Puzzle Palace Chronicles: Air Staff Attacks Fighter Pilot Shortage By Offering Meaningless Awards


The Air Force doesn’t have enough pilots to perform its mission. The shortage, which has been multiplying uncontrolled for years despite shrill warnings from everyone with a clue, is projected to continue accelerating in the years to come. Most acute is the shortage of fighter pilots, which is headed toward 1,000.

This means the service is essentially 20 squadrons short of the specialized manpower it requires to perform its most basic, core function of national defense. The size of the shortage is roughly equal to the number of pilots in China’s air force. It’s an open display of weakness and an invitation to previously outmatched air forces to attempt parity. It makes aggression and war more likely. 

In a well-functioning corporation, this kind of threat to the operational bottom line would trigger radical policy initiatives to rebuild competency and regain solvency. Whoever was most responsible for creating the problem would likely be sacked, or at least disinvited from being part of the solution.

Not in the US Air Force. The same gang who couldn’t shoot straight enough to prevent this mess are being left to fix it, and they’re acting with all the haste of a gaggle of confused garden slugs. The sole significant policy adjustment thus far proposed, several years past due, is an adjustment to aviation bonus pay. While necessary, this proposal is insufficient. It misapprehends the problem, which is not about money.

It’s also not about medals, which brings us to the latest misapprehension. Check out this excerpt from within the bowels of the Pentagon:

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Yes, you’re reading it correctly. As part of its “strategy” to fix the fighter pilot shortage, the service is going to hand out awards most fighter pilots would rather not receive. Anyone who understands the tactical aviation tradition knows this. Awards from bureaucrats are not the path to the only recognition that matters: respect from teammates in the squadron. That is earned by working hard, day in and out, to plan and execute complex combat operations with effectiveness matching velocity.

What fighter pilots want more than anything … and I dare say the only thing that will persuade more of them to stay … is the resources and latitude to do their jobs at a level they can be proud of. The freedom from a half-assed resource model that limits squadron readiness to that expected in a second-rate Air Force. Pilots, and especially those whose success is measured in seconds, knots, and inches, are absolutely done with being set up for mediocrity.

The last thing they want is more celebration of who masks it most effectively.

The Air Force doesn’t need more awards. It needs more people, better focus, and a lot less BS in the operating environment. This is the path back to solvency … not another hollow Air Staff project that promises very little and will produce even less.

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