Fighter pilots are bailing out of the Air Force, and no one knows what to do about it, least of all the generals.
Got my hands on an email sent last week by Maj Gen Tom Deale, Director of Operations for Air Combat Command (ACC), to operations group commanders across the fighter community. Both in form and substance, this email reveals and illustrates a huge but deliberately obscured problem gripping the corporate Air Force (“corporate” used in the pejorative sense here). It’s the latest evidence of an institutional crisis being actively hidden, and which, as a result, continues to deepen with potentially dire consequences to national defense.
Year after year, the USAF finds itself in worse shape. Year after year, generals ask the field to explain why great people are bailing. Year after year, the answers are rendered, and senior management ignores the answers, finding them exceedingly inconvenient.
That disclaimer having been rendered, here’s some more old wine in a new bottle. Analysis after.
From: DEALE, THOMAS H Maj Gen USAF ACC ACC A3/ACC/A3
Sent: Wednesday, September 9, 2015 12:22 AM
Subject: ACTION: Fighter Squadron [Quality of Life] inputs to CSAF
BLUF: CSAF has asked AF/A35 to gather your inputs for immediate actions the HQ staff can take to improve QoL and reduce the additional duty workload in our fighter squadrons to help support fighter pilot retention.
BACKGROUND: The AF is currently 520 fighter pilots short and the shortfall is growing by approximately 170 fighter pilots per year. The FY14 and FY15 bonus take rates are at approximately 45% which is slightly lower than previous years. While the guidance to AFPC has been to keep operational units and FTUs manned at 100%, our test squadrons are manned at 85%, fighter staff billets are filled at less than 50%, and UPT fighter billets are being filled at less than 30%. The Air Force is currently considering efforts to increase fighter pilot production, but there is not a silver bullet that will solve the fighter pilot short fall in the near-term.
DISCUSSION: AF/A35 would like to quickly gather your inputs to improve [Quality of Life] (e.g. civilian scheduler, PEX, or STAN/EVAL manpower) IOT present recommendations to Air Force Senior Leadership at the Rated Manning Summit on 17 Sept. As part of the ongoing Fighter Enterprise Tiger Team, A35 has a weekly telecom and would like to invite fighter OGs to call in next Thursday 10 Sept at 1200L EST.
For medium to far-term considerations, CSAF has directed an AFSO 21 event to look at how the Air Force mans, trains, and equips the fighter enterprise, and the Air Force policies that impact [Quality of Life] and retention.
1) Provide recommendations via email for immediate near-term actions the HAF staff can take to increase QoL and reduce the additional duty workloads in our fighter squadrons NLT 1600 on 11 Sept. No special format required (word doc or bar napkin acceptable). Send them to the AF/A35 POCs: Lt Col Jason Cockrum and Lt Col Chris “Lude” Kibble.
2) Provide OG representation from across the fighter community during the 10 Sept Fighter Enterprise Telecon. The Telecon is from 1200-1300 EST on Thursday 10 Sept, the call in number is: (XXX) XXX-2077.
This is good news for our fighter community. Expect more information to follow as the Fighter Enterprise AFSO 21 team stands up. The team will be looking for your continued inputs to help improve the fighter force.
I look forward to hearing your recommendations.
Maj Gen Thomas Deale, USAF
ACC Director of Air and Space Operations
What triggered this latest staff seizure?
Well, beyond “CSAF said so,” it’s not clear. But rumor has it a recent spate of Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) assignments levied on the fighter community catalyzed a proportional spate of separation requests. After several years of watching the RPA community devolve into a slow-motion train wreck, most fighter pilots (and most pilots in other weapon systems, for that matter) have little taste for a 3-year detour through a community that wantonly and unashamedly grinds participants into a fine powder before shuttling back to their home communities … where the work they did is little appreciated and they’ve fallen irrecoverably behind peers in career progression. Oh by the way, three years is a ballpark figure, since the personnel system has zero integrity and breaks tour length promises as if tending to a bodily function.
Then again, maybe Deale and ACC are finally coming to terms with what many of us have been predicting for a long time. Kick a dog enough times, it bites back. But that only applies to dogs. Fighter pilots don’t have to be here. Rather than bite back, they’ll just find someone more deserving of their loyalty. They’ll have little trouble finding work elsewhere, and they know it. Why aren’t they taking the bonus? Because when the bullshit reaches a certain level, there’s not enough money in the world to make it electively endurable.
The email seems to acknowledge this by making Quality of Life its subject, and it seems to further embrace it by touching on possible fixes to squadron life. This isn’t about clubs, golf courses, libraries, or “resiliency.” It’s about the unsustainability of self-sustainment. You can have excellent fighter capabilities or you can have unsupported, and therefore self-supporting, fighter squadrons. You can’t have both. Once the choice is made to forego excellence, most airmen will want no further part of the USAF, and the best ones — those most committed to excellence as a core value — will be the first to leave.
Then again, this is nothing new. It’s been a problem since the Air Force allowed its personnel officials to persuade it on the merits of trading 40,000 personnel authorizations for the chance at more modernization money. The cash never materialized, but the people were instantly gone, and for good. They weren’t stripped from staffs, they were robbed from squadrons, leaving operational warfighters to take on roles as financiers, training managers, clerks, program administrators, deployment coordinators, equipment custodians, and countless more. Basically, what had been done for decades to directly support flying operations was done no more, and the work was pushed onto the backs of those with a duty to remain professionally prepared to engage the enemy. This burdened everyone with a massive and perpetual distraction from core duties. Then, the Air Force — by its own hand and through a constant moral failure to push back the hands of others — added tons more non-negotiable requirements to slate, “gifting” self-sustaining squadrons with useless and bug-ridden computer systems proxying for the people it had heisted.
Now, it behaves as though any of this is a shock. It shouldn’t be, and least of all to Mark Welsh, whose track record with similar fly-for-presence staff efforts dates back years. In 2010, while commanding US Air Forces in Europe, Welsh was shown a particularly well-crafted and hard-hitting “Dear Boss” email written by a departing fighter pilot. Perhaps remembering how his own generation had struggled to break the corporate addiction to bullshit in the post-Vietnam years, Welsh sent a query to the field — very similar to the email above — asking fighter pilots to tell him their troubles. They told him their troubles, which are by now a familiar refrain. To his credit, Welsh listened. To his discredit, he didn’t do anything meaningful to fix the issues. Not then, and not when he became Chief of Staff.
I suppose that’s not entirely fair. He did two things. First, he put in place a policy that formally removed the previous de facto requirement for officers to chase pro forma graduate degrees in their off-duty time in order to be retained and/or promoted. He also told the personnel system to fix squadron administrative support. But years down the line, neither of those initiatives has put a dent in the quality of squadron life problem he inherited, which in fact has continually worsened. It’s not mysterious why. He simply didn’t go far enough in either of these cases or in the myriad other ways necessary to address the deep-seated problems manifesting themselves.
Will this time be different? Only if ACC and Welsh take meaningful action on the inputs, no matter where they lead. This might mean, among other things, scaling back deployments (yes, there are many deployments that continue because no one has the moral courage to challenge them), slowing down assignments, rooting out the commodity-driven human resource mindset on staffs, sustainably restructuring career progression models, weeding out the bureaucratic underbrush of functionally driven training and compliance requirements, restoring direct support to squadron leaders, shoring up the endemically crippled communities across the force that continually drain vitality in efforts to prop them up, and policing abusive and dishonest conduct by senior officers. Basically, Welsh has to commit to combating and rooting out bullshit. Fighter pilots have every right to be skeptical that he’ll do so given the trajectory of the last three years since he took over as Chief.
Then again, solid inputs may be hard to come by given not just the track record of previous “efforts” but the telltale formulation of this request. Note how the call for inputs narrows the field of permissible inputs. Note also how it gives recipients less than two days to gather information and respond. Finally, note how it advances the laughable pretense that an AFSO21 “improvement initiative” stands any chance of generating anything remotely useful. This is at once a joke and an abdication of a core Air Staff and Chief of Staff responsibility. One can’t help but sense apathy given these features.
Deale ends his email with an upbeat tone. Can’t blame him, but it signals panic rather than confidence. Given the persistent lack of leadership this email demonstrates, this might be one of those rare occasions where panic is appropriate.