The Air Force was 1,555 pilots short of its mandated 20,300 fliers as of April 2017 and is expected to be lacking 1,000 fighter pilots by the end of the current fiscal year in September.
The pilot shortage has been a problem for some time — the Air Force chief of staff and Air Force secretary called it a “quiet crisis” in summer 2016 — and the service is now looking to rapidly train new ones.
After training 1,100 pilots in 2016, the Air Force is set to turn out 1,200 this year and should hit 1,400 pilots annually in the near future.
But that would be the maximum the service could train at a time when it could need even more, Air Force Lt. Gen. Daryl Roberson, head of Air Education and Training Command, told Air Force Times this week.
Hitting the 1,600-pilots-a-year level that may be needed would require more training personnel, training aircraft, and trainees.
“We are going to have to figure out a way to produce pilots that is outside the resource capacity of the United States Air Force,” Roberson said. “We’re maximizing the use of our air frames to the fullest extent that we can right now. We can only produce so many flying training sorties per day, and that’s going to be exceeded.”
Air Force officials have singled out lucrative and less demanding jobs in commercial aviation as a main reason for pilots leaving the service. To keep fliers in uniform, the Air Force has proposed a number of new policies, including reduced administrative duties, higher pay and bonuses, and more flexible assignments.
The Air Force has also asked retired pilots to return and take on administrative jobs that require pilot training so active-duty pilots can focus on operations. It is also looking to outsource the “red air” component of training, in which pilots play the role of opposition aircraft.
But the strain on the people who keep the Air Force in the air is still evident, and it appears to be having ripple effect on the introduction of at least one major new platform.
The Air Force declared initial operating capability for its newest gunship, the AC-130J Ghostrider, this week, but the plane is still about two years from seeing actual combat — in part because there aren’t pilots to train on it.
“This is a fully configured gunship,” Air Force Special Operations chief Lt. Gen. Marshall Webb told Military.com. “The challenge that we have, it’s my problem, is how do we fight the current fight — we have gunships deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria — and use those same people to convert into a new weapon system?”
“So that draws out the timeline from IOC of airframes to train the guys who come back from combat into a new weapon system, have them have a deployed-dwell time to make sure that they’re going to have families at the end of their 20-year career, then bring them back on the battlefield in the Js,” Webb added.
Roberson said the Air Force has asked Congress for more funding to train pilots, but it’s also looking for a “comprehensive approach” involving nationwide effort to get pilot production up to the needed level.
“That could be a national pilot-training academy that is partially funded by airlines and industry and the military,” and others groups, he told Air Force Times.
“We produce pilots to a certain standard, and then some go into the military first with a guaranteed follow-on, perhaps, to the airlines,” he added. “We have to build a construct, as a nation, on how we’re going to get at producing the number of pilots we need long-term.”
While the pilot shortage is perhaps the Air Force’s most high-profile challenge, the service is looking at a number of changes to its administrative operations and strategic focus to ease the burden on personnel and better use resources.
As part of an effort to push decision-making responsibility down the chain of command, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said this week he would issue a memo giving wing and squadron commands the power to determine how much rest time pilots and other airmen get between missions.
Goldfein called the squadron the “heartbeat” of the Air Force and said delegating authority to commanders at that level would grow increasingly important in future military engagements, where lines of communication between headquarters and field commanders are more vulnerable.
The Air Force is also looking for shake-ups elsewhere to ease the stress put on its people and planes by roughly 20 years of more-or-less continuous operations, as well as growing demand for it in Europe, Asia, and Afghanistan.
During a panel discussion at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space & Cyber conference, Pacific Air Forces commander Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy underscored the need to revamp Air Force operations to project power in the face of future opponents with advanced capabilities.
To adapt to opponents with the ability to deny freedom of movement, O’Shaughnessy said the US military needed to find ways to fight from bases both inside and outside of contested areas. “We need kind of a hybrid in the Pacific,” he said.
Gen. Tod Wolters, who leads US Air Forces in Europe, said during the same event that deterring potential foes and properly using available weapons systems was vital in his area of operations. As a part of that, NATO air forces have recently assumed missions in the Baltic states and Poland.
“We’re in the process of taking all 29 [NATO] nations and contributing on a voluntary basis to the deterrent capabilities that exist in those four countries,” he said.
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