The Air Force wants to nearly double pilots' retention bonuses to $48,000 per year — and this means some pilots could net themselves a whopping $432,000 if they stay in the service.
The Air Force has previously said it wants to increase its Aviator Retention Pay, which has been capped at $25,000 per year since 1999, to help stave off an exodus of its best fighter pilots for better-paying jobs at private airlines. In an Aug. 3 interview with Air Force Times, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said the service has asked Congress for permission to offer almost twice that.
"On the fighter side, we already have a shortage," James said. "We believe it's going to get worse unless action is taken, and we know that the civilian airlines are projected to hire a lot in the next several years."
But 17 years of inflation has dulled the effectiveness of the retention bonus, James and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said in a July 14 op-ed posted on Defense One.
The so-called "take rate" of pilots accepting the bonuses shows not as many are interested as the Air Force would like. According to statistics provided to Air Force Times, the Air Force usually hopes to have 65 percent of all eligible pilots take the retention bonus. But in fiscal 2015, the Air Force recorded an overall pilot take rate of 55 percent. And as of Aug. 1, with two months left in fiscal 2016, the Air Force had a take rate of 42.9 percent.
Among fighter pilots, the take rate is even lower. Last year, 47.8 percent of 11F fighter pilots took the bonus. And in the first 10 months of 2016, 34.4 percent of fighter pilots had signed up for at least five more years.
"Money is not everything, but money is an element that we need to get right," James said in the interview. "The key thing is to raise that benefit, which has not been raised since the year 1999, particularly as we're facing a wave of civilian airline hiring."
In an Aug. 10 State of the Air Force news conference, Goldfein said that a roughly quarter-century of frequent combat activities and high operations tempos has also strained fighter pilots, and helped contribute to the crisis the service is facing. And it's going to take hard work to turn the problem around, he said.
"Air superiority is not an American birthright," Goldfein said. "It's actually something you have to fight for."
James discussed the expanded pilot bonus as a way to hold on to fighter pilots. But in a follow-up email, the Air Force said it could use the expanded bonuses to manage its entire rated force — not only all manned aircraft pilots, but also some combat systems officers, which can include navigators; electronic warfare officers and weapons systems officers; air battle managers; and remotely piloted aircraft pilots.
In the Defense One op-ed, James and Goldfein said the shortage of fighter pilots is expected to grow from 500 to 700 by the end of the year, leaving the service with "a 21 percent gap between what we have and what we need to meet the requirements of our commanders around the world.
The problem is growing especially acute as airlines see more and more of their Vietnam-era pilots retire. Those airline pilots must be replaced with pilots who have at least 1,500 flight hours, which makes the military fertile recruiting ground for commercial airlines — who can offer much larger paychecks than the military. The proposed hefty increase in Aviator Retention Pay is the Air Force's attempt to balance the scales and hold on to its pilots.
"Make no mistake, this is a quiet crisis that will almost certainly get worse before it gets better," James and Goldfein said in the Defense One op-ed.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.