The U.S. Air Force has hired civilian drone pilots for controlling surveillance drone to track targets such as suspected militants.
Reports suggest that for the first time, the Air Force has hired civilian defense contractors to fly MQ-9 Reaper drones, which are used to collect sensitive intelligence information for the U.S. military. The contractors are currently responsible for controlling two Reaper patrols per day; however, by 2019 the Air Force is planning to increase the number to 10 per day. A single patrol can include up to four Reaper drones.
Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, the head of Air Combat Command, says that contractors are not combatants and they have limitations. They only operate drones which are used for providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). These civilian drone operators are not allowed to fire missiles or pinpoint targets with lasers.
The Los Angeles Times reports that a lengthy article in the 2013 Air Force Law Review contended that the military's over-reliance on contractors in a combat zone jeopardizes international law, which forbids participation by civilians in hostilities.
The review cited that in February 2010, a missile attack killed about 15 civilians in Afghanistan. The missile was operated by a military pilot but the decision to fire the missile came from intelligence analysis made by a civilian contractor.
The hiring of defense contractors for flying military drones has attracted controversy. Military lawyers claim that civilians are taking part in the so called "kill chain" of the Air Force, which includes finding targets and launching a missile at the target.
The Pentagon is finding it difficult in hiring drone pilots in the military. Pentagon's goal is to recruit more than 1,200 drone operators but it is well below the recruitment requirement. Currently, the U.S. Air Force flies about 60 Reaper air patrols each day. The Pentagon is planning to increase the daily patrol to 90 by 2019.
Most of the Reaper drones are controlled from the Creech Air Force Base, which is near Las Vegas. The base is the command center for Pentagon's drone operations in many parts of the world, which includes Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.