U.S. Air Force Pilot Shortage – Creative Solutions for a Key Concern

U.S. Air Force Pilot Shortage – Creative Solutions for a Key Concern
U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Kevin Tanenbaum
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In June of 1944, the U.S. and Japan grappled in a dizzying air battle, now commonly called the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot due to the devastating losses of Japanese aircraft and pilots at the hands of American forces.  Several factors contributed to the U.S. victory, but prominent among them was the lack of Japanese pilots with the aptitude and experience to wage an effective fight.  The battle was, in fact, a set-piece culmination of what had steadily plagued the Japanese since Pearl Harbor – a continued erosion of air combat capability, including a shortage of trained pilots. 

Unfortunately in 2017, the issue of pilot shortage – and its effects – has again throttled up to the forefront of defense policy discussions.  Press reports, congressional hearings, and think-tanks have addressed this concern, especially within the U.S. Air Force.  Of course, this problem is not new; the U.S. military has dealt with recurring periods of pilot shortage for decades.  And, a number of contributing variables have historically determined the career decisions of pilots – from the culture of the services, deployment rates and pay to other more subjective perceptions of the pilot force.   

However, this particular cycle is marked by some striking numbers.  In a recent congressional hearing on Air Force readiness, service leadership indicated that the Air Force is roughly 1,555 pilots short from the total force requirement with shortfall numbers hovering around 950 for fighter pilots alone.  Clearly, this dilemma presents a number of concerns, namely our ability to match and check an increasingly complex, unpredictable, and dynamic set of global threats.  

In response, Air Force leadership has offered a range of solutions to shore up readiness and stem further hemorrhaging of the aviation corps.  Some ideas, like forming mutual partnership agreements with the airlines have been floated, partly as a way to avoid more drastic moves like issuing stop-losses within the service.  As policy-makers seek to address this current pilot shortage, a handful of novel solutions are available now.  They can be executed relatively quickly regarding planning and programming, have been successfully implemented in other Air Forces around the globe, and may be timely now.  

History provides insight.  During the 1990’s pilot shortage, an initiative to use Reserve pilots as instructor pilots in Air Education and Training Command’s (AETC) undergraduate pilot training program was introduced to alleviate part of the pilot shortage.  There was a degree of resistance to this concept at the time from various parts of the enterprise, but eventually, Air Force leadership was convinced it would work.  Today, the Reserves are a large presence in Air Force pilot training operations.  

Making innovative use of contractors might also present a partial solution.  In 1987, the year I attended pilot training, active-duty instructor pilots performed all the instructor duties, which included platform instruction, simulator instruction, and flight instruction.  Today, contractors perform everything but the flight instruction.  Given the “Total Force” is comprised of Active-Duty, Guard and Reserve, Civil Service and contractors, continuing to migrate the instructor pilot force to contractors might free up pilots for assignment elsewhere in combat platforms.  The impact would be immediate, with only the contract acquisition time-cycle as the lead time to implement.   

Of course, increasing the available instructor pilots at the undergraduate level – while simultaneously increasing the number of pilots available for assignment to combat platforms through the use of increased contractors – should be modeled for cost-effectiveness and overall impact to the current manning and assignment system.  That said, it is highly likely the research will show lower total career and retirement life-cycle costs overall.  It would also likely field more instructor pilots quicker (increasing training capacity) and will allow additional capacity to train our foreign partners.

Finally, it is a simple truth that pilot training graduates want to fly airplanes – but assignments to unmanned platforms that place qualified pilots into unmanned rather than manned combat platforms is largely due to math: current assignment prerequisites balanced against the volume required.  Additionally, the cultural tendency of the Air Force for its officers to be the “trigger-pullers,” influences the assignment system and the availability of pilots.  These characteristics of assignment do impact the overall pilot culture and might be addressed by broadening its enlisted UAS operator and navigator to UAS operator pipelines.  Bottom-line, the Air Force could help itself by utilizing pilot-qualified graduates from its current undergraduate fixed-wing primary and advanced pilot training program solely for its manned combat platforms; however, a cultural shift would be required.       

So far, the Air Force seems willing to be creative in addressing these problems; partnering with the airlines indicates they are open to fundamental changes to support their warfighter commitments to our country.  This sort of public-private partnership is not always easy to design or administer – but it is a step in the right direction.  As we continue to balance limited budgets with higher operational tempos and rapidly changing threats, we will need to formulate new angles of approach and attack.  No solution is a silver bullet, and all promising initiatives should be fully developed in both the constrained and unconstrained planning environments and tested for outcomes.  Our pilots (and by extension, their crews) truly epitomize the synthesized weapon of man and machine.  When aggregated into larger units, this system gives us the global air superiority advantage that we enjoy.  If we are to maintain our air combat prowess and avoid an erosion of capability similar to the Japanese over the Marianas, we must get creative in our solutions to address this key shortage concern.

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