The Air Force expects to continue to grow in 2018 in its efforts to reverse years of downsizing. But massive shortages remain in its crucial pilot career fields — and top Air Force leaders are afraid they’re going to keep growing worse.

The Air Force’s drastically increased recruiting push helped grow its active duty end strength to 322,500 in fiscal 2017. By the end of fiscal 2018, it hopes to get back up to 324,000, which would be its highest point since the 2014 drawdown slashed the service to its lowest level since its creation.

But Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein, and other top leaders are sounding the alarm about the worsening pilot shortfall. And they’re warning that if it’s not fixed, it could hurt the Air Force’s ability to wage war overseas.

On Nov. 9, Wilson and Goldfein told reporters that the pilot shortfall — which was previously reported to be about 1,500 — was now nearly 2,000 out of a 20,000-pilot force. Of those, the Air Force is short about 1,300 fighter pilots.

But other pilot ranks are showing concerning signs of worsening as well — the Air Force said it saw the greatest negative trends in its bomber and mobility pilot ranks, though it did not release specific numbers of those shortfalls.

Wilson and Goldfein have repeatedly raised concerns throughout 2017 about the pace of deployments on the short-staffed Air Force, and the strain it is causing airmen.

“We all know that when you’re home, you’re not really home,” Wilson said in September. “We have been doing too much, for too long, with too few, and that has to change. … It is not fair for this nation to ask our commanders to keep saying, ‘We got this,’ right up to the point of failure, because we don’t got this.”

But the Air Force is reporting progress on one of its longstanding manpower trouble areas: Maintainers. The Air Force has struggled to hold on to its maintainers due to the force management downsizing, sequestration, and other budgetary constraints over the last decade, which “created severe turbulence in aircraft maintenance manning,” spokeswoman Laura McAndrews said.

At its worst, the Air Force reported a roughly 4,000 maintenance shortfall at the end of fiscal 2014. That improved slightly in fiscal 2016 to about 3,400.

The Air Force said that by the end of 2017, that shortfall had shrunk to 400.

However, the Air Force isn’t out of the woods yet on its maintenance troubles. The thousands of new maintainers are still green, and the Air Force said it will take five to seven years to get them enough experience to fully replace the crew chiefs, avionics airmen, and other seasoned maintainers who have left over the years.

Stephen Losey covers Air Force leadership and personnel issues as the senior reporter for Air Force Times.

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