October 5, 2006:
Rising fuel prices, the lack of credible foes and the growing effectiveness of simulators, has led the U.S. Air Force to begin a six year reduction in flight training hours. The days of pilots flying 200 hours a year are gone. The air force is spending over $5 billion a year on fuel, and in the past year, the cost per gallon has gone up 20 percent. More increases are expected. So flight hours (for training) are being cut ten percent between now and 2012.
Nearly a century of experience in training combat pilots has shown that the more hours a pilot spends in the air during training, the better that pilot is in combat. But the air force took a look at likely opponents and discovered that most of them had really terrible pilots. Mainly because these nations let their pilots fly once or twice a month, compared to once or twice a week in the United States. But American pilots had additional advantages, in the form of better radars, electronics and weapons (especially long range missiles.) Moreover, the U.S. had very accurate flight simulators which, these days, are a better medium for training in the use of electronics (which is mostly a matter of problem solving and knowing procedures). Or so goes the theory. U.S. pilots have not faced a formidable opponent in the air since the Vietnam war. And even there, the enemy was outnumbered, and only a danger to the overwhelming kill ratios American pilots had already grown accustomed to. It's also normal for air forces to screw up training during peacetime, and only discover their errors when a war breaks out. No one is intentionally trying to make American pilots less capable. Reducing training flight hours may be the correct solution. No one will no for sure until there is another air campaign against a formidable opponent. The U.S. Air Force hasn't seen one of those for over sixty years. But even against lesser opponents. American pilots have performed very well. So what's the risk?
The air force is also saving a lot of money by using UAVs, instead of manned aircraft, for many recon missions. The UAVs burn a lot less fuel, even though they stay in the air for a lot longer than aircraft carrying a crew.