Attrition: The USAF Confronts Uncomfortable Changes


December 10, 2017: In 2017 the U.S. Air Force asked for permission (a presidential executive order) to recall up to 2,000 retired pilots to active service for a year in order to train new pilots. By the end of the year the air force had decided not to use that new authority because many air force commanders agreed that this is a long-term problem and the air force has to make some fundamental changes in how it operates to fix the pilot retention problem. Especially the most crucial problem, retaining the minority of pilots who would carry out the most difficult combat operations in wartime. The air force has known for some time that this pilot shortage was the result of several technology changes that upset the traditional way of doing things. Air force leaders made some bad decisions and the core problem was the air force generals agreeing to make changes that other air forces (American, allied and even Chinese) have shown work.

The air force has had a chronic pilot shortage for nearly a decade and has watched the pilot morale and willingness to stay in the air force continue to decline. In some respects the problem is simplified by the fact that only a small percentage of pilots are at the center of the crises.

Although the air force has some 23,000 pilots only about fifteen percent fly combat missions and most of those are no longer combat in the traditional sense. This is part of the problem, but not all of it. It began with the switch to smart bombs in the early 1990s. The new (especially GPS guided) smart bombs began replacing “dumb” (unguided) and was largely complete a decade by 2001. Fighter pilots no longer were in much danger and their job largely consisted of flying above the range of enemy anti-aircraft weapons and releasing smart bombs and guided missiles when requested by air controllers on the ground. The new era of air combat was not only boring but actual air time was infrequent. Normally fighter pilots are in the air about 150 hours a year. It used to be 200 hours a year but budget cuts and more simulator use cut that. When overseas pilots fly more hours per month but for fighter pilots it is now pretty boring (unless you fly an A-10) and you still don’t fly as often as an airline pilots who fly up to 1,000 hours a year. Moreover air force pilots with at least 1,500 flight hours (typical with the ones the air force is most eager to keep) have an edge in getting airline jobs because of a 2010 law that required 1,500 hours of flight experience to get the most lucrative airline flying jobs.

Airline jobs were always an attractive alternative for military pilots and the 1,500 hour rule was one more reason to switch. In addition to better pay, more air time and stable work schedules the military pilots could still serve in a reserve unit if they wanted to continue with some military flying. The stable work schedules reduced the family stress caused by constant overseas deployments. These were usually for 90 days at a time but were not always predictable.

What has the air force leaders worried the most is losing the qualitative edge that has had the USAF dominating the air since 1945. This could be seen in the fact that in the last half century only three U.S. Air Force pilots have become aces (five or more aircraft shot down). There may never be any more aces. In nearly a century of operations only 816 American air force fighter pilots have become aces. Most (87 percent) of those were in World War II. There were 39 aces in the Korean War and only three during the Vietnam War. Since the 1980s no fighter pilots have scored four or more victories.

Since World War II, the U.S. Air Force, along with American naval aviation, has become the dominant air power on the planet. Moreover, the availability of nuclear weapons has restrained the major world powers from fighting each other directly. So the only wars are between second and third rate proxies, who face American fighter pilots. These smaller nations tend to see their air forces destroyed on the ground, or have too few aircraft in the air to allow American pilots to become aces. The biggest threat to American pilots is anti-aircraft fire, either bullets or missiles. But now China is building a high tech air force using pilots trained the Western way and getting more time in the air than their American counterparts. The USAF also needs competent and experienced pilots to help carry out and better comprehend even more new tech that the air force has to deal with.

This change in thinking comes after trying many other solutions that failed. For example in 2013 the air force sought to address the pilot shortage offering large bonuses if pilots would stay in uniform. This did not work. The target for this effort was fighter pilots with ten years’ service and eligible to leave the air force soon. Even though there are fewer overseas assignments to Afghanistan and the Middle East in 2013, most of these pilots had expressed an interest in getting out, either to fly in the commercial sector or switch careers. Because of the heavy demand for experienced pilots in the combat zone since 2001 and the 2008 recession, many pilots stayed in. Thus the air force was able to cut back on training new pilots and many of the pilots used for training new ones were sent into action. But with the war on terror (at least the Afghan and Iraq portions) over and airline hiring way up, pilots with ten years in are looking for a change. By 2013 the situation was visible and by 2017 had become critical.

