The U.S. Air Force wants enlisted personnel to eventually account for more than half of the pilots flying the RQ-4 Global Hawk drone, an official said.
Faced with high operational demand and a pilot shortage, the service this week announced plans to open to all career fields the job of steering the high-altitude spy drone made by Northrop Grumman Corp., based in Falls Church, Virginia.
As of fiscal 2015, the service had a total of 33 RQ-4s in the inventory, according to Air Force documents.
Roughly 200 officers are authorized to fly the Global Hawk -- yet enlisted personnel over the next several years will make up most of those slots, according to Maj. Bryan Lewis, a spokesman for the service at the Pentagon.
"By 2020, the Air Force hopes to have a little more than half of its 198 RQ-4 pilots be enlisted airmen," he said in an email to Military.com. "And by that point, roughly 70 percent of the 121 airmen flying Global Hawk missions on a day-to-day basis -- not performing other duties such as staff positions at the wing -- will be enlisted airmen."
The prospective applicant pool is huge -- upwards of 50,000 airmen -- though it's not clear how many of those men or women will actually apply to make the move, Lewis said.
"We'll have a better idea once the window for the program closes," he said.
Also unclear is whether enlisted personnel who distinguish themselves flying the spy drones will eventually be allowed to pilot their armed counterparts, including the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper systems made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., based in San Diego.
The Air Force has much larger inventories of these medium-altitude "hunter-killer" systems.
At the end of fiscal 2015, the service tallied 139 MQ-1Bs each capable of carrying two AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and 165 MQ-9As each capable of carrying a combination of Hellfires, GBU-12/49 Paveway II laser-guided bombs and GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions GPS-guided bombs.
"What we learn from flying RQ-4s with enlisted aircrews under the supervision of rated officers will inform whether we apply a similar approach to other weapon systems," Lewis said. "It is too soon to speculate on the expansion of enlisted pilots beyond the RQ-4 program."
He added, "As with historical examples of enlisted aircrew in other aircraft as well as the Air Force's recent experience in Cyber and Space, this transition will be built through a deliberate approach benefiting from the great technical base of sensor operators and other enlisted Airmen."
The Air Force is focusing most of its funding for unmanned systems in fiscal 2017, beginning Oct. 1, on the MQ-9 fleet, with plans to spend nearly $1 billion to buy 24 Reapers.
--Oriana Pawlyk contributed to this report.