The Air Force’s pilot retention problem has lasted for decades. Now it’s about to become a top concern for another new service secretary.

Frank Kendall, the former Pentagon acquisition boss and President Joe Biden’s pick to oversee the Air Force and Space Force, told senators Tuesday he would look carefully at how the air service plans to handle recruitment and retention as the coronavirus pandemic subsides in the U.S.

“It is an issue that I would certainly address as a high priority if confirmed,” Kendall said at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “There have been some issues, I think, with planning, as we’ve moved through the COVID experience and the airlines have shut down.”

The Air Force saw a net gain of about 200 pilots in fiscal 2020, a small move in the right direction as the service struggles to keep them from leaving for more lucrative jobs at private airlines and others. The service now has around 19,100 pilots, or 1,900 airmen short of the 21,000 or so pilots it wants in its ranks, Maj. Gen. Jake Jacobson, director of the Air Force’s aircrew crisis task force, recently told Air Force Times.

The pandemic also caused pilot training to slow last year, and the Air Force fell about 240 airmen short of its goal to graduate 1,500 new aviators.

Amid a 20-year high in airman retention, the service began offering certain members an early exit from active-duty service. At least 790 or so troops received approval to retire, separate or join the Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve. Those options will close on Thursday.

Air Force spokesperson Maj. Holly Hess said May 20 the service can, but does not expect to, offer early outs in fiscal 2022.

“Managing the size and shape of the force is a dynamic process and we are constantly making adjustments to balance mission requirements and fiscal constraints,” Hess wrote in an email. “Part of that process is making sure we have the required authorities in place in case we need them.”

Kendall told Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, the Air Force “may have overplayed” last year