WASHINGTON - The United States Air Force has announced a pay rise incentive for its drone pilots, as officials admit the operators are working under significant stress due to the shortage of unmanned aerial vehicle operating personnel.

During a ‘State of the Air Force’ briefing at the Pentagon, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen Mark Welsh admitted a significant drone pilot shortage on the force, and promised to increase their pay to encourage experienced personnel to stay.

“The crisis right now is with the pilot force. It is the most stressed part because it is the lowest manned part of the RPA [remotely pilot aircraft] fleet, percentage-wise,” Welsh said. “They have the longest and most expensive training pipeline in that community.”

“The biggest problem is training,” Welch said, referring to shortages of MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper operators. “We can only train about 180 people a year and we need 300-a-year trained, and we’re losing about 240 from the community each year.”

(Drones, which have no human presence on board, are aircraft controlled by ‘pilots’ from the ground, working on panels thousands of miles away).

The military had expected the need for drone flights to decline slightly with the withdrawal of most troops from Afghanistan. But the US-led air campaign against IS militants launched in August has fuelled yet more requests for the more than 360 unmanned aircraft in the Air Force fleet, officials said.

Drone pilots, as well as sensor operators, are always under “significant stress” during the mission, James said, due to an “unrelenting pace of operations.”

While a conventional pilot flies between 200 and 300 hours per year on average, “RPA pilots log four times that much, ranging from 900 to 1,100 flight hours per year,” she said.

“This is very stressful operations because mistakes can cost lives.”

To retain and attract new drone operators, James announced that the Air Force is looking to substantially increase their pay.