Air Force Grapples With Shortage Of 1200 Fighter Pilots

(U.S. Air Force photo/ Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen)

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Saagar Enjeti White House Correspondent

The U.S. Air Force is grappling with a shortage of 1,200 fighter pilots.

The service is launching new initiatives to retain and recruit pilots, including the first flight pay hike for pilots since 1999, a bonus for existing aviators, and a new program to bring back retired fighter pilots poached by the commercial airline industry.

“We need to retain our experienced pilots and these are some examples of how we’re working to do that,” U.S Air-Force secretary Heather Wilson said in a statement Friday. “We can’t afford not to compensate our talented aviators at a time when airlines are hiring in unprecedented numbers.”

“A 1,200 fighter-pilot shortage amounts to a $12 billion capital loss for the United States Air Force,” Air Force deputy chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gina M. Grosso told Congress in March. Grosso reiterated that the commercial airline industry poses the biggest threat to Air Force recruitment, and noted an “unprecedented” hiring spree to fill an upcoming retirement surge among elderly pilots. “These annual hiring levels are expected to continue for the next 10 to 15 years,” she declared.

The fighter pilot shortage comes amid growing concerns about readiness across the entire U.S. military. Secretary of Defense James Mattis told Congress he was “shocked” at the state of the force in June blaming years of unsteady funding streams from the U.S. Congress. “The competitive advantage that the United States military has long enjoyed is eroding,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford similarly declared, citing readiness concerns.

The Air Force has long grappled with fighter pilot shortage. A 2015 Rand Corporation study noted that a number of factors contribute to creating a shortage explaining:

“The key elements that determine the size of the pilot inventory are the capacity to train new pilots (production), the capacity to introduce new pilots into operational units and give them enough flying time to turn them into experienced pilots (absorption), and the retention of experienced pilots that largely determines how many new pilots are required each year (sustainment).”

The study continued that “absorption is typically the most binding constraint,” adding that “during the past several decades, the Air Force has faced reductions in its fighter aircraft inventory that have caused its absorption capacity to fall below its sustainment needs.”

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