The Air Force’s growing shortage of fighter pilots is a “quiet crisis that will almost certainly get worse before it gets better,” the service’s new chief and its top civilian leader said in an opinion piece published Thursday. But how bad is it? According to data obtained by The Washington Post, the number of fighter pilots in the service has fallen five years straight, and plummeted in the last two despite increasing need.
The information was requested by The Post before the publication of the opinion piece by Air Force Gen. David L. Goldfein and Air Force Secretary Deborah L. James. Currently, about 21 percent of all fighter pilot jobs in the Air Force are vacant. Here’s the state of play:
The numbers are really even starker, however. The service has added fighter pilot jobs gradually, from 3,395 in 2012 to 3,495 in 2016. That means that the percentage of vacant jobs is growing even more dramatically:
Shown yet another way, here’s the number of empty fighter pilot jobs each of the last five years:
The service said that it keeps all fighter pilot jobs in deployed squadrons full. But the statistics still raise questions about long-term strains on the force and how prepared squadrons may be in the future.
The Air Force, in a written response to questions posed by The Post, attributed the shortage to several factors. One prominent one is a well-documented pilot shortage in the commercial world, which has spiked since 2013, when the Federal Aviation Administration decided that to hold an airline transport certificate, a “first officer” — better known as a co-pilot — must have 1,500 hours of flight time. Previously, first officers were required to have 250 hours of flight time.
But the reasons extend beyond that. As James and Goldfein acknowledged in their piece on Defense One, the service also has been forced to “dramatically” reduce the amount of flying time pilots receive to prepare for “high-end flight,” a category that includes everything from carrying out air-to-air combat to facing ground fire in a contested environment.
Goldfein has previously raised concerns about what effect that could have “if you ask us to retake Estonia,” as he put it in March when he was vice chief of the Air Force. But reduced time in the cockpit at home is historically the kind of thing that drives down morale for pilots who want to stay busy and prepared.
But the Air Force also attributed the departure of fighter pilots to high operational tempo in its written response to The Post. That’s a direct reflection of the nearly two-year-old air war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, continued air operations in Afghanistan and new missions that have emerged in eastern Europe, where tensions have spiked with Russia and more U.S. fighter jets are now stationed.
Air Force officials also said they are examining “home station quality of life and readiness,” an issue that has the potential to affect morale. And it has pressed Congress to boost funding so it can offer greater financial incentives to fighter pilots to stay in the military.
These issues have been raised before, however. In one example, the Rand Corp. published a report last year that said the service faced a “persistent and critical shortage of fighter pilots” and said the service should consider measures to not only retain more pilots but also effectively integrate newer ones faster and reassign a number of non-flying staff jobs that are currently filled by fighter pilots to other kinds of officers.
The report states that overall fighter pilot dynamics have been out of whack ever since the military began drawing down after the Cold War. A summit of four-star generals that addressed the issue in 1996 set a goal of training 370 new fighter pilots per year, according to the report, but funding was not provided to do so until 1999 and that number was never reached.
The Rand report was funded by the Air Force, with a draft report delivered to service leaders in October 2014, just after air operations against the Islamic State began. Two years later, the problems are even worse.
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