The air force bonus program seemed to work on paper as it would be cost-effective to offer large bonuses ($225,000) to get these pilots to sign up for nine more years. Initial surveys indicated that about 60 percent of those eligible would take the bonus. The surveys were wrong because the growing political pressure to cut the defense budget, and the resulting cuts in flying hours, persuaded most eligible pilots to turn down the bonus offer and take the growing number of offers to become a commercial pilot.

The basic problem here for the air force is that it costs over $5 million and at least five years to replace these veteran (ten years of service) pilots. The air force has found that paying up to $25,000 a year to persuade pilots to stay in is a good investment. Now the air force was faced with the prospect of either increasing the bonus (which might not work) or deal with a pilot shortage the much more expensive way via recruiting and training.

There were other complaints, liked fighter pilot dissatisfaction with air force policy on who should fly UAVs. Since 2001 the air force recently has been consistently unable to train enough new operators. Part of the problem was stress, as it has been discovered that the intensity of watching the ground constantly was more stressful to pilots (operators who control the UAV and fire weapons) and sensor operators (who constantly scour the ground below) than for their counterparts who go into the air than anticipated. In 2015 the air force sought to deal with problem by asking Congress for more money to pay bonuses to attract more UAV operators and keep the overworked ones it had. Most of the $35,000 a year in bonus money was to be “flight pay” for air force pilots who volunteer or are persuaded to serve as UAV operators. This was the solution that did not work and many in Congress were reluctant to just throw money at the problem when the air force had an easier and cheaper solution for this; have enlisted (sergeants) airmen operate UAVs and allow them to make a career out of it. The air force used to do this during World War II when it was still part of the army. But that was changed before World War II was over and the air force refused to consider going back to what worked in the past, even though it works fine for the other services and some other countries.

Congress, which was being asked to supply more money to persuade officer pilots to keeping doing work many don’t really want, ordered its own investigation of the matter. This GAO (Government Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress) interviewed and surveyed a representative sample of UAV operators and found that current problems were real. UAV operators were overworked and the air force was unable to get as many as it needed. This meant that existing crews had to work longer hours (60 or more a week). This caused a lot of stress. UAV operators each spend about 1,200 hours a year controlling UAVs in the air, versus 450 hours for army helicopter pilots and even less for air force pilots in the combat zone. The problem is that UAV operators (all of them pilots of manned aircraft) get none of the enjoyable aspects of flying (operating a jet, especially a fighter) and a lot more of the drudgery (constantly monitoring instruments and what is going on below). Operators did report that the air force had addressed a lot of the earlier problems (poor training, loss of career opportunities, especially promotions). The main problem was that few UAV operators wanted to be UAV operators. And those few who did choose it as a career were just as worn down by the grind as everyone else.

By 2013 UAV operators were nearly nine percent of all air force pilots, triple the percentage in 2008. By 2015 UAV activity had increased ten times over in one decade. The air force was and is unable to get enough manned aircraft pilots to “volunteer” to do a three year tour as a UAV operator and cannot train non-pilot officers fast enough to be career UAV operators. A lot of pilots are getting out of the air force in part because of the prospect of another three year tour with UAVs. At this point UAV operators leave the air force at three times the rate of pilots of manned aircraft. Worst of all, UAV operators are not shown the same respect as pilots who go into the air aboard their aircraft. All this would go away if the air force allowed NCOs (sergeants) to be operators of the larger UAVs but the air force leadership has remained hostile to that idea and continues to insist that all UAV operators be officers.

Currently, only the army allows enlisted troops to handle larger UAVs. The U.S. Air Force has consistently and publicly rejected growing calls to even try this out. NCOs are eager for this kind of work and often are better at it than officers who are experienced pilots of manned aircraft. This is believed to be caused by the fact that operating a UAV is more like using a consumer-grade flight simulator game than flying an actual aircraft. The NCOs often have lots of experience with video games and get better the more they actually operate UAVs. This is especially true with the widely used (mainly by the U.S. Army) Raven.

