UAS Safety Culture and the 'Big Picture'

By CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 NATHAN KOCH, Aviation Division, Directorate of Assessments and Prevention, U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center, Fort Rucker, AlabamaMay 19, 2021

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Tactical unmanned aircraft system (TUAS) platoons are inherently difficult to manage. Massive amounts of equipment, responsibility for aviation operations and limited senior leadership are typical constraints found among TUAS elements. These, among other factors, make a solid safety culture extremely difficult to instill. So how do we as junior platoon leaders, warrant officers and sergeants build a safety culture that works for TUAS units? Building a strong culture takes time and consists of many snapshots that help support the big picture. We will examine three snapshots that help small TUAS units develop a successful safety culture.

Snapshot 1: Discipline and Integrity

Successful aviation operations always lead back to two words: discipline and integrity. “Do what is right even when no one is watching” is a key principle of discipline and integrity. This phrase, based on two simple words, is the cornerstone for any safety culture and, from a Soldier’s first integration into a UAS organization, must be instilled in our young UAS operators and maintainers.

Unmanned aircraft system Soldiers straight out of advanced individual training at Fort Huachuca are the most impressionable and easiest to train in safety policies and procedures. Why is this? It’s simple — they don’t know any better and don’t have bad habits. It is our more seasoned UAS Soldiers, the ones who have been around a while, who are the biggest violators. Unmanned aircraft system units have often been challenged by the mindset of “this is how we’ve always done it” operationally. Changing the negative safety culture habits of our current UAS Soldiers is demanding, but it can make the difference between executing safely with a high level of discipline and integrity versus continuing on the path of least resistance … “the way we’ve always done it.”

The culture shift starts with leaders! To change the unit safety culture, leaders must start with the day-to-day tasks. Ensuring cleanliness of your workplace and support facilities is the first step. Instilling this seemingly rudimentary task will help build “cleanliness” and “organization” in our maintenance tasks and flight operations. Eventually, basic safety principles and fundamentals will become second nature and Soldiers will seek the disciplined approach while executing with integrity.

Snapshot 2: Purpose

Once discipline and integrity are established principles in the organization, leaders can begin embedding a sense of purpose into their operations. There is a reason why we practice safety in everything we do, and creating that purpose is vital. That sense of purpose is communicated at echelon and, in this case, by the platoon leadership. Every team member must understand the purpose of conducting safe UAS operations. Our ultimate goal is to be able to support the ground force during combat operations by delivering solutions to complex problems and dilemmas the ground force commander faces.

Unsafe maintenance practices and flight operations will only deter from those solutions and at times create more problems for the ground force. “Making mission happen” should not come at the cost of cutting safety corners by our UAS Soldiers. Likewise, it is important to always evaluate and understand risk to the mission so it can be effectively communicated to all.  Effectiveness and safety are directly correlated. This must be understood by all in the UAS platoon. Understanding purpose and why we execute safely is an integral part of UAS Soldier buy-in to the safety culture. How you establish that purpose is up to leaders, officer and enlisted.

Snapshot 3: Associating Risk with Task

Unmanned aircraft system platoons execute several tasks that require a high degree of technical expertise by our most junior Soldiers. One example is the runway survey and setup. The most dangerous part of UAS operations is the takeoff and landing. Part of establishing a safety culture is to get our UAS Soldiers to understand and correlate risk with each of the tasks we execute. Instilling the understanding of what risks are associated to what tasks is key to getting them to do that task correctly and safely.

So many times our junior Soldiers are told to execute without an actual understanding of the importance of the task to the successful outcome of the supported mission. Why do we torque the arresting gear properly? Why do we make sure the tactical automated landing system (TALS) is level? Why do we maintain TALS separation? As leaders, train your Soldiers to execute their missions successfully, even when operating decentralized. Leaders train this by integrating your team into the planning and ensuring each team member has an understanding of the risk to the mission and the force that their individual tasks are associated with.


A solid safety culture just doesn’t happen; it takes time and is a conglomerate of different snapshots that help build the understanding of why it is important not only to the unit but to the bigger picture, the success of the ground force supported. Ultimately, a UAS organization with a safety culture performs more efficiently with less mishaps and provides more support to the ground force commander. An effective safety culture will always help UAS units succeed organizationally and operationally. It takes a great level of discipline, integrity, understanding your purpose and your Soldiers understanding the risks associated with their tasks being performed to swing the pendulum from a subpar operational TUAS unit to a high-performing one.