Air Force Staring Down Barrel Of Pilot Shortage, Could ‘Break The Force’

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

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Saagar Enjeti White House Correspondent
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The U.S. Air Force is facing a record pilot shortage going into the next fiscal year, exacerbating fears of critical readiness gaps, Secretary Heather Wilson told Pentagon reporters Thursday.

“With 2,000 pilots short, it’ll break the force,” Wilson lamented, declaring flatly “It’ll break it.” The shortage threatened to eventually bleed into shorthanded squadrons deployed overseas if not immediately addressed by Congress, the Air Force secretary warned.

The shortage continues despite several initiatives aimed at pilot retention, including offering lucrative bonuses to would-be retirees. These include 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.

“I met someone last week who has just come back from his 17th deployment. Seventeen deployments. And at some point, families make a decision that they just can’t keep doing this at this pace,” Wilson said, noting the compounding nature of the pilot shortage.

The commercial airline industry poses the biggest threat to Air Force recruitment, Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gina M. Grosso told Congress in March 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 Air Force has long grappled with fighter pilot shortage. A number of factors contribute to creating a shortage, a 2015 Rand Corporation study noted and explained:

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).

“Absorption is typically the most binding constraint,” the study continued, adding: “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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