Photograph: US Air Force

A booming new business? Drone pilot training

The Air Force has come under fire for chronic shortages of drone pilots in recent years as the U.S. military has stepped up the use of remotely piloted aircraft for surveillance and missile strikes.

To bridge the gap, the Air Force has turned to private companies to provide training to qualified pilots who choose to transition to drone operations.

With fewer operators available to fly missions, let alone serve as instructors, the demand for private-sector services is on the rise.

The big money in this sector is in the training of Predator and Reaper aircraft pilots and sensor operators, not only in the United States but also internationally as more countries are eyeing purchases of the aircraft. The Predator and Reaper now make up 60 percent of all Air Force drone flight hours, and the service is putting more time and effort into pilot-training efforts, officials and industry executives said.

The Air Force in 2013 awarded Canada-based CAE a five-year contract worth about $100 million to train 1,500 pilots per year at four locations: Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico; Creech Air Force Base, Nevada; March Air Reserve Base, California; and, Hancock Field Air National Guard Base, New York.

The Government Accountability Office in May reported that the Air Force had staffed its unmanned aircraft training squadrons at Holloman Air Force Base at 63 percent of its intended target. “This shortage is a key reason that the Air Force has shortages of UAS pilots across the Air Force,” said GAO.

The Air Force recently decided to expand the Predator pilot training contract with CAE. “They are increasing our contract so we provide additional instructors at Holloman,” said Gene Colabatistto, president of CAE’s defense group.

“Predator training is one of our biggest programs,” he said in an interview. This coming year, CAE’s work under the existing contract will grow from $20 million to about $30 million. The company provides instructors, schoolhouses, courseware and simulators. “It has become a more comprehensive program,” said Colabatistto. Under this model, the government pays for the number of pilots it puts through training. The course lasts four and a half months. Graduates are subsequently assigned to an operational command.

CAE is positioning to grab a bigger share of the market for pilot training services, said Colabatistto. “We are being solicited by other unmanned aircraft programs,” although he said the company intends to stay focused on the Predator and Reaper because of the magnitude of the program and the expectations that the Air Force will continue to outsource pilot training.

The Air Force outsourcing initiative signals a broader shift toward privatization in military training programs, he said. For the first time in 2015, more than half of CAE’s $1.7 billion in revenues will be services, rather than stand-alone products like simulators. “We look for markets where there’s a lot at stake,” such as airline and military pilot training, Colabatistto said. The Predator and Reaper market is looking up, he added. “Small unmanned aircraft are designed so you don’t need training. Predator is in the sweet spot.” CAE signed an agreement with Predator and Reaper manufacturer General Atomics Aeronautical Systems to provide training to foreign buyers. “It’s a unique market that is well packaged.”

Italy is the first non-U.S. buyer of the Predator that has signed up for CAE’s training services. The deal with Italy is especially attractive because the government is also paying CAE for the development of cutting edge simulators, whereas the U.S. Air Force contract is for training services using the existing equipment.

San Diego-based General Atomics in November announced it is building a new unmanned aircraft facility in Grand Forks, North Dakota. The training academy will “potentially serve to augment U.S. Air Force training programs,” said a company news release.

It is standard industry practice for aircraft manufacturers to set up a training facility to support customers who purchase their aircraft. But in this case there could be additional work for companies that provide training services if General Atomics is asked to augment the Air Force training program. Several contractors in the training and simulation industry have responded to a “request for proposals” from General Atomics to provide simulators and training services for the new training academy. General Atomics spokeswoman Kimberly Kasitz said the company expects to choose a contractor before the end of the year.

The Army, meanwhile, is moving to privatize training for pilots who fly its fleet of more than 350 fixed-wing aircraft. It awarded CAE a $200 million eight-year contract in June to build a company-owned and operated training center at Dothan Regional Airport in Alabama. The program covers academic courses, simulator and live flying training for more than 600 Army and Air Force fixed-wing pilots annually.

There are also increasing opportunities for contractors in Navy pilot training, said Colabatistto. CAE won a contract in 2014 for aircrew training services for the Navy’s T-44C trainer aircraft fleet under a contractor-owned, contractor-operated services program for Navy, Marine Corps and international students.

At a time when the U.S. military is cutting back on contractor spending, flight training services remain a bright spot. The Pentagon, however, does not view all flight training under the same lens. It is more likely to outsource flight training for drones or fleets that are not frontline combat platforms. According to an industry source, “We are many years away from contractor-owned contractor-operated training for frontline fighters like the F-35.”

In most instances, when governments choose to privatize military fight training, it is a matter of dollars and cents. “When I go to meetings with potential customers, I don’t show up with engineers and scientists. I show up with accountants and lawyers,” said Colabatistto. Companies have to provide credible “cost trades” that show projected savings and upfront costs. “They typically do the trade study before they make a decision,” he said. Much of the savings come from giving up live flying hours in favor of simulators. “If you take a different approach to training, you reach a different conclusion of how many airplanes, pilots and installations you need.”

In the unmanned aircraft market, specifically, there are political sensitivities about the use of contractors. The issue came to light earlier this year when Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told reporters the Pentagon is likely to increase the use of contractors to operate surveillance drones, but not armed aircraft, because of the higher demand for these platforms around the world.

Air Force Gen. Herbert J. “Hawk” Carlisle, head of Air Combat Command, recently defended the use of private-sector drone operators. “We are trying to provide more capability,” he told reporters. He noted that most contractor pilots are former military service members. “They’re very professional,” he said. “We do a very good job vetting the talent.” The only concern about outsourcing is that active-duty pilots might be tempted by more lucrative civilian jobs, Carlisle said. “I would like to keep them in our Air Force.”

Carlisle announced Dec. 10 that Air Combat Command will work toward doubling the number of unmanned aircraft flying squadrons in the coming years. A dramatic expansion of the force is needed, he said in an ACC news release, because of the operational demand and the stress on the current force.

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