By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military's insatiable demand for intelligence collected by drone aircraft is putting a huge stress on operators who fly them 14 hours a day, Air Force officials said on Thursday as they unveiled bonus pay and other steps to tackle the issue.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said aviators who remotely fly Predators, Reapers and other drones have been putting in 900 to 1,100 flight hours a year, three or four times the number flown by traditional military pilots.
"This is a force that is under significant stress ... from what is an unrelenting pace of operations," James told a Pentagon briefing.
Many experienced operators are nearing the end of their active-duty service commitment and will soon decide whether to stay in the Air Force, she said, potentially depleting an already short staff. Other pilots, on temporary duty flying drones, are about to return to traditional aircraft.
James said the Air Force was taking a number of initial steps to stem the loss of drone pilots, including boosting monthly incentive pay for pilots reaching the end of their active duty commitment to $1,500 from the current $650.
She and General Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said that, over the long term, they hoped to get drone operators the same $25,000-a-year in incentive pay to stay in the military that traditional pilots receive.
To boost the number of drone pilots and ease the stress on the force, James said the Air Force would activate pilots in the reserves and seek volunteers among active-duty fliers who normally pilot traditional aircraft.
Welsh said the key was ramping up training to the levels needed.
"Our crew force out there actually will tell you they enjoy the mission, they like the work, they're excited about the future," he said. "They're just worn out."
Welsh said the problem had been growing since 2007 as the requirement for drone surveillance outpaced Air Force efforts to keep up with demand.
"We have got to get ahead of this training curve or the enterprise is going to have a major issue," he said.
Welsh said the Air Force currently has the capacity to train about 180 people a year, but is losing about 240 a year and needs to train about 300 annually.
He said there was a shortage of trainers because of high operational demand, and even half the active trainers were flying operational missions daily.
(Editing by Andre Grenon)