Update: Former Vice Chief Opines on Pilot Shortage


I chose this photo for its irony.

Here is Larry Spencer having his fourth star pinned by Gen. Norton Schwartz, who in his tenure as Chief of Staff did as much as anyone in modern airpower history to transform the institution into a self-loathing stew of pilot-hating supportism. His notorious rulebookery and insistence that airmen embrace a “double down, all in, shut up and color” ethos not only pissed off everyone with an independently-functioning brain, but persuaded scores of combat pilots they should have joined the Marines.

The irony is that Spencer is now writing commentaries bemoaning the pilot shortage his hero Schwartz helped instigate … and the Air Force Times is eagerly publishing the thoughts of this most eminent of non-pilots on a subject about which he’s shown precious little grasp. The deeper irony is that Spencer did nothing but contribute to the acceleration of the current pilot shortage during his own time as Vice Chief.

But alas, let us not get bogged down in pesky credibility issues. What matters is what the man actually had to say. Here are a few snippets.

This is a damn fine point by Spencer, and it makes me wonder exactly who we should blame for this god awful mess. I mean, he’s right. Whatever cabal of sinister jackals stands behind this rolling clown show deserves center position on the top shelf of the blue wall of shame. Who the hell would do such a thing?

For the answer, we need look no further than the biography of a certain former senior officer … a 4-star who spent nine consecutive years in budget and force structure positions during the very time the Air Force started gulping down its own seed corn. Check it out.

Who is this axe-wielding budgetary vagabond? None other than Larry Spencer. Around the time Spencer was pinning on his second star, the service cut is entire F-117 fleet. Around the time he was pinning on his third star, the Air Staff slashed another 300 fighters and accompanying force structure. Together, these moves were designed to free up enough cash to buy 30 F-35s, though the savings were mainly theoretical.

Spencer’s Pentagon voluntarily made an incremental force structure trade-off expected to result in a force package 7% its former size. The move was a deliberate one to reduce the size of the Air Force. He’s now either pretending to have been in a fog all those years or is genuinely just now coming out of the fog he was in all those years.

But let’s not forget … Spencer also played dutiful sidekick to the notoriously petulant Mark Welsh, who attempted unsuccessfully to cut the remainder of the A-10 fleet in 2013 (and 2014, and 2015, and 2016). Had that move been successful, nine more squadrons would have been excised from the service … along with their pilots.

So if indeed it was a mistake, and indeed it was, Spencer is closer than any of his cronies to actually accepting responsibility for it — even if that’s not what he’s meaning to do.

To that first part, I say “shack.” It doesn’t take an experienced business leader. Most everyone in the flying Air Force has known and been saying this for years. It’s been the USAF equivalent of the experienced business leaders — the general officers — who have been getting it wrong. This helps explain the second part of Spencer’s remark. Generals get paid less than airline pilots because their “skills” are not in high demand. We certainly don’t have a general officer shortage.

Actually, they’ll tell you it’s about both and one more thing. The money has to be enough that they and their families can be reasonably indifferent to what’s available elsewhere. The mission has to be stimulating, and they must be given the authority and resources to conduct it at an excellent level. But there’s also morale, and this is the big one. Queep must die, squadron life must come roaring back, and the fun and camaraderie of yesteryear must once again thrive.

Anything less than this holy trinity of pilot retention, and the bleeding will continue.

Don’t get me wrong. I respect Gen. Spencer and his service, and I’m glad at least one retired general officer is weighing in on these issues. He’s not primarily or even particularly responsible for the USAF pilot shortage … he was merely a good soldier at a time when basically no one was anything different. It was a era of groupthink that got us here, and he was along for the ride. To the extent he had clout during his near-decade in the Pentagon, he didn’t wield it.

But I am amused that the Air Force Times gives column inches to Spencer on this issue without disclaiming his contributing role in creating the mess he now laments. That paper really needs to get its act together and be more critical of our service … because critical voices are healthy. A few more of them over the years and we might not be wringing our hands about a basically unfixable shortage of people willing to do (what was once) the coolest job in the world.

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