U.S. Air Force’s ‘quiet crisis’ — massive pilot shortages
The United States Air Force is bleeding manpower at a rate so alarming Air Force leaders have described it as a ‘quiet crisis.’ In an attempt to mollify frustrated personnel, former Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Air Force Chief of Staff, General David Goldfein, published directives last year ordering a reduction in additional duties. These burdens were a source of many complaints and reducing them was seen as a way to improve the work environment for airmen. Yet despite successful efforts to reduce some tasks, the service has created a patchwork of uneven standards across the Air Force, further sapping morale and confidence in the service.
The Air Force faces personnel shortages in a number of career fields, but it is currently most pronounced in fighter pilots. It is projected that by October 1, 2017, the Air Force will lack 1,000 aviators, almost a third of the force, and the numbers are set to worsen. The Air Force believes that the primary cause of this exodus is the recent hiring boom by the airline industry which offers experienced military pilots lucrative civilian jobs. Accordingly, the service has offered pilots retention bonuses of up to $35,000 annually, though this has not stemmed the tide.
As the Air Force already offers pilots a robust salary and good benefits in addition to the generous bonus packages, it is likely that financial considerations are not the sole causal factor of the shortage. This is backed by exit survey data from airmen separating in 2015 which revealed that 37% of the personnel found ‘additional duties’ to be a factor in their decision to leave the service.
Additional duties in the Air Force extend beyond mere paperwork. Among the odd assortment of official responsibilities are instructing first-aid courses, assisting fellow personnel with filing returns and managing the squadron’s website.
Accordingly, the Pentagon published a memo in 2016 ordering a reduction in these duties. A deadline of October 1, 2016, was self-imposed to develop new regulations implementing the changes. This date has long passed with only limited new guidance from the Air Force headquarters, and they acknowledge that “it’s kind of work in progress.”
Bottom line: The Air Force faces two problems: An arcane bureaucracy and a lack of resources. The service’s primary responsibility is, of course, flying combat missions, and anything that stands in the way of that core mission must be eliminated. There are talented people currently serving who are aware of the problem; however, the issue now is whether they can convey the seriousness of this very real readiness issue to Pentagon brass.