“Our No. 1 manning problem in the Air Force is manning our unmanned platforms” – Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, Air Force vice chief of staff.
America’s growing drone operations rely on hundreds of civilian contractors, including some — such as SAIC — who work in the so-called kill chain before Hellfire missiles are launched, according to current and former military officers, company employees and internal government documents.
Relying on private contractors has brought corporations that operate for profit into some of America’s most sensitive military and intelligence operations. And using civilians makes some in the military uneasy.
At least a dozen defense contractors that supply personnel to help the Air Force, special operations units and the CIA fly their drones are filling a void. It takes more people to operate unmanned aircraft than it does to fly traditional warplanes that have a pilot and crew.
The Air Force is short of ground-based pilots and crews to fly the drones, intelligence analysts to scrutinize nonstop video and surveillance feeds, and technicians and mechanics to maintain the heavily used aircraft.
About 168 people are needed to keep a single Predator aloft for 24 hours, according to the Air Force. The larger Global Hawk surveillance drone requires 300 people. In contrast, an F-16 fighter aircraft needs fewer than 100 people per mission.
With a fleet of about 230 Predators, Reapers and Global Hawks, the Air Force flies more than 50 drones around the clock over Afghanistan and other target areas. The Pentagon plans to add 730 medium and large drones in the next decade, requiring thousands more personnel.
The Air Force is rushing to meet the demand. Under a new program, drone pilots get 44 hours of cockpit training before they are sent to a squadron to be certified and allowed to command missions. That compares with a minimum of 200 hours’ training for pilots flying traditional warplanes.
The Air Force also has converted seven Air National Guard squadrons into intelligence units to help analyze drone video. About 2,000 additional Air Force intelligence analysts are being trained.
By law, decisions to use military force must be made by the military chain of command or, in the case of CIA strikes, by civilian officials authorized to conduct covert operations under presidential findings or other specific legal mandates.
Writing in a military law journal in 2008, Lt. Col. Duane Thompson, chief lawyer for the Air Force Operations Law Division, warned that allowing nonmilitary personnel to communicate targeting information directly to pilots would violate international laws of war.
Moreover, civilians are not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which subjects military personnel to prosecution for war crimes or for violations of rules of engagement on when to use force.
“Persons who relay target identification for an imminent real-world mission to persons causing actual harm to enemy personnel or equipment should be uniformed military,” Thompson wrote.
The Air Force Special Operations Command flies armed drones in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere. The command said in a statement that it employs 165 civilians to analyze video and other intelligence. Many work alongside uniformed military personnel in a vast facility at command headquarters at Hurlburt Field.
An additional 300 civilians support other Air Force drones at 10 military bases in the U.S., Germany and South Korea, although most work in technical jobs, officials said. Many are military retirees who kept their security clearances, enabling them to do the same classified work they did on active duty.