National Security

‘Crisis’ Looms As Air Force Projects It Will Lose 700 Fighter Pilots In 2016

South Carolina Air National Guard/Senior Master Sgt. Edward Snyder/Handout via REUTERS

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Russ Read Pentagon/Foreign Policy Reporter
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The U.S. Air Force is projected to lose as many as 700 fighter pilots by the end of 2016.

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James told reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon Wednesday she is seeking new authority from Congress to pay bonuses and improve the salaries of active fighter pilots, so that the Air Force has enough capable pilots in the immediate future. She noted that a hiring increase from commercial air lines and slow pilot training output are two major problems contributing to the shortfall.

Pilots leaving could rise to 1,000 in a couple more years, according to James.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein added that the strain put on pilots in the last two decades from both a personal and professional level has contributed to the loss.

“For me its a combination of quality of service and quality of life,” said Goldfein, who joined James in the briefing. “We’re coming out of, for the Air Force, 25 [or] 26 years of continual combat. And so, the force has been engaged in a much higher level. That translates to a lot more time away from home and all of the uncertainty that goes with that.”

In order to alleviate the shortfall, Goldfein said Air Force leadership plans to address both the quality of life and quality of service issues. Regarding quality of life, the Air Force wants bonuses and higher pay for pilots who resign contracts after their initial service commitment is completed. Goldfein noted that Air Force studies have shown that alleviating financial stress in terms of bonuses has led to a positive response from the pilot community.

Regarding quality of service, Goldfein said pilots who do not fly simply “are not going to stay with the company, because we are not allowing them to be the very best they can be.”

“Air superiority is not an American birthright,” warned Goldfein. “The secretary and I actually penned an article together … we specifically stated that it is a crisis.” 

The general went on to explain that modern pilots are getting about half the training hours he received when he was a pilot during Operation Desert Storm. He noted morale and readiness are connected, and without the proper training hours, pilots will suffer.

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