Combatant commanders, entire force unable to complete mission due to pilot shortage

ecretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein speak during their "State of the Air Force" press conference in the Pentagon, Aug. 10, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash)
Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein speak during their “State of the Air Force” press conference in the Pentagon, Aug. 10, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash)

It’s no surprise the Air Force is reaching critical mass as it relates to pilot shortage and attrition rates. Similar stories have made it into the news for almost two years. However, is the force getting to a point of no return … getting to a point where it can no longer support combatant commanders?

In March 2015, the Air Force testified in front of the Senate Armed Services committee stating the active-duty force was more than 520 pilots short of its total- manning requirement. Fast forward almost two years, and the numbers aren’t getting any better … in fact, they’re getting much worse.

According to statistics published by Voice of America, the service is authorized 3,500 fighter pilots. However, it’s now more than 700 pilots short of meeting that goal. The number of fighter pilot squadrons are down from 134 in 1986 to only 55 today, which VOA says correlates to a 20 percent drop in mission readiness.

“We have too few squadrons to meet the combatant commanders’ needs,” Maj. Gen. Scott Vander Hamm, the general in charge of fixing the fighter pilot crisis, said during an interview with VOA.

“What that would mean to us is that we would have to accept not being able to get forces to theater in the same time we could, which to a warfighter, that means it could cost lives in a conflict.”

Combatant commanders are feeling the crunch at a time when deployments have overburdened airmen in all specialties. Deployment frequency and duration have increased, additional duties for CONUS-based aviators have increased, and lucrative financial offers from the commercial aviation industry are pouring in as pilots and their families search for stability in their lives.

The Air Force projects the airline industry will hire roughly 20,000 pilots during the next 10 years.

Senior leaders are foot stomping their message to Congress.

“Without these fighter pilots, the Air Force will be very challenged to continue to provide the air supremacy upon which all our forces depend, officials testified.

Meeting retention requirements is proving to be a daunting task. The Air Force uses a bonus program to try to keep its pilots around. The service offers Aviator Retention Pay payouts for eligible pilots who agree to serve for nine additional years, at a rate of up to $225,000. To date, these offers aren’t enough to keep pilots in the cockpit.

According to Maj. Malinda Singleton, Media Operations Chief for Air Combat Command, the Air Force has requested a bonus increase for pilots to approximately $48,000 per year; however the budget has not passed yet.

In addition, the Air Force chief of staff has mandated that units across the board reduce additional duties in order to help free up airmen’s time to do the mission. There are also proposals being looked at to help increase job satisfaction while at home-station by focusing on most value-added training.

Requests for more money have been submitted, and courses of action are being discussed. However, the shortage/retention problem continues to plague the Air Force. The Pentagon has said it’s hopeful it can maintain ops tempo while weathering the storm, but one has to wonder if it’s time Air Force leaders and Congress commit to genuinely digging down to the root of the problem. It seems combat readiness, combatant commanders and airmen alike are paying the price for failed leadership and policies that will take years to fix.

Ultimately, only time will tell if the ship can be righted and if America will continue to reign as the world’s air supremacy leader.

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