Air Force in Crisis, Part II: How Did We Get Here?
Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a short series on the pilot retention crisis in the Air Force. Read the first installment here.
“The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution.”
The U.S. Air Force is 2,000 pilots short, and the shortage is getting worse. Part I of this series outlined the importance of retention. Now, to answer why retention fell, it’s best to first understand when it fell. The Air Force hopes to retain 65 percent of pilots eligible to leave, yet the service last met this goal in 2013. While that tells a story, it’s not necessarily the right story. Like most generalizations, this statistic suffers from a flaw of averages. In this case, these annual metrics are snapshots — the shortfalls are additive. Of the 2,000 pilots the Air Force is currently short, 1,300 of those are fighter pilots. Since the Air Force produces roughly 300 fighter pilots a year, simple math says it took more than a few years of shortages for this crisis to manifest. Distilling internal Air Force retention data by flying community reveals the true crisis: the Air Force has not met its fighter pilot retention goal in 10 years.
When there is a pilot shortage, the Air Force fills cockpits at the expense of leaving staff positions unfilled. Looking at the problem through this lens, the Air Force pilot shortage goes back as far as 2004, even during years it was meeting retention goals. Back then, upwards of 22 percent of all fighter pilot staff billets were unfilled. Despite eliminating 46 percent of fighter staff positions since then, Aircrew Crisis Task Force data reveals that 71 percent of fighter pilot staff positions in the Pentagon are currently unfilled. The chart above shows fighter pilot retention started falling below overall pilot retention in 2008. So, what happened?
1. The Air Force Got Too Small (People)
Senior leaders, choosing between modernization and readiness during times of fiscal constraints, have gradually reduced the size of the Air Force. This started in 2008, when leadership decided to trade people for programs. The Air Force cut 40,000 personnel, including 9,000 experienced aircraft maintainers — despite the fact that aircraft maintenance required per-flight hour had risen 62 percent since 1991. This marked the beginning of a startling disconnect between aircraft maintenance and flight operations that has been seen in virtually every fighter squadron over the past decade. With fewer people, even maximum efforts by aircraft maintenance squadrons to fill a flying schedule fell below the minimum requirement for flying squadrons to sustain readiness. This led to over-worked aircraft maintenance squadrons, resulting in burned-out and fed-up aircraft maintainers.
As experienced maintainers left, providing flyable aircraft became more difficult and pilots grew frustrated with the growing number of creative-yet-painful workarounds. Local leadership continued to stress the quantity of flying hours in order to report high readiness to their superiors, even though the quality of training became worse down the chain of command. This fostered a growing dissent against local leadership, who were perceived to be more company men than leaders of men.
During the same time period, fighter pilot production was slashed to grow the fledgling remotely piloted aircraft community. Internal Air Force data reveals the service produced just 100 fighter pilots in 2007, and 110 in 2008 — far less than the roughly 300 fighter pilots the service needed to produce annually. Concurrently, the wildly unpopular TAMI-21 initiative was launched. This directed a one-time redistribution of 180 pilots to other airframes — 140 of which were fighter pilots. Most of these went to MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper units to lend experience to the growing fleets. Since budget sequestration hit in 2013, the Air Force has produced roughly 175 fewer active duty pilots annually than it had before sequestration. According to the Aircrew Crisis Task Force, at its lowest point in 2014, the Air Force produced fewer than 90 fighter pilots. To an extent, falling production can be offset with higher retention. However pilot retention had been quietly falling in each of those same years.
The personnel cuts also led the Air Force to consolidate administrative squadron support. In 2008, flying units’ support staff was centralized in large new buildings in the name of greater efficiency. When the staff was physically in the squadron, support was always a few feet away — a critical characteristic for those who live by the flying schedule. Now aircrew had to travel across base, during the posted office hours, to get support. Jobs that weren’t moved out of the squadron were absorbed by pilots as extra duties, detracting from mission focus. After nine years, the Air Force finally acknowledged the issue and announced plans to add 1,600 personnel to restore the support staffs.
In 2015 the active duty force hit 311,000 airmen, the lowest since the Air Force became a separate service. Having admitted that the service mistakenly downsized too much, too fast, the Air Force is now slowly rebuilding the ranks. The Air Force ended 2017 with roughly 321,000 airmen, but openly says it needs to grow to 350,000 airmen — a level not seen since 2005, but what is required to fully man every current squadron.
2. The Air Force Got Too Small (Airplanes)
When it comes to aircraft, the Air Force is in an efficiency paradox. It has too many types of aircraft to maintain but too few planes to cut anything, and is too slow at replacing an aging fleet. Since 1991, the service has been on a fleet recapitalization schedule that is going to take over 100 years. The Combat Air Forces Reduction Plan tried to address this in 2010 when it slashed 246 older fighter jets from the inventory to fund a smaller, more capable force. However, reducing the number of fighters increased the burden on each one remaining. This is what drives operations tempo — one of the driving reasons for poor retention.
