Is the Air Force Waving the White Flag on Pilot Retention?


We’ve been reporting here over the past several months about the crisis of Air Force pilot retention. Fighter pilots are bailing out of the Air Force at an alarming rate. The service can’t stabilize its Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) community without resorting to abusive personnel practices that drive airmen out. Air Staff generals not long ago dissolved commander prerogatives allowing protection of their key pilots from deployment rotations. Most recently, a provision authorized under the “Stop Loss” section of the US Code was was surreptitiously invoked to prevent officers from retiring under some circumstances — requiring that they first pull a six- or twelve-month hitch in the desert as a parting gift.  

Meanwhile, the economy is rebounding. Separation programs offered last year were popular among pilots, and the service inexplicably allowed hundreds to leave while involuntarily jettisoning others. “Take rates” for pilot bonus programs continue to tumble, with nearly 62% of pilots who were eligible to leave the service in FY15 choosing to depart. This drove inventory down by a total of 345 pilots. 

All signs point to a crisis of pilot manning that could preclude the Air Force from fulfilling its future mission. Accordingly, the service should be in an all-out emergency push to reverse the trend. Apparently, pretty much the opposite is true.

Against this backdrop, Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF) Gen. Mark Welsh delivered remarks recently at Sheppard Air Force Base in a small group interaction that included roughly a dozen pilots.

During his scheduled visit, Welsh discussed the pilot retention problem in stark terms, telling those in attendance that “we [the Air Force] can’t compete.” He reportedly made it clear that he didn’t think the Air Force could stay apace with airline competitors in terms of pay, operational tempo, or lifestyle stability.

"We can't compete," Gen. Mark Welsh reportedly told a group of officers during a recent meeting, referring to the problem of pilot retention. (Photo: Air Force).
“We can’t compete,” Gen. Mark Welsh reportedly told a group of officers during a recent meeting, referring to the problem of pilot retention. (Photo: Air Force).

CSAF reportedly did assure the crowd that he’s trying to raise the pilot bonus to $35,000 per year (from its current level of $25,000) although his public affairs staff declined to confirm this.

More controversially, he made it clear to the group that the Air Force can’t compete and accordingly, it won’t try. He reportedly told the pilots “if you leave, someone else will step in.”

This is a well-worn Air Force locution. A way of reminding everyone that no one is indispensable. In this case, it leaves Welsh sounding as though he’s content to let dissatisfied pilots leave if the only alternative is genuinely working to address their concerns. It also makes it seem as though he misapprehends the problem. More on that in a moment.

CSAF also reportedly told the group of about 30 officers that internal Air Force studies show “good pilots” are in fact not the problem. He claimed that those who win “awards that are valued within the pilot community” are generally choosing to stay. This claim is short on detail, yet manages to raise a number of questions about what these purported studies really show, who performed them and using what methodology, who participated in them, and how broad and searching they were. Welsh’s Staff wouldn’t respond to questions about such internal surveys or even confirm their existence.

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Some in attendance appreciated CSAF’s candor. He was essentially telling the truth, admitting he didn’t feel sufficiently empowered under the circumstances to devote the resources necessary to address what he saw as the major concerns of pilots as they weigh whether to stay in service or leave.

But at the same time, his remarks indicated to many a fundamental misapprehension of the problem. His remarks seem to hold that pilot retention is a straightforward matter of paying pilots enough and reducing their tempo enough to make Air Force life more attractive than the airlines.

But it’s a little more complicated than that. Pilots aren’t leaving the Air Force because of money and they’re not leaving the Air Force because of operational tempo per sePilots are choosing to leave the Air Force because they don’t feel that the operational tempo both on the road and at home is justified.

This deserves a bit of elaboration.

Too many of the deployments pilots are being tasked to undertake have nothing to do with flying aircraft and often little more than a tenuous connection to the service mission. These often short-notice sojourns serve as additional interruptions of already piecemeal flying careers broken up by staff and school obligations and by the churn of personnel policies that rotate pilots to weapon systems with acute manning shortages stemming from the absence of a personnel strategy. The MC-12 and RPA communities are examples of this latter phenomenon.

But life at home is the more nagging complaint. Pilots don’t feel they’re being given the resources — chiefly the time and ability to focus on operations — that they need to be excellent at what they do. They don’t believe that the training and aviator development they’re able to effectuate under the current circumstances affirm a commitment to winning wars through the air. The flying mission has been taken for granted, with the chain of command serially celebrating nonsense at the expense of the mission.

No one will stay in an organization that they believe is on a collision course with mediocrity. The first ones to leave such an organization will be the best performers — those who have internalized the core value of “Excellence in All We Do.”

