daily patrols by mid-2014.
On the operator front, the RPA pilot career field hovered around the 50-person level in the late 1990s but now exceeds 1,300 and is growing to approximately 1,650 by fiscal year 2017. However, as the combat air patrol requirement grows at a faster pace than the Air Force can train personnel to operate these systems, it is apparent that the RPA career field is not properly identifying and professionally developing these pilots.