A Plan for Keeping the U.S. Air Force's Best Pilots in Service

U.S. Air Force attack aircraft A-10 "Thunderbolt" pilot reacts as he takes part in a landing exercise on a motorway near Jagala, Estonia, August 10, 2017.

The U.S. Air Force needs to make pilot service more competitive and rewarding.

Pay, standards for performance and time in the air are big issues that can easily mask the effect of social engineering on service members. These injects are not experiments, but moral mandates. Those who don’t accept the new coding must either hide their own beliefs or find themselves facing one of the few real disqualifiers for promotion.

Those willing to give up their trajectories in the civilian sector to (re)embrace those issues will have predictable qualities and dispositions. While many will be positive, it only takes one or two caustic personalities to cause someone on the cusp of staying to make the decision to leave.

But that’s not the only potential downside of this move. Bringing back these graybeards will also affect the quality of life for those pilots still on active duty.

Retirees lured to return to the active Air Force will likely only fly in stable, nondeploying roles such as basic flight school or fighter training units—assignments that fighter pilots once avoided due to their nonoperational mission. Unfortunately, those assignments are the only place where midgrade officers can find relief from the relentless operations tempo of today’s Air Force.

Removing those assignment opportunities from those currently serving will mean more time away from home for fighter pilots whose families already bear the brunt of their service’s demands. This will likely make retaining those pilots that much more challenging.

In 1991, the Air Force executed the unpopular policy known as “stop loss” to prevent the exodus of fighter pilots during Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and later offered generous bonuses for that era in an attempt to entice those eligible to exit the service not to do so. While successful in the 1990s, the same scheme of retaining pilots with even bigger bonuses will leave the service a thousand active-duty fighter pilots short by year’s end.

The chief of staff of the Air Force has stated that he is not considering stop loss to stem the current crisis. But the service has to do something to fill the 28 percent fighter-pilot manning shortfall. Even with its adverse long-term effects, this novel move to recall retirees, coupled with more generous bonus payments, may temporarily shore up the numbers. But its timing is late, and the Air Force’s overall strategy once again lacks reason.

Legend has it that early twentieth-century insane asylums tested inmates’ ability to reason by placing them a room with water gushing from a faucet onto a concrete floor. They gave the patient a mop and a bucket and told him to mop. If he went for the faucet before attacking the floor with the mop, they paroled him. If not, they knew he was still crazy.

The Air Force has addressed every pilot manning shortfall in recent history by going right for the mop. While the depth of this fighter-pilot shortage certainly demands that the leadership address the crisis on the floor, it also needs to address the spigot and every inch of space between it and the flat surface below.

The service has initiated a second move to target at least part of that flow: the influx of pilots. Air Education and Training Command has announced plans to increase pilot production from one thousand to 1,200 pilots per year. While this 20 percent increase is a step in the right direction, actualizing this initiative will likely take several years, and require another pilot-training base, due to capacity limitations within the current training structure.

However, tweaks in student scheduling can accelerate the pace that classes move through flight school and reduce pilot training from a year-long endeavor to one approaching nine months—and that move can be made quickly and at virtually no cost.

That said, a 20 percent increase is nowhere near enough. If the Air Force holds to a 100 percent graduation rate, a 20 percent increase will deliver an additional two hundred pilots a year, but the quality of those graduates will always be questioned. And the mindsets that come with no screening at any level will do little to make the best want to stay.

The Air Force should incrementally increase pilot production to 1,400 pilots a year—a level that will allow screening at all levels. Screening won’t just bring a sense of pride back to the fighter force, it will deliver pilots more prone to quickly absorb, master and execute new tactics; pilots that can successfully fulfill tasks in dynamic and challenging environments, like flying in the low-altitude structure.

There is virtually no training currently accomplished at low altitude, and tasks easily accomplished at medium altitude can overwhelm pilots flying in the weeds. If—when—the need arises to re-enter that structure in a combat environment, there won’t be time for slow learning curves or multiple do-over sorties that are now the norm throughout the flight training pipeline. The competence and confidence that comes with screening will renew an elite mindset in the fighter force that will enable mission success, further unit cohesion and foster an individual’s desire to stay.

The last of the measures the service must address is the space in between the faucet—their graduation from flight school—and a pilot’s first opportunity to leave the service.