The United States Air Force (USAF) is in a rather precarious situation at the moment as the branch is in danger of being extremely short-staffed for pilots.
USAF Heather Wilson lamented the fact that the country may be short nearly 2,000 pilots, and that such a shortage would “break the force. It’ll break.” There is currently a shortage of about 1,500 pilots, 1,300 of which are fighter pilots.
According to the Air Force Times, Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein delivered their remarks during the annual State of the Air Force news conference at the Pentagon.
[T]he latest tally of manning figures at the end of the fiscal year showed that the shortfall had grown by about 500. Updated figures on the fighter pilot shortage were not immediately available.
The Air Force’s pilot corps needs to number about 20,000 across the active duty, Guard and Reserve.
This significant undermanning is threatening the Air Force’s readiness. So far, the Air Force has been able to keep its pilot shortages stateside and fully man its deployed squadrons to make sure combat missions do not suffer.
But, Goldfein said, that won’t last forever at this rate.
“If we don’t turn this around, then we’ll end up heading down that path” of deployed squadrons suffering, Goldfein said.
It’s not a new issue, though, as the country has faced a declining number of service personnel over the years with fewer civilians entering the military.
When asked why there is such a shortage, Wilson stated that the surge of deployments is likely a driving factor.
“We’re burning out our people,” she stated. “Surge has become the new normal in the United States Air Force. You can do that for a year, or two years, maybe even three or four years. But I met someone last week who has just come back from his 17th deployment. Seventeen deployments. And at some point, families make a decision that they just can’t keep doing this at this pace.”
There is a great deal of pressure on pilots right now with the many required operations against the Islamic State (which are not congressionally authorized, by the way), in Afghanistan, and mission-readiness for any threat from North Korea.
Fewer numbers of staff have also caused issues with preparedness. Goldfein stated that it takes longer to lauch an aicraft today because there are fewer flight crew members aiding a pilot with taking off than when he started flying in the 1980s.
When Goldfein started flying F-16s in the 1980s, he would meet his crew chief and a secondary crew chief before each flight. They would walk around the plane, he’d taxi out, and then meet the crew on the runway that would pull the pins to arm his weapons and give it one last look before taking off. He’d then fly to another base and meet a different crew to do the necessary post-flight work on his jet.
But today, he said, pilots taxi slow, because there’s often only one crew chief, who has to get in a van and drive to the end of the runway to pull the pins. And then the pilot has to wait before taking off because that same crew chief has to hitch a ride on a C-17 with his tools to fly ahead and meet that pilot at his destination.
“This is the level of numbers that we’re dealing with here,” Goldfein said. “We’re making the mission happen. But we’re having to do it very often on the backs of our airmen. The tension on the force right now is significant.”
USAF is trying to increase the number of pilots, but that is a process that will take years, and one that will hopefully not compromise on the quality of airmen.