Another argument in favor of NCO pilots is the fact that most special operations troops (Special Forces, SEALs and pararescue) personnel are NCOs. These troops undergo much more strenuous selection and training than pilots and are quite satisfied with being an “operator” all the time without any mandatory detours in the name of being “well rounded.” The air force leadership is not swayed by this, for them there is something undefinably wrong about putting NCOs in the pilots’ seat. The air force brass shall not be swayed, even these NCO pilots never leave the ground.

Commanders closer to the action believe NCOs could do the job and that would eliminate the shortages and morale problems with officers doing it. In large part this is because of expectations. NCOs know what they are getting into and consider operating UAVs as a step up and a rational career choice. A lot of these commanders have reached senior rank over the last decade and are able to explain to their peers how NCOs operating large UAVs works much better than coercing officer pilots to do it for a few years.

The controversy over NCOs or officers being pilots began at the start of World War II, when the army air force (there was no separate air force yet) and navy both had enlisted pilots. These men were NCOs ("flying sergeants" or "flying chiefs" in the navy) selected for their flying potential and trained to be pilots. Not leaders of pilots but professional pilots of fighters, bombers, and whatnot. Officers trained as pilots would also fly but in addition they would provide the leadership for the sergeant pilots in the air and on the ground. This worked quite well and many countries continued using NCO pilots throughout the war.

The “officer only” began in the United States during World War II as the Army Air Corps changed into the mighty AAF (Army Air Force, 2.4 million troops and 80,000 aircraft at its peak). Back then the capable and persuasive AAF commander (Hap Arnold) insisted that all pilots be officers. Actually, he wanted them all to be college graduates as well, until it was pointed out that the pool of college graduates was too small to provide the 200,000 pilots the AAF eventually trained. But Arnold forced the issue on officers being pilots and the navy had to go along to remain competitive in recruiting. When the air force split off from the army in 1947, the army went back to the original concept of "flying sergeants" by making most pilots "Warrant Officers" (a sort of super NCO rank for experienced troops who are expected to spend all their time on their specialty, not being diverted into command or staff duties).

Many air force pilots envy the army "flying Warrants" because the Warrant Officers just fly. That's what most pilots want to do; fly a helicopter or aircraft, not a desk. But a commissioned officer must take many non-flying assignments in order to become a "well rounded officer." Many air force pilots don't want to be well rounded officers, they want to fly. So a lot of them quit the air force and go work for an airline. But often they stay in the air force reserve and fly warplanes on weekends and get paid for it. This is considered an excellent arrangement for the many pilots who take this route.

But now the air force has this growing force of UAVs, which are operated by fighter and transport pilots ordered to perform UAV duty. These pilots were not happy about this even though the UAV pilots got flight pay and assurances they could go back to "real aircraft" after two or three years of UAV work this meant the air force had to constantly find and train new pilots for UAV duty.

A fifteen week course was used to train air force pilots to operate UAVs. Since qualified pilots were taking this course the washout rate is only two percent. Some pilots are even volunteering to stay with the UAVs, even though the air force, for a long time, considered UAV controller work a "temporary assignment." Only recently did UAVs become a distinct "community" in the air force, with an official job description. That helped a bit, but most of the pilots of manned aircraft still avoid UAV duty and will consider that when deciding to leave the air force.

Part of the problem is the fact that software is replacing a lot of pilot functions and, eventually, taking the place of human pilots. Many larger UAVs already have the ability to take off, follow a predetermined course, carry out a mission, and then land, all by itself (or "autonomously"). One can make a case for officers being in charge here but as commanders of the autonomous UAVs, not their operators. This is the ultimate solution and probably one reason why the air force keeps insisting that UAV pilots be officers. Flight control and pattern analysis software takes a lot of the work out of operating a UAV. The pattern analysis software can spot what is being looked for on the ground and is rapidly approaching the point where it does the job better than human observers. Thus the future is seen to be officers commanding several UAVs, each largely “operated” by software. Each officer would then be assisted by one or two NCOs to help deal with any situations requiring human intervention. The trouble is that sort of software is not here yet and not be for another five or ten years or longer because the pilots who dominate air force (and naval aviation) leadership are slow in accepting this software quickly. In the meantime the air force brass have to do something to retain the qualitative edge the air force has maintained since the 1940s. As the list of possible solutions grows shorter some uncomfortable changes will have to be made.


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