Trump Grants Air Force Expansive Authority to Recall Retired Pilots

President Trump signed an executive order on Friday radically expanding the Air Force’s latitude to bring retired pilots back on active duty under the guise that conducting various foreign operations supporting undeclared wars constitutes a continuing “national emergency.”

The order, which amends authority granted by George W. Bush in the immediate aftermath of 9/11/01, allows the Service to bring back as many as 1,000 pilots for up to three years. The Air Force asked for this longer leash to help address an ongoing crisis of pilot manning and retention. It is currently an estimated 1,500 pilots short of the minimum to carry out the mission.

As word of the executive order has reached the social media accounts of airmen, the story has sparked plenty of hand-wringing. Recently retired pilots, most of them flying for airlines and lacking the inclination to oblige themselves to further military service, are concerned about the possibility of involuntary recall.

The Air Force is saying such fears are unfounded, and that the authority will be limited to voluntary participation only. Officials are quick to point out that this authority already existed, and is merely being expanded to give the Service an additional lever in combating the pilot shortage.

While I take the Air Force at its word that it doesn’t currently contemplate involuntary actions, it’s worth noting that the executive order does in fact allow the Service to recall pilots involuntarily. It’s also worth noting the Service has broken its word before.

Still, the notion of exercising it coercively is a practical nullity. If the Air Force were to try this without first using Stop Loss and activating reserve units, Congress would almost certainly intervene. Not only that, the current leadership inspires trust, and should be believed until it proves otherwise.

The real story here, and the one getting very little media coverage, is the gross mismanagement that put the Air Force in the embarrassing and alarming position where it needs this kind of help to accomplish its most basic function of flying airplanes. For years, generals and senior staffers stood by while the service’s culture tightened into a graveyard spiral, fuelled by idiotic policies and insufferable bureaucratic red tape. The fun was drained out of aviation, and squadrons withered on the vine while staffs, generals, and frills got fatter and fatter. Pilots were seldom earnestly asked how they felt about the direction of things, and when they were asked the answers fell on deaf ears.

More than that, the Air Force has directly gutted its own pilot corps by pushing out winged airmen who’d have been happy to stay. Many passed over twice for promotion have been denied continuation. Scores have been forced to retire in lieu of assignments or extended deployments that would have broken their families after too many years of tough sledding. Others have been cashiered over failed PT tests that had no bearing on their flying abilities.

The Air Force’s counter-narrative insists that it faced tough choices when it was forced by budget limitations to draw itself down in 2014, and simply went a little too far because it underestimated the airline hiring boom. That’s pure nonsense. The Service ditched hundreds of pilots through involuntary reductions years before sequestration, even as field commanders complained of under-manning and over-stretch. It then refused to listen to the concerns raised by its aviators about resource limitations, overwork, and toxic commanders promoted for their pragmatism instead of their leadership ability.

For the four years Gen. Mark Welsh ran the service, the spiral tightened and steepened, catalyzing a mass exodus. He did nothing to reduce the strain on airmen, and when confronted with evidence of worsening retention, dismissed the seriousness of it rather than respond decisively. Welsh and his gang are directly responsible for this mess, as are their predecessors dating back to 2005 — the first time the Service deliberately increased the strain on airmen by trading masses of badly needed manpower to get added money for weapons programs.

No one knows exactly how the Air Force will use the authority granted by Trump. Additional guidance is needed from the Secretary of Defense before the policy guardrails can be considered fixed. One worry with this authority is that if the Air Force is permitted to mask the root causes of the shortage with an infusion of old blood, it will not be forced to address those root causes, and will therefore remain weak and unready to defend the nation at an appropriate level of risk.

But if at some point the Air Force starts recalling pilots involuntarily, the first name on the list should be Mark Welsh. Somewhere deep in the bowels of an inconsequential staff located unnecessarily in a dusty, thousand-degree hellhole, there’s a bevy of completely perfunctory powerpoint taskers with his name written all over them.

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