A $125K signing bonus... for the Air Force?!?

A Predator drone, operated by the U.S. Office of Air and Marine, near the Mexican border.
Getty Images
A Predator drone, operated by the U.S. Office of Air and Marine, near the Mexican border.

The rules of economics are constant, even in war, and even if that war is the war on terror.

If you don't believe me, I've got $125,000 that says I'm right. That's the eye-popping signing bonus the U.S. Air Force is now offering currently serving drone pilots if they agree to re-commit for five more years. We're talking about the pilots who already have completed or will soon complete their initial six-year required training and service. Those who re-commit can get that $125,000 in $25,000 installments over five years, or get the first $62,500 up front. You read that right. At least one group in our usually underpaid and under-appreciated armed forces is getting the kind of bonus usually reserved for up-and-coming stars in Silicon Valley or Wall Street.

And why is this happening? It's a simple case of supply and demand. No matter what party controls Congress and the White House, the war on terror will continue for years to come. Even before the Paris attacks and the San Bernardino shooting, the defense experts at Jane's Intelligence Review estimated that the annual market for military drones will grow by 6% over the next ten years to $10 billion. Growing concern about ISIS should push those growth projections even higher. Simply put, there has rarely been a weapon or means of combat as politically alluring as drone warfare. It doesn't put the lives of our pilots in danger and comes with a much smaller price tag too. For example, the commonly used Reaper drones cost about $13 million each compared to the new F-35 fighter jets that cost nearly $1 billion apiece. Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk drone is about as expensive as it gets for drones, as the overall price of each one eventually ran into the neighborhood of $200 million. But it was the first major drone project for the Defense Department, it's become a hot seller to our allies, and its cost per flight hour continues to go down. That's why the Pentagon just earmarked $4 billion to continue the Global Hawk program.

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And Uncle Sam is still looking for drone innovation and significant cost savings. The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched a major effort this year to encourage defense contractors to manufacture even cheaper drones. The goal is to greatly increase the number of available drones, program them to fly or "hunt" in packs, and establish even greater American drone air superiority. There's a potential $7 billion prize for the company that comes up with the best new product.

And that's why demand for drone pilots is surging and the money for them is very much available. The Air Force will have to enlist hundreds and maybe thousands more pilots in the coming years to fly these drones. As any labor force expert can tell you, it's a lot cheaper to keep the trained and effective personnel you already have than go out and hire new people. In that sense, paying out those $125,000 bonuses is probably a bargain. But unlike Wall Street and Silicon Valley companies, the Pentagon doesn't have to worry about already highly-paid bankers or developers demanding millions. $125,000 is truly a huge chunk of change for our men and women in uniform. To put it in perspective, the maximum annual base salary range for Air Force Lieutenant Colonels is just over $101,000. 2nd Lieutenants can make as little as $34,000 per year. At the very least, a veteran drone pilot is looking at a bonus equal to 123% of their annual base salary. The history of the U.S. military goes back to 1775, but I feel comfortable in saying this is likely one of the biggest financial incentive we've ever offered for re-upping with our armed forces.

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I've been touting the economic and tactical benefits of a pay raise for all the troops for a long time. But there's no doubt that these economic realities will be a much better catalyst for those raises than anything else. This is something the politicians and activists pushing for a $15/hour minimum wage for fast food workers do not seem to understand. If you want to reward people economically, you have to follow the laws of economics to make it work and last. We're about to find out if the government is following those laws well enough to get what it needs to fight and win modern warfare.

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.