Empty Cockpits Are a Problem for the U.S. Air Force
In late 2016, the Air Force realized it was facing a shortage of about 700 fighter pilots. The service, to its credit, pushed ahead with several initiatives to avert the looming crisis. The result: The Air Force is now short about 1,200 fighter pilots.
It’s not that the Air Force's steps weren't improvements. It's that they were too small. With commercial airlines poaching the military ranks to replace a giant cohort of their own pilots now reaching mandatory retirement age, the Air Force’s predicament is likely to get worse.
The Pentagon’s main response thus far has been to spend more. Last summer, it offered retention bonuses of up to $455,000 over 13 years to eligible officers. Monthly "flight pay" for pilots also increased, while drone pilots were rewarded with a $35,000 raise annually if they re-upped for five years. The Air Force also graduated its first class of noncommissioned officers from drone-flight school, which had previously been limited to officers with cockpit experience.
Still, these changes amount to little more than a Band-Aid. And given the huge training costs involved -- as much as $11 million per pilot for the new F-35 Lightning II -- there isn't enough in the budget to restock through recruitment.
What to do? Increasingly, the Pentagon is loosening its "up or out" promotion policy, under which officers follow a strict career path that includes desk jobs and other things less fun than flying a $100 million jet at Mach 1. It could offer a new "pilot-only" track for flyers who just want to fly and aren't looking to rise to very top of the service. In addition, pilots are often made to move to new assignments and bases all over the world every few years; giving those with families more flexibility to stay put would improve their quality of life.
The Air Force should also consider a longer initial service commitment than the standard six or 10 years for those it sends to flight school, and a lengthened commitment from veteran pilots who receive additional training on more modern aircraft.
The Air Force’s shortage is not limited to fighter pilots; it also has about 2,500 fewer ground-maintenance personnel than needed to keep its planes in the air. To stanch the bleeding of maintenance workers, it could bring back an entire class of airman: the warrant officer. Warrant officers, who still exist in the other three service branches, are specialized workers who rank above, and receive better pay than, enlisted men and noncommissioned officers.
These steps, combined with expanding opportunities for non-officers to fly drones and transport aircraft -- the Air Force is also short several hundred non-fighter pilots -- could make a real difference. (So could raising the mandatory retirement age for commercial pilots, which would require the approval of the Federal Aviation Administration.) As the threat of great-power conflict rises, the capability and range of the U.S. Air Force is ever more vital to both U.S. national security and global stability.
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