Defense News is now reporting that the first squadron of U.S. Air Force F-35A fighter jets are “Ready For Combat”. But will there be sufficient support to maintain them and enough pilots to fly them?
On July 12 2016, House Armed Services Committee (HASC)Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) reported his five reasons the U.S. military was in trouble. His first reason addressed this question.
From Daily Signal:
The Air Force is short 4,000 maintainers and more than 700 pilots today.” It doesn’t matter how many planes the Air Force has, or how modern they may be, if they can’t fly. Without qualified mechanics to maintain the aircraft and properly train pilots to fly them, the Air Force will struggle to accomplish its mission.
And a shortage of pilots is not the only problem. Martha McSally (R-Arizona), another member of the House Armed Services Committee, and the Air Force’s first female fighter pilot, added further news:
The Air Force had 134 fighter squadrons. Now, there are only 55.
pilots were flying 200 to 250 hours a year a decade ago. Now it’s roughly 120 to 180. Over time, this will become a significant issue when considering the level of aviation mastery that flight leads, aviation instructors, and squadron commanders should have.
Task & Purpose states the problem is not going away soon!
So what needs to be done?
When it’s reported that the U.S. Military budget has been cut 25% over the last five years, the first thing to do is to change that in the Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This will be one of Thornberry’s goals with the HASC which will assist in purchase of new planes and spare parts. In addition, it will increase manpower in the maintenance area.
However, this won’t be easy. Sarah Sicard at Task & Purpose writes U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Scott West’s had testified, “it would take seven years to restore maintenance crews to pre-sequestration levels.”
The more immediate problem is acquiring pilots. And a major challenge to this need is the airline industry’s great job of encouraging pilots to leave the military to replace their own aging workforce. From Rand Corporation:
Air Force aviator pay and aviator retention pay are now discretionary programs under U.S. Department of Defense guidelines
and to make matters worse:
Within five years of leaving the Air Force, a pilot could be earning more than $180,000 per year with a major airline.
Rand addresses this issue in their report entitled ”Retaining U.S. Air Force Pilots When the Civilian Demand for Pilots Is Growing”. The authors recommend two things: the Air Force must change the previously mentioned “discretionary programs” and make them part of the budget; and two, increase aviator retention pay. Hopefully, the latter change will help make the Air Force more attractive for pilots to stay.
It is obvious that civilian pilots will always pay well above that of military pilots.
But all of these recommended changes and others need to be implemented yesterday!