The demand for drones to fly surveillance missions keeps going up, but the number of remotely piloted aircraft pilots is going down, so the Air Force is considering increasing retention bonuses for RPA pilots, said Col. Ray Alves of Air Combat Command.

"We're looking at incentives of how we maintain people in the career field and how we incentivize growth in the career field … to give them bonuses similar to what I received as a young major, my pilot retention bonus," said Alves, an F-16 pilot who later became an MQ-1 Predator squadron commander.

Under the current Aviator Retention Pay program, RPA pilots who transferred from flying manned to unmanned aircraft can earn a retention bonus between $15,000 and $25,000, depending on how long they extend their contracts. RPA pilots who originated in the 18X career field, which was created specifically for the RPA community, are not currently eligible for a retention bonus. As of now, the earliest they may receive a bonus would be 2016.

Meanwhile, the Air Force has offered fighter pilots up to $225,000 in Aviator Retention Pay in exchange for a nine-year commitment. Now the Air Force is looking at also increasing Aviator Retention Pay for RPA pilots, Alves told reporters on Thursday.

Alves could not say how much money RPA pilots might be offered, or whether the bonuses would be offered in fiscal 2015 or next fiscal year. When asked if the Air Force is considering involuntary extensions for RPA pilots, Alves replied: "We are looking at all options at how we manage the RPA pilot force right now."

The active-duty Air Force has about 85 percent of the RPA pilots it needs, and that percentage is decreasing as RPA pilots transfer to the Air National Guard, Alves said.

As of December 2013, there were more than 1,360 drone pilots operating almost 65 combat air patrols, falling short of the projected 1,650 pilots needed by fiscal 2017, according to a Government Accountability Office report released in April.

The head of Air Combat Command recently wrote a memo to Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh saying the RPA pilots are straining to fly all the missions being asked of them, as first reported by The Daily Beast on Jan. 4.

"We are above our program of record," Alves said. "We're actually at surge capacity right now – and surge, by definition, we cannot maintain forever. So we need to start looking at … how do we ensure that the enterprise is correctly manned to continue to meet the levels of demand that the combatant commanders are putting upon us."

One RPA pilot in an interview with Air Force Times said the Air Force needs to "immediately reduce" the number of combat air patrols that unmanned aircraft crews fly.

"I know that's kind of a dangerous thing to say because all of the operations that we're doing around the world are all vitally important to our national security, but I think we're at a time where we need to prioritize that because the system is 100 percent broken," said the pilot, who asked not to be identified.

RPA pilots face long hours, giving them little time to do the extra projects that wings value when they determine which pilots are most likely to get promoted, such as obtaining a master's degree, the pilot said. Another issue is that many RPA squadron leaders come from manned aircraft units, so they do not understand what makes RPA units unique.

"My previous squadron commander, he had a really hard time learning those lessons – made it very painful for everybody – as to why this can't look like an F-16 unit. It's like: 'But sir, you don't understand that an F-16 unit has not been flying 24-hour operations for the last 15 years.'

"You can take an F-16 unit and you'll put them on 24-hour ops and you'll surge for maybe a month, or three months at the most, but then you get time to reconstitute. This operation has been going on 24 hours a day, every day of the year for more than a decade. I guarantee there is no F-16 model – or F-22 squadron model – that fits that bill."

The RPA community is on the verge of an even more severe manpower shortage as pilots near the end of their service commitments and defense contractors offer lucrative jobs for both drone pilots and sensor operators, the pilot said.

Many traditional pilots who were selected to fly unmanned aircraft are about 18 months away from the end of their 10-year active service commitment, the pilot said. The RPA pilots who were trained through the 18X career field have a six-year commitment.

"Where the system is 100 percent going to fail is when the 18Xers come up on the end of their six-year commitment," he said. "When their commitments are up and they start voting with their feet … I don't think the Air Force can throw enough money at them to stay in."