Last year, the Air Force got a new Chief of Staff, Gen. Dave Goldfein. With his arrival came a new commitment to confronting and substantially addressing the grim reality of an unacceptable and worsening shortage of pilots. The issue had been met with equal measures of ignorance and ineptitude by Goldfein’s predecessor, Gen. Mark Welsh.
Goldfein’s maneuvering on the issue has been mainly laudable. He’s acknowledged that pilots are leaving for reasons other than money. He’s committed to fixing squadrons, whose collective state of neglect and distortion is the root cause behind the morale crisis fueling the pilot exodus. More than anything, he’s admitted there is a serious problem, which Welsh stubbornly, recklessly, and notoriously refused to do despite it being openly obvious. His swan song was an appearance in Congress where he declared morale was “pretty darn good.”
A year later, Goldfein is engaging in the cold reality that basically nothing is good, and that the nation’s future security depends on how proficiently he and his team give an element of belated truth to Welsh’s fantastical assessment.
But there’s a problem. Goldfein and his team have very little room to maneuver absent a structural change in the defense budget, which they are unlikely to get. With no promise of new money to grow force structure and pipeline width, no appreciable deceleration in the tempo driving morale issues, and no end in sight to the unprecedented airline hiring boom, they’re getting desperate. We know this because they’ve recently made the poor decision to publicly float an idea so bad it must have our enemies quietly celebrating.
In an interview discussing an upcoming meeting between the Air Force and airlines on the subject of the pilot shortage, Gen. Dewey Everhart basically threatened that if the service can’t get the exodus under control with existing measures, it’ll be forced to invoke “Stop Loss” to preserve its defense readiness.
First, a primer on Stop Loss. As we reported back in late 2015, when the Welsh-run Air Staff surfaced from its sea of ignorance long enough to back-door conscript a gaggle of pilots to fill mostly unnecessary deployments, Stop Loss is a provision in federal law that allows the services to take extreme measures to retain members against their will in times of national emergency.
Critically, the Air Force is not entitled to enact Stop Loss until it has tried everything else, encountered a national emergency, and given Congress a plan for how it will bring Stop Loss to an end. None of these conditions were met in 2015 when select clauses were enacted, and none of them have been met today.
We’re not in a national emergency. The nation’s defense is not immediately threatened. Congress has not declared war. We’re involved in a modest air campaign in the Middle East and little else. It feels like a national emergency to airmen because the Air Force is woefully understaffed, mismanaged, over-distracted, and over-deployed. We have too many people on or pretending to be on “war footing.” The inability or unwillingness to legitimately come home after the slow-motion conclusions of Iraq and Afghanistan has prolonged the feeling of war. But that’s not a valid reason for quasi-conscription. It’s a predicate to confront difficult choices and have tough policy discussions. Many of us have been begging for lucidity on deployments and force posture for a decade and been ignored or marginalized.
The Air Force has not tried everything possible to fix its pilot shortage before resorting to this measure. We’re still using commissioned officers to fly drones rather than convert willing enlisted volunteers into Warrant Officers. When we ask why this hasn’t been done, we get a bureaucratic response to the effect that “this isn’t world war, which is what it will take for us to accept a Warrant Officer program.” Well, by that logic, the situation isn’t near serious enough for Stop Loss either. But far short of such a huge idea, the service hasn’t done the simple things within its power. It hasn’t made examples of toxic commanders. It hasn’t forbidden additional duties. It hasn’t ended official harassments like Green Dot and Wingman Day. It hasn’t gotten the Air Force Personnel Center under control or prevented it from harassing people. It hasn’t cashiered worthless staffs, bands, or VIP airlift fleets and rolled the resulting billets back into supporting squadrons to take the pressure off squadron-level pilots. The list goes on.
Finally, no plan has been made or presented to recover from this mess. Even Everhart admits this is a 20-year problem. If that’s the case, Stop Loss is out of the question. It’s an expedient and temporary measure by design, not an answer to a generational cock-up. The Air Force is at a loss for what to do about this, admitting as much by meeting with the airlines.
And on that note, just a few more responses to this unfortunate mess.
Don’t meet with airlines. Just don’t do it. Even organizing such a meeting sends a signal to your pilots that you’d rather trap and coerce them than actually work with them to make service more palatable. No matter how you dress this up, it’s still a pig. You won’t fool anyone. What you will do is alienate everyone in a blaze of futility. The morale problem will deepen, and when the airlines need to hire people, they will hire people. You can count on that, because they have a fiduciary duty that will trump patriotic vagaries every time.
The best thing you can expect with Stop Loss is a temporary alleviation of the shortage followed by a return of its chronic symptoms when the authority to screw people runs out. You won’t fix the shortage in that time, because you will have removed the forcing function to do so, which is the only thing a bureaucracy recognizes.
But there will be permanent consequences.
No one will ever trust you again. Not just because you used a wartime measure to address peacetime ineptitude, but because you used the lives of your people and their employment liberty as leverage in a bargain with the airlines. Obliterating liberty for utilitarian purposes is antithetical to American leadership and hateful to our military ideals.
Then again, you wouldn’t need this leverage if you had listened and responded responsibly when the opportunity still existed.
That’s really the upshot of all this. Generals who were part of a group that refused to listen to their own commanders in the field for a solid decade, hence creating this mess, are once again hatching solutions without consulting those commanders, who would be the first to say they don’t want involuntarily retained pilots filling key roles in combat-coded squadrons. They’d be the first to say that Stop Loss will finally and irreparably break the back of morale in the warfighting Air Force.
Worse yet, the bureaucrats are still looking for silver bullet or “decisive victory” solution. That’s a misread of what’s going on here and how to correct it. You’re not going to fix this with coercion. That’s a bureaucratic response, and the latest signal the Air Force has become too bureaucratic to fulfill its operational mandate. Bureaucracies respond to any challenge with a rule. In this case, the rule permitting involuntary retention of pilots. A bureaucracy doesn’t even care that the rule is inappropriately applied and doesn’t actually carry the right kind of legal force in this situation. It only knows authority.
A warfighting organization understands that if it has to resort to authority, it has already lost. It responds instead with leadership. No silver bullets, but the intricate and comprehensive application of multiple policies, signals, and forceful changes to restore faith, foster optimism, and rekindle excitement among captains and majors about the Air Force flying mission. This is less like firing a silver bullet and more like baking a cake: you need all the ingredients, in the right measures, combined and cooked with care. Commanding the cake to rise is a pointless waste of energy.
The bottom line is that the Air Force is currently not the best option for pilots to make a career. It offers abominable working conditions and family instability for less money. People will accept degradations in this basic equation out of loyalty to teammates, a service motivation, and a love of squadron. But the USAF has nullified these powerful offsets by countenancing a dozen-year-and-counting anti-operations movement in its own ranks, feebly allowing a once proud combat aviation culture to get shot full of holes in the crossfires of battles for political cleanliness, budgetary relevance, and participation trophyism.
The Air Force is using the threat of Stop Loss to coerce the airlines. But it will accomplish nothing and will backfire with the pilots who are the ultimate object of the bargain. Pull it off the table now and stop looking for easy solutions. This problem took a generation of malpractice to create, and it will take a generation of leadership to correct.