Should Gen. Welsh re-conceptualize the retention problem on more accurate terms, he might see value in re-tooling the service’s approach. Solving this problem doesn’t require competing with the airlines. It requires fixing Air Force squadrons — making them once again the well-functioning, healthy, vital organizations they must be for operational excellence to thrive. This means ending the practice of letting staffs and functional managers raid squadron rosters, taking them below minimum levels. It also means giving squadron commanders the authority to shield units from tasks that erode mission focus. 

But most of all, it means conducting a top-down, service-wide manpower review to lead the service back to sustainability. For a decade, the Air Force has solved acute manning shortages in some communities by robbing personnel from others. All along the way, it has added much more mission activity than it has subtracted, and has drawn down manpower over the same period. The net effect is a gradual erosion of expertise that is now accelerating as mid-career experts jump ship. CSAF needs to put an end to this pattern. The service is not sustainable, pilots know it, and if Welsh isn’t going to fix it, they’re not going to hang around for the inevitable collapse. 

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What airmen in flying squadrons want is for the Air Force to stop taking advice from personnel officials and start thinking operationally again. CSAF should order his staff to re-establish an inviolate manpower standard for operational units and to establish business rules that tightly constrain derogations from that standard. This might mean adding more airmen to the overall roster, and it will certainly mean CSAF will have to lead a decision process about what the Air Force must stop doing in order to re-achieve sustainability.

It will also certainly mean sending an objective auditor downrange to perform a manning study. The Air Force long ago departed from reality as to which deployed billets are actually necessary and which exist simply as feathers in the nests of transitory bureaucrats who’ve engaged in empire building for its own sake.  There is tremendous waste in the deployment machine, and feeding that machine is a huge drain on squadrons across the Air Force.

But even if he can’t go as far as to take a more precise and more effective approach, the one thing CSAF cannot do is raise the white flag. To do so is an invitation to disaster. Telling people you’re not going to fight to keep them is another way of saying you don’t value them. Telling them someone will step into their shoes betrays a view that you see them as interchangeable parts rather than individually valuable airmen. One whiff of this kind of official apathy is capable of spooking the herd as never before. They’ll trample one another in their rush for the exits.

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The Air Force has a duty to the taxpayer and to national defense to develop and retain the best aviation talent possible. Not trying every possible measure to retain its core talent does a disservice to those who end up involuntarily retained as result of manning shortages. It does a disservice to those trapped in an organization tending toward mediocrity precisely because its inability to keep enough people in key jobs results in spreading those who remain too thin. It ultimately does a disservice to national defense by insidiously elevating the risk of conducting airpower.

One source who attended the meeting told me CSAF’s remarks sounded defeatist and irresponsible. The concern is not invalid. It’s true in any organization that when executives no longer believe they can keep their best people, the realization should instigate an energetic response, catalyzing adjustment of the basic equation in order to make work attractive again. When leaders stop trying to even find out why the best are leaving, they surrender to endemic mediocrity and eventual organizational failure. Allowing this to happen in a federal agency with the Air Force’s responsibilities is unacceptable.

The Air Force has advantages over civilian life. The flying done by airmen in the Air Force is more interesting, more adventurous, and carries the chance to make a bigger difference in the world. This is something General Welsh understands and even mentioned while at Sheppard.

But if his management team can’t or won’t capitalize on these advantages make them broadly and dependably cognizable for pilots, then the implications for the Air Force are disastrous. This isn’t one of those issues the service can “care a little bit” about. It should be setting off alarm bells and the kitchen sinks of policy should be getting heaved forcefully in its direction. Whether that’s not happening because the service is so resource strapped as to be powerless, whether it’s because it doesn’t want to empower or entitle pilots by working to keep them,  or whether it’s just plain ineptitude … isn’t clear. But the impact is clear, and its growth into a monster capable of pulling down the whole service is painfully predictable.

Many in the Air Force feel as though it is careening toward ruin. They point to the degradation of operational excellence as a key indicator that in the ongoing moral hollowing of the institution, not even operational excellence is sacred. Squadrons continue to suffer under the weight of flavor-of-the-month distractions, massive regulatory requirements, self-inflicted clownery, toxic leadership, and unfunded mandates. They confront their myriad and burgeoning support requirements not via dedicated support staffs, but through self-help … tasking pilots to administratively support their operations. This is the heart of the pilot retention problem. If CSAF can’t or won’t address this or doesn’t grasp its magnitude, the service is headed for big trouble.

There’s a mountain in the windscreen and it’s getting bigger by the day. This is a moment to raise a red flag rather than wave a white one.

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