For years, the Air Force has struggled to come to grips with a looming pilot shortage that many predicted would be severe enough to cripple the service harm national defense. Until recently, senior leaders responded to the issue by denying its existence, rationalizing it as a function of the civilian economy to the extent they admitted it might be a problem at all. They also marginalized those who elected to bail out. “Someone will step into your place,” they remarked on infinite loop, as if gesturing toward a bottomless well of aviation expertise.
This was, of course, all wrong. There has been a growing shortage of pilots for a long time, and it’s been worsening at an accelerating rate, notwithstanding “pretty darn good” denials to the contrary.
The shortage is not driven by money or airline opportunities, but by an ailing organizational culture, a lack of mission focus, and excessive operational tempo. These things might be mitigated by strong leadership, but commanders have employed doublespeak and senseless personnel policies worsening these underlying problems. Trust has hemorrhaged at the same time that a once vibrant and battle-thirsty aviation culture has withered, replaced with a soulless, bureaucratically approved authority structure masquerading as a combat organization.
Pilots have had their support systems removed, their training gutted, and their voices muzzled. Once heralded as the “tip of the spear,” they’re now instructed that there is no spear … just a collection of equally important and interchangeable individuals pursuing officially approved self-interests. In summary, it’s not a combat team anymore … just a collection of government workers following orders that occasionally involve airplanes. On the best days, it’s a shadow of its formerly great self. On the worst days, it’s insufferable. Most days, it’s merely joyless.
The sad thing is that Gen. Mark Welsh knew this problem was developing before he became Chief of Staff … yet under his watch, it’s gotten much worse. And while airmen understand much of the blame for the mess of the contemporary Air Force lies with elected politicians, they don’t forgive the generals entrusted with sacred responsibility who haven’t committed in word or in deed to do what’s right for airpower or go down swinging in the attempt. Welsh and his colleagues have allowed the Air Force to come up more than 700 fighter pilots short. That doesn’t reflect an airline hiring problem … it reflects a failure of leadership and policy.
Now the problem is finally outrunning the radar coverage of official denial. In an internal email from earlier this month, Colonel Farley Abdeen (Chief of Total Force Aircrew Management at the Air Staff) calls the growing shortage of fighter pilots a “CRISIS” (his all caps) … also labeling the situation “DIRE” (again, his caps) and appeals to the operations community to reevaluate the basic assumptions governing fighter pilot training in order to “save our [fighter pilot] community!”
The text of the email (highlights are mine):
From: Abdeen, Farley A Col USAF AF-A3 (US)
Sent: Friday, May 06, 2016 9:48 AM
Subject: HOT//ACTION// 11F Crisis production increase
AMEC and Fighter Enterprise Tiger Team (FETT) Members,
As discussed at the FETT yesterday, I’ve set the (new/adjusted/CRISIS) REQUIREMENT for production needed from all the 11F FTUs. In the attached spreadsheet, you will see the FY17 GPGL distribution of training that was agreed to at the GPGL and that was signed and sent out by the AF/A35. In the column next to it is what we need to adjust to, for FY17 and across the FYDP.
Again, I understand that this is non-standard and not accomplishable within the standard assumptions. However, this is a CRISIS! We need to break into the assumptions and attack those to get to the solution.
The HAF, at the O-6 working group for now (and it will go to the GO level later) is tasking the production of the increased FY17 Crisis Production numbers for FTUs. HAF is not asking IF you can do it but rather what you need to do to produce it. As you (AETC and ACC) are the experts, I am not trying to give you the answer, but rather here are some of my brainstorm ideas of assumptions to break into and see if which ones will add up to give you the solution:
– Maintenance: More UTE? What more can you do if you had more UTE out of your jets? What do you need from Maintenance right now to do that? Can we contract more help for Maint?
– Syllabi: We can NOT shoot for the “Gold-Plated” standard in this period of crisis … what can the squadrons/COCOMs accept as risk if students didn’t receive certain training? (2vX?, 4vX, etc) How/when do they get the rest of the training (in Ops squadrons?, top-offs?)
— Do we need a CRISIS RTRB to discuss this? (figure out what is required versus desired or what/where can we accept risk?)
– Flying schedules: Can there be more flying accomplished? Fly Weekends? (I know that it is a probably non-starter…but it has to be asked. You can put your Ops/Maint on staggered 5 day work weeks that include the weekend for lighter but productive flying. All the support may be the issue (ranges, Tower, RAPCON, Base support, etc. BUT this is DIRE can we push it up? Maybe just Saturday?)
– ANY OTHER IDEAS? (please chime in)
Please work on this and have as much background/detail accomplished so we can discuss the next FETT meeting. We will determine the battle rhythm then to meet the tight timeline … we want to have the answers on how the 2017 20% increase WILL be accomplished for the 2-Star Aircrew Management GOSG mid- July.
I look forward to discussion, concerns, banter and solution! We are going to save our 11F community!
Farley “Sweet” Abdeen, Colonel, USAF
Chief, Total Force Aircrew Management (TFAM) Integration Division, AF/A3OI
Forget the silly acronyms, here’s the translation: we’re falling too short of fighter pilots and our best/only idea is to start watering down how we train them in order to produce more in the short term, even if it means building risk into the future. Oh by the way, we (the Air Staff) are not assuming any responsibility … we’re simply limiting you to a single option and forcing you to select it. Later, when it is exposed as a terrible idea, you’ll be at least as accountable for it as we are. Oh, and this is such a “DIRE” “CRISIS” that we might involve the 2-stars sometime in July.
The email makes reference to a spreadsheet reflecting increased production targets for FY17. Here’s the relevant excerpt:
What this means is that the Air Force is about to (further) court mediocrity in its training model and accept something less than the established standard in how it makes fighter pilots … so it can produce a grand total of 58 more in a year’s time. This against an expected loss of 387 fighter pilots in FY16 that will leave the service a staggering 723 short of requirements.
With a shortage this severe, even perfect prosecution of Abdeen’s proposed targets wouldn’t put a dent in the problem. It would take the Air Force a dozen years at “crisis” production levels to catch up to sustainable manning, and this assumes retention doesn’t get worse. This is a vulnerable assumption, because nothing will make fighter pilots bail out more quickly than feeling like they’re playing for the junior varsity team. Start sending dubiously trained new wingmen to squadrons and watch the shortage sprout an exponent.
This slide, also part of Abdeen’s email, is excerpted from a presentation detailing the shortage. Pay close attention to the “why short” block, which almost totally misses the point about why this is all happening.
The Air Force still thinks its pilots are getting out because of airline hiring, or maybe because of deployments. The reasons are much more unsettling and much more within the service’s direct responsibility, which is what makes the severity and multiple-year entrenchment of this crisis nigh on unforgivable.
They’re not getting out because they can get airline jobs. They’re getting out because the Air Force has become a miserable work environment and other opportunities now mean they don’t have to stay. For years, the service relied on sluggish airline hiring to avoid the tougher organization, climate, and culture issues that were laying the groundwork for this crisis. It didn’t need to do anything because it was retaining people despite a declining service culture and abusive management practices.
Now that things have returned to normal in the civilian economy, the generals and personnel “experts” are still trying to pretend the airlines are a universal and deterministic hinge of retention.
It’s just not the case. Hiring is a contributing factor. Self-support, red tape, queep, slighted training, do-nothing deployments, chiefings, the unexplained firing of good leaders coupled with the inexcusable promotion of bad ones, and obligatory social science education masquerading as “ancillary training” … these are the causal factors. Together they are killing squadron life. When you kill squadron life, you kill the United States Air Force. The current crop of generals and their predecessors across the last decade are doing a much better job of it than the Russians ever could. Don’t tell that to the geniuses at the Air Staff. They still think the service can hope its way to sustainability.
The shortage itself is startling. It is, in fact, a national defense crisis largely unrecognized beyond the high walls of the Air Force. But just as disturbing is the total lack of imagination concerning how to fix it. This has been going on for years, and there may have been a time that simply augmenting production would have supplied marginal gains sufficient to quell the problem.
But we’re well past that now. This is a structural-systemic problem that can’t be addressed with tweaks to the training model, even if those tweaks weren’t representative of a terrible idea whose juice isn’t nearly worth the squeeze. The fact it’s the only idea being suggested says something damning about how the service detects and solves problems.
Agree or disagree about the causes, we can probably all agree that breaking the training model to make a show of doing something is an inappropriate response to this crisis. Seems to me the Air Force needs not just a “down day” but a week or month wherein the generals clear their calendars, bring together their smartest squadron-level leaders, and commit to solving this problem … even if it means breaking glass … even if it means losing face by admitting to Congress the actual state of things … and even if it means sacred cows are slain. Importantly, this is a street-level problem that can’t be left to the cubicle-dwellers on headquarters staffs. Their proximity to Caesar makes them too fearful of bold suggestions … without which this crisis will not be tamed.
So just how does this get fixed? Well, three things can be done. Reduce requirements (which has been done about as much as possible), produce more fighter pilots (which can’t be done at this point without sacrificing quality or impracticably restructuring the entire Air Force), or increase retention. This last point is where the service must focus.
With about one third of the fiscal year remaining, just 60 of 195 eligible fighter pilots have signed up for a retention bonus and committed to staying. In other words, 135 more fighter pilots — more than twice the number the Air Staff hopes to produce by reducing training quality — are waiting to be persuaded to a career. They’ll be persuaded by strong leadership at the top committed to restoring sustainable squadron life, and not by money. The amount of cash required to buy them in the absence of organizational improvement would be too exorbitant to bear, and would only delay implosion of the service rather than preventing it.
One way to almost certainly dissuade mid-career pilots from staying, on the other hand, is to force them to fly with inexperienced wingmen riding the razor-thin line between undertrained and unsafe. Hopefully this “pre-decisional” bad idea will remain indefinitely pre-decisional, and the service will instead lead and improve its way through this problem.
No matter what, Congress and the DoD need to get really interested really quick … unless they want to press the red button sometime in the future and find out only then that they don’t have an Air Force capable of answering the call.
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