For decades now Americans have taken US air superiority for granted, but troubling new revelations out of the Air Force cast doubt on just how long the US can rule the skies.
Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein, speaking at the “State of the Air Force” address in the Pentagon said of the Air Force’s current state, “I believe it’s a crisis: air superiority is not an American birthright. It’s actually something you have to fight for and maintain.”
Currently, the US Air Force faces a pilot shortage of 700 and a shortage of 4,000 maintainers, which could not come at a worse time.
Drone pilots suffer a high rate of burn out as they work 12 to 13 hour days, performing mainly intelligence, surveillance, and reconnisance missions, but also some strikes where mistakes caused by tired eyes can cost lives.
“Demand for our services is way, way up. But we are meeting those demands today with the smallest Air Force in our history,” said Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James in a separate “State of the Air Force” address.
Additionally, austere budgets hamstring the force while a healthy US economy offers attractive employment opportuinites that pay better without taxing on pilots so harshly. In short, commercial airlines are poaching the US’s best pilots.
According to Goldfein, the tight schedules and budgets hurt readiness, and in turn hurt morale.
“I’m a believer that morale and readiness are absolutely linked,” he said, as noted by the Washington Post. “And where we have high readiness, we have reasonably high morale and the quality of service is high. And where we have low readiness, we have our largest morale issues.”
Another possible blow to morale comes in the form of rising adversaries. In the South China Sea, China has established the infrastructure to effectively enforce an air identification and defence zone. In Eastern Europe, Russia has near parity with the US Air Force.
During the address at the Pentagon, both Goldfein and James made the argument that financial incentives could help the Air Force retain the best talent.
“The current annual bonus offered to pilots of manned aircraft — $25,000 per year — has not changed since 1999 and its value has been impacted by inflation,” the pair explained in a jointly written article on DefenseOne. For manned pilots, the Air Force has requested the figure raised to $48,000.
At the Pentagon on Wednesday, James announced that the annual bonus would increase to $35,000 for drone pilots.
But despite these moves to retain talent, many pilots are simply ageing out of the program, and James projects the shortfall to increase tenfold to 7,000 in “a couple of years.”
With such a shortfall, it’s hard to imagine the US maintaining superiority in the face of the growing threats around the world. Air superiority is not just nice to have, but it is also the backbone of the US military’s dominance.
Goldfein adroitly summed up it’s importance here, “Air power has become the oxygen the joint team breathes. Have it, you don’t even think about. Don’t have it, it’s all you think about.”
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