This force structure cut also reduced the pool of operational cockpits available to receive newly minted aviators from the pilot production pipeline (see Part I of this series). But another huge side effect of this cut was largely overlooked: A larger pool of pilots means the service could afford to accept higher turnover because there are vastly more cockpits than staff positions to fill. A pilot in the first half of his career spends all of his or her time flying. But pilots spend a large portion of the second half of their career filling critical non-flying assignments and doing professional military education, both of which are relatively immune to force structure changes.
With F-22 production curtailed in 2009, most of this new force structure plan hinged on the success of the F-35. Unfortunately, the same year this new plan was released, the F-35’s systemic problems reached a boiling point, which led to the firing of the general in charge. The original strategy assumed that over 100 fighters would be delivered annually, but that never happened. For justifiable reasons, the service is buying much less now, and forecasting just 60 F-35s annually at full rate production. Unfortunately for the Air Force, this places the program on a 40-year pace to replace legacy fighters. This accelerates the aging fleet problem — which will continue to drive required maintenance up, and flyable aircraft availability down.
The Air Force has modernization plans for its 30-year old fourth-generation fighters that will make them relevant for the next 30 years. However, buying new fourth generation F-15 and F-16s while the production lines are still open would accelerate the fighter fleet recapitalization rate, drive down fleet airframe life averages, and diversify the frail industrial base — all at a comparable cost of the current planned robust modifications (radar, sensors, avionics, structural upgrades, etc.). Reducing the fleet age reduces maintenance required, which increases the aircraft available to fly. This puts pilots in the air to train — their primary duty — which bolsters morale and readiness.
Despite fewer planes and fewer people, fiscal challenges still remained. Faced with tough choices, the Air Force cut 10 percent of its flying hours to invest in simulators. With simulators largely in place, in 2011 the Air Force decided to change the metric for readiness to increase the quality of training. Unfortunately, this instantly over-burdened fighter squadrons. Combat units still had to fly the same number of sorties as before, but were now also required to do three monthly simulators events per person. This translated into a 35 percent increase in training requirements — with no additional resources. This was the point that fighter pilots became stretched just as thin as the maintainers on the flight line.
Pilots and maintainers were now working 12–14 hour days, yet aircraft were being used less and less. In my last squadron, pilot and maintenance manning could only sustain 18 sorties per day. My commander commonly lamented that ten years prior when he was in the same unit with the same jets, the squadron flew 26 sorties per day — all while maintaining a decent quality of life.
3. The Air Force Got Too Small (Lethality)
Take all of the above, and expand the demand. The 90-day no-fly zone rotations of the 1990’s gave way to 120-day deployments in 2004. When the Afghanistan troop surge began in 2010, the Air Force responded by extending squadron deployments to six months. Eight years later, the surge is a distant memory, yet the Air Force has yet to reverse the extension. All the while, high-end skills atrophy. When squadrons return from a deployment they spend months working to relearn these critical skills.
Notably, this six-month deployment cycle describes the active duty force. The Air National Guard enjoys a much better quality of life — and typically does four-month deployments (or less). I’ve heard senior officers cite the six-month rotations as a cost-saving measure, which ignores the immense second-order benefits that shorter deployments bring: improved readiness, better quality of life, and reduced family stress. These are all factors cited in retention surveys. Given that the Air Force invests upwards of $11 million taxpayer dollars on developing an experienced fighter pilot, if shorter deployments retain just one additional fighter pilot every year, wouldn’t they pay for themselves?
This doesn’t just affect the pace of operations: it affects the scope of missions too. Because the Air Force is too small, today every multi-role fighter squadron must be ready to execute virtually every mission possible — a remarkable shift from the way multi-role fighters were used in previous generations. For this reason, the Air Force has stated it wants to grow from 55 to 60 fighter squadrons (roughly 120 fighters) in order to meet current operational demands. It also has aspirations to get to 70 fighter squadrons, essentially restoring the 246 fighters cut from 2010.
While this will take time and money, there is something that can be done today: share Aerospace Control Alert to spread the burden. While the Air Force has just 68 percent of the total U.S. fighter inventory (1,900 fighters), it does 100 percent of this homeland defense mission. There are 1,300 fighters in the Navy and Marine Corps that could offer Air Force units relief from the thousands of missions they’ve executed since September 2001. Some might say this is a uniquely Air National Guard mission, but the Air Force is so over-stretched any help is meaningful. After all, the Air Force routinely surges operations every time the deployed carrier suspends flight operations to perform underway replenishment, or pick up the slack when there is a carrier gap in the Middle East.
The Long Road Ahead
Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David Goldfein likes to say that readiness and morale are intrinsically linked. I contend that trust and confidence are also linked to readiness and morale — unquestionable trust to be sent away from your family and into harm’s way at a moment’s notice, and doing so with the confidence that you have the equipment and training to persevere. Because these are all connected to retention, in many ways retention is a barometer for readiness. Unsurprisingly, each of the last five pilot retention crises occurred during periods of low readiness.
As long as it took this crisis to manifest, the road to recovery will be just as long — if not longer.
Mike Benitez is an F-15E Strike Eagle Weapons Systems Officer in the U.S. Air Force. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.
Image: U.S. Air Force/Ilka Cole