Career Profile: Navy Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Careers

Polecat UAV
Erik Simonsen

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), it can be argued, save time, money, and lives by allowing aerial surveillance (and delivery of the occasional weapons payload) by remote control. It should come as no surprise that the Navy -- always having to truck around tons of equipment by boat -- has, like the Army and Marines, jumped on ​the bandwagon by creating enlisted career specialties for the operation and maintenance of UAVs.

Duties and Responsibilities

The Army and Marines (check in here if you're curious why I keep excluding the Air Force) have tackled UAV staffing by creating distinct new military occupational specialties (MOS) for UAV operators and maintenance crews. For the time being, the Navy has decided instead to make UAVs a Navy Enlisted Classification (NEC) -- in other words, a skill or job designator applied to specially trained personnel that already hold down a standard rating (that's sailor talk for MOS.)

Here are those NECs and their job descriptions, in order of appearance in the Navy Enlisted Classification Manual, Volume II, Chapter 4:

  • NEC 8361, UAV Systems Organizational Maintenance Technician: Your basic UAV repair person. FYI: "Organizational maintenance" means basic repairs and cleaning -- possibly replacing major components, but certainly not soldering circuit boards.
  • NEC 8362, UAV External Pilot: I find this interesting, because whereas other services seem to have one operator doing all the work, the Navy has decided to have a separate pilot set aside for take-offs and landings who controls the plane by sight.
  • NEC 8363, UAV Internal Pilot: "Internal" is a bit of a misnomer -- no one is ever getting inside a UAV. This is the operator that takes over once the UAV is in the air, operating it from far greater distances by satellite connection.
  • NEC 8364, UAV Payload Operator: A separate designator for the sailor that remotely operates the sensor equipment on the UAV.
  • NECs 8366, -67, and -68: These separate NECs for the ​MQ-8 Fire Scout, a UAV helicopter, denote assignment as an organizational maintenance technician, payload operator, and pilot, respectively.

A note on "pilots": Although the human touch is essential, Navy times staff writer Andrew Tilghman points out in this November 2008 article that instead of being glued to the controls like a traditional pilot, UAV operators will instead "fly by the mouse" because "automated navigation systems mean missions will be planned and uploaded before takeoff."

Military Requirements

Naturally, joining the Navy requires a high school diploma. After that, discussing entry into the UAV NECs gets a little trickier. See, it's not an entry-level job, like in the Army and Marines. Sailors must already be trained in one of several Navy ratings and achieve promotion to a particular rank: E-3 for UAV and MQ-8 maintenance technicians and MQ-8 payload operators, petty officer third class (E-4) for internal/external UAV pilots and UAV payload operators, and petty officer first class (E-6) for MQ-8 pilots.

Those who want to work with winged UAVs (NECs 8361-64) must start out as an Aviation Electrician's Mate (AE), Aviation Structural Mechanic (AM), Aviation Support Equipment Technician (AS), Aviation Electronics Technician (AT), Naval Aircrewman (AW), or Aviation Maintenance Administrationman (AZ). Intelligence Specialists (IS) may also work as payload operators.

For the MQ-8 unmanned helicopter, payload and vehicle operators (8367-68) must come from the AW rating, while maintenance techs may be drawn from Aviation Machinist's Mates (AD) or the AE, AM, or AT ratings.


Entering the UAV field at pay grade E-3 or higher means that obviously, any UAV operator must have already completed several training requirements, including the formal "A" school for his or her source rating.

Beyond that, the NEC Manual Volume II is scant on details about what training is required to earn a UAV designation. For example, the manual only states that MQ-8 NECs "may be awarded through cadre training pending establishment of formal training," and fails to specify training for UAV maintenance techs and pilots. But chances are that when it formal schooling is provided, as with UAV payload operators, it's "through joint training at Fort Huachuca."

That's a 21-week course at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, where instructors with the Army's 2nd Battalion, 13th Aviation Regiment train soldiers, Marines, and foreign military students on subjects including principles of flight, launch and recovery, maintenance, and aerial intelligence and surveillance.


According to Navy Credentialing Opportunities On-Line, sailors with one of the UAV pilot or maintainer NECs may be eligible for Navy or GI Bill funds for civilian certifications such as:​​

  • Aircraft or Avionics Electronics Technician
  • Aerospace Technician
  • Associate-Level Electronics Technician
  • Unmanned Aircraft Systems Maintenance
  • Foreign Object Elimination (which sounds sinister, but I gather it means removing debris that accumulate and damage the plane during flight.)

Funding may also be available to test out for a private pilot's license with the FAA.

Continue Reading...