The U.S. Air Force has always been the most technical of all the services and currently employs 26,000 scientists and engineers. Some 62 percent of these personnel are civilians, the rest are air force officers. These technical experts are essential to keep air force equipment and software operational and ahead of what any potential enemy may have. This has provided the air force with a technical edge since World War II. Throughout the Cold War Russian strove to catch up, but never managed to do so. Now the Chinese are the threat and they may be an even more dangerous one because the amount of technical data stolen via Internet based espionage and, it is suspected, a better conventional espionage system than the Russians ever had.
As if the Chinese threat were not bad enough, the air force technical edge is also threatened by a treacherous triad of troubles. First there is the retirement of a large number of Cold War era personnel. This was compounded by a sharp reduction in recruiting during the 1990s. Finally, rapidly growing student debt loads are a big problem as well. That last one may seem odd but more and more young graduates of engineering and science programs resist joining the air force (as civilians or officers) because high student debts encourages graduates to take the highest paying job, so as to get out of debt as soon as possible. To make matters worse civilian firms responded by offering bonuses in the form of student debt repayment. The air force cannot offer fringe benefits like that. Nor can the air force offer anything to match the growing popularity of jobs in tech startups and the stock offered to recent science and engineering graduates who join early.
Meanwhile the lack of recruiting during the 1990s, as part of the “peace dividend” from the end of the Cold War, means that the large number of retirements in the next two decades will coincide with fewer equally experienced people (recruited during the 1990s) to replace the retired team leaders, senior scientists and highly experienced technical people leaving. This will happen at the same time Chinese technical capabilities are continuing to grow. The air force sees itself becoming less competitive in an area that was long its secret weapon.