Despite the Air Force’s full-court press in recent years to close its persistent and troubling pilot shortfall, the gaps in crucial categories remain — and in some cases, have worsened.
The Air Force closed out 2019 with roughly 1 in 10 bomber, fighter and special operations pilot billets vacant, according to statistics the service provided at Air Force Times’ request.
And in two cases, the manning situation is consistently heading in the wrong direction.
Among 11B bomber pilots, for example, the Air Force was more than fully manned from 2015 to 2017. But manning fell 17 percentage points in recent years, from a high of 108 percent in fiscal 2016 to 91 percent in 2019.
And for 11F fighter pilots, the gap remains, year after year. Manning levels dropped to 90 percent in 2017 and 2018, before increasing to 93 percent — but still below full manning.
11S special operations pilots themselves saw a steep drop-off from 2017 to 2018, when manning fell from 98 percent to 92 percent, and then declined further to 88 percent in 2019.
The Air Force said its manning statistics cover pilots who were lieutenant colonels or below, and excluded most staff positions, the document said. The Air Force declined to release actual manning numbers broken out by type of pilot.
In a June 25 interview, Maj. Gen. Jake Jacobson, director of the Air Force’s aircrew crisis task force, which was established to fix the shortfall, said those manning numbers don’t tell the whole story about Air Force pilot manning.
The Air Force makes sure its pacing units — combat-coded squadrons that need to be ready for a high-end fight against a major adversary like China or Russia — are manned at 100 percent, Jacobson said. Other operational units, such as training units, are typically manned at between 95 percent and 100 percent, he said.
“If you had access to our classified reporting system … what you’d see is the manning at the tactical edge, at the combat-unit levels and the training units, are higher than the numbers you see in the bomber, fighter and” special operations pilot fields, Jacobson said. “We make a conscious decision as a service to man the units that do the work of the United States Air Force, out on the leading edge, as close to 100 percent as we can.”
And what that means, Jacobson said, is that the shortages appear not at line units, but on the staffs at the numbered Air Force, major command, combatant command and headquarters levels.
“All the staffs around the world paid a penalty” to keep tactical units fully manned, Jacobson said.
|FY 2015||FY 2016||FY 2017||FY 2018||FY 2019|
|11S special operations||96%||99%||98%||92%||88%|
The Air Force has — at least in the short term — arrested the downward trend in pilot manning, Jacobson said. The manning problem worried top Air Force leaders so much that Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein and former Secretary Heather Wilson repeatedly warned that it had the potential to “break the force.”
As a sign of improvement, Jacobson said that a combination of improved production and retention has helped the Air Force keep its inventory roughly level.
But, he said, the service leaders aren’t satisfied.
“Being 2,100 short isn’t in the Air Force’s best interest,” Jacobson said.
Overall, Jacobson said, the entire Air Force finished fiscal 2019 short about 2,100 pilots — 950 in the active-duty Air Force, 650 in the Air National Guard, and 500 in the Air Force Reserve.
A deeper look at those numbers shows more about the challenge facing the Air Force.
On the active-duty side, Jacobson said, the Air Force finished 2019 short about 1,700 rated company-grade officers — lieutenants and captains. But it was over capacity among its field-grade officers, particularly majors and lieutenant colonels, by 750. Those numbers combined account for the overall 950-pilot shortfall on active duty.
That shortage in lieutenants and captains was largely caused by unpredictable sequestration-driven budgets over the past five to seven years, which caused the Air Force to “ebb and flow” in how many aviators it produced year to year, Jacobson said. Other factors, such as weather and maintenance shortfalls, also hamstrung pilot production, he said.
“We’re dealing with that as a force right now,” Jacobson said. “We don’t have have the [company grade officers] to man the line units at 100 percent without [field grade officers] that should be in staff jobs. We have to fold field grade officers, that should be in the staff, back into the line units in order to make sure we’re manning the line units as close to 100 percent as we can.”
Or in other words, as the Air Force shuffles rated officers to keep its planes in the air, headquarters staffs are paying the price in reduced intellectual capacity and capability.
Ultimately, this could end up driving out experienced pilots who are majors or lieutenant colonels.
“If I have to take field grade officers who should be on a staff, getting a break from the op tempo that we’re holding them at … that creates a long-term retention problem,” Jacobson said.
The overall gap between how many pilots the Air Force actually has versus how many it needs has not shrunk in recent years, but instead has widened slightly from the roughly 2,000 shortfall the Air Force reported at the end of 2018.
But, Jacobson noted, that doesn’t reflect the progress that has been made. The Air Force had 18,750 pilots at the end of 2019, an increase of 350 pilots from one year earlier.
However, between the end of 2018 and 2019, the Air Force’s pilot requirements grew by 450, from 20,400 to 20,850.
“We have more pilots in ’19 than we did in ’18,” Jacobson said. “But the reason why we’re still chasing our tail on this is the requirements for the force have grown at the same time.”
Pilot requirements grew as the Air Force added more F-35 squadrons at places such as Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska, Hill Air Force Base in Utah, and Europe, and brought online new KC-46 Pegasus tankers, for example.
The Air Force has consistently been well over-manned among 11M mobility pilots, such as those who fly the Pegasus. In 2015, mobility pilot manning was at 125 percent. As the KC-46 came online, overmanning declined, hitting 108 percent in 2019. Jacobson said the Air Force has over-produced mobility pilots in the past, and is working on re-directing some of them to other pilot categories.
Increasing requirements also helps explain the decline in bomber pilot manning percentages, Jacobson said. In 2017, when 11B bomber pilots were manned at 105 percent, the Air Force needed 1,000 bomber pilots. But by 2019, the Air Force needed 1,125 bomber pilots, and the manning percentage declined to 91 percent.
“We’re making headway on producing and retaining, but we’re also making our problem harder because the force has new mission[s], and in some cases, we added pilots to UPT because we want to expand production,” Jacobson said. “We are pushing as hard as we can … to expand production. We’re overcoming maintenance issues, shortage in sim instructors, and obviously COVID has played a role, at least this year.”
Jacobson said in a follow-up email that the bomber, fighter and special operations communities have not been able to absorb and “season” as many new pilots as they need, which has contributed to their manning shortfalls. Those seasoning limitations are also contributing to the service’s overall rated company-grade officer shortage, and make it harder to fill line-unit and training requirements.
Jacobson said his team is in close contact with Air Education and Training Command as they look for ways to increase pilot production, such as through the Pilot Training Next virtual reality and artificial intelligence program.
For example, the Air Force is trying to find ways to boost its ranks of simulation instructors — which tend to be civilians, who can be hard to retain — so it doesn’t have to pull uniformed instructor pilots to run simulators, worsening the shortfall. To do this, the Air Force is working on getting the authority to offer special salary rates for sim instructors at certain locations, as well as direct-hire authority to bring civilian instructors on faster.
The Air Force has put several programs into place to try to increase pilot retention, including offering more generous bonuses and giving pilots more flexibility on their assignments.
But Jacobson thinks the Air Force’s recent changes to officers’ career development — including doing away with below-the-zone promotions and changing how officers are chosen for developmental education — and doing away with many 365-day deployments will have some of the greatest effects on retention over time.
The Air Force is also working to improve the diversity of its pilot production, Jacobson said. This includes looking at how the Air Force reaches out to potential pilot candidates and evaluates them to make sure everything is race-, ethnicity- and gender-neutral, he said.
Stephen Losey covers leadership and personnel issues as the senior reporter for Air Force Times. He comes from an Air Force family, and his investigative reports have won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover Air Force operations against the Islamic State.