Marines Need a Few Drone Pilots

| June 26, 2023

General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper

Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 1, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (VMU-1, 3rd MAW), procured the Marine Corps’ first MQ-9A “Reaper” remotely piloted aircraft at Marine Corps Aircraft Station Yuma, Arizona in August 2021.

“VMU-1 is living the Commandant’s vision of Force Design 2030, and our unit is laying the groundwork for future squadrons to execute similar missions within INDOPACOM [U.S. Indo-Pacific Command] or anywhere else that we are needed,” said Maj. Keenan Chirhart, executive officer of VMU-1.

Tough to implement the Commandant’s vision when their birds are on the ground. They need warm bodies to drive the things.

Who can fly the Marine Corps’ Reaper drones?

By Irene Loewenson

The Marine Corps has MQ-9 Reapers, large uncrewed aircraft designed primarily for intelligence-gathering. But who can fly them?

It’s a question Gen. David Berger, the Marine commandant, posed in a training and education planning document released in January.
Under the heading “Issues Requiring Further Analysis,” Berger wrote, “MQ-9 Operators. Should the Marine Corps consider other options besides commissioned officers to become qualified as naval aviators?”

For now, the Marine Corps appears to lean toward “No.”

“Marine Corps aviation has a strong lineage dating back over 100 years that celebrates commissioned officers, warrant officers, and enlisted ranks alike,” Maj. Jay Hernandez, a spokesman for Marine aviation, wrote in a statement to Marine Corps Times. “Due to U.S. Code and the commitments required of the naval aviation pipeline, commissioned officers are the optimal choice in fulfilling naval aviator criteria.”

Marine Corps Times

The ‘optimal choice’ Reaper pilot candidates are staying away in droves, small wonder why. Recruitment is already a self-inflicted problem, and those motivated and qualified to become a Marine Aviator want to fly the F-35 and not a computer consol. If the Corps wants to fill these billets they’ll have to cast their net a bit farther, and reconsider the Naval Aviator-only requirement for drone drivers.

And if you’re stuck in UAVs then my advice to you,
Is to drink the fucking bottle, man, there’s nothing left to do.
Dos Gringos Jerimiah Weed

Category: Blue Skies, Marine Corps

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I think it’s a safe bet that many Naval Aviators (i.e., pilots) view the military pilot training and experience as a pipeline to a future as a commercial airline pilot. UAV’s, not so much.


Spot on, Top. Or they could be looking at it as a Spring Board into an acting gig for a future Naval Aviation Documentary. Some of the qualifications could be Karoke Skilz, looking cool in shades at the club, while bemoaning the loss of a lovin’ feelin’. Oh, and gotta be good at beach volley ball all the while having a maverick attitude with blood of ice, man.

Cast the recruiting drive net further by looking at Model RC Aereo Naughty Cull Clubs. Seen them fellas have some dog fights with vintage and modern Aerial Artillery Platforms. Don’t forget the on line gamers. That would keep the costs down. Pay them in cheetos and no BOQ needed since they could continue to live in Mom’s basement. Win win!




“No, no, no, there’s two [Es] in ‘[Cheetos]’, boys” — [Snackhawk]

Any waist not measured in yards need not apply? (see below)

Highway to the buffet zone


The Commercial UAV business is booming. There is more money entry level than in entry level commercial pilots. However; I don’t think it is what the pictured when they signed up.

Down the road commercial pilots will be crushing it of course. But it can take a while to get there.


Got half a shitload of young Army enlisted learning to fly and maintain UAV’s at Huachuca. Used to be a Marine detachment too, but apparently they no longer use the same aircraft as the Army. Why would you need a Commissioned Officer as operators? And does that really make you a naval aviator?


Commissioned officers as UAV operators? Nope. Please see my post below.

UAV pilots should never, ever be designated as Naval Aviators. Their asses are never at risk while they’re sitting there “flying” in their air-conditioned video game booth.

Wings of Gold for a UAV pilot? Not a chance in hell.


There’s still a bit of animosity in Army aviation because UAV operators get aircrew wings.


Yup. I can see why.


There should be. There is no risk of death or being maimed in a crash while “flying” a UAV.


You should see how CBP pilots (rotary and fixed wing) treat their UAV compadres. The UAV guys get a little too full of themselves sometimes and promptly get pushed back under the porch with the pups. The pilots are mostly former Army WO’s, so their give-a-fuck level is already on the low side.

Last edited 11 months ago by SFC D
USMC Steve

Why? They are not aircrew. They don’t enter the vehicle nor can they. The definitiion of aircrew kinda requires you actually fly in the things.


No argument from me. Ask Big Army why.


In the year 2000, Big Army officially changed the name of the Aircraft Crewmembers Badge to the Aviation Badge, essentially making it a MOS badge. The badge can be awarded just for completing any aviation related schooling, Hell, even the ATC’s in the tower can get one and the badge no longer denotes a difference between those being on flight status type people or the ones who work in the battery or hydraulic hose repair shops in a hangar.


Yeah, the Army seems to be emulating the Air Force in some respects. There’s a number of MOS badges now, like Cyber and so on. Historically, I think that 92R (Parachute Rigger) was one of the few, if not the only, MOS that got a badge out of AIT. Even drivers have to have a year or 8000 accident-free miles to get the Driver and Mechanic Badge.


Funny that you should mention the Driver and Mechanics’ Badge as one of those (with Wheel Clasp) was my retirement award from the Army almost 32 years ago. / s

Last edited 11 months ago by Claw

The Army has been and is being ruined by all these participation trophy badges. The front a uniform jacket is looking like a boy scout’s merit badge bandoleer.


Do they also wear flight suits?


The CBP drone pilots do. And a sidearm. Comical little fuckers.


There’s really no good, objective reason to use commissioned Naval Aviators as MQ-9 Reaper pilots. No reason at all, except that perhaps HQMC is looking to mimic the Air Force’s UAV crew operations.

The Marine Corps has used enlisted UAV pilots and enlisted UAV sensor operators on previous UAV systems (e.g. RQ-2 Pioneer) in their VMU squadrons, and they could continue to do so with the MQ-9 Reaper. Previous USMC UAV pilots had to meet all established Naval Aviation flight physical requirements, etc., so there is precedent there and it’s not an issue to have enlisted UAV pilots at the controls of unmanned aircraft. Career enlisted UAV pilots also provide continuity and a depth of experience within the VMU squadrons, which isn’t always maintained on the commissioned officer side with Marine Aviators frequently rotating in and out from their original type/model/series tactical Fleet squadrons.

However, the MQ-9 Reaper is an armed UAV, so the Marine Corps will probably be required to have Naval Aviators/Naval Flight Officers (NFO) assigned as Mission Commanders on crews that are conducting missions where they could be delivering ordnance. Mission Commanders would be the crewmember who makes tactical weaponeering decisions and gives the “cleared hot” call for the enlisted operators to engage targets. These Mission Commanders should also probably be qualified as a Forward Air Controller (Airborne) so that they can coordinate/designate/control fires from other assets. There are plenty of Marine Aviators and NFOs with those quals who could be assigned to VMU squadrons on 2-year DIFDEN orders to serve as Mission Commanders. They probably wouldn’t be happy about it, but there it is. “The needs of the Corps” and all that.

In my opinion, this is yet another example of the Marine Corps seizing an opportunity to make things much more difficult and complex than is really necessary.


Marines: Looking for a few good CPUs.


Five guys using individual weapons to kill the enemy is a fire team, led by their Sergeant E-5.


Four specialists lugging gameboys and VR goggles as directed by a Sergeant. Call of Duty indeed.

Someone throw a bucket of water on the pilots reading this, before they go into shock.


As the use of drones becomes more widespread and diversified, we are going to need a whole new system of drone centered command and control and air defense systems. An “AWACS” equivalent for drones, for example. An “IFF” system, and radar/IR sensor & weapons systems to counter drones. So, it ain’t just pilots that are needed.

Now, where these additional personnel and resources will come from is an interesting question. Retrain and reorganize existing personnel & resources, or pretend we can just add new slots to a TO&E that we cannot currently adequately fulfill.


This is all gonna get to freakout, when someone drops significant coin into jamming command links and GPS.


Skivvy Stacker

Hell, hire us old farts. You don’t have to be physically fit to sit behind a computer console, and if it comes down to it, you don’t need good eyesight to aim one of those things at a building, a boat, or a car full of Afghan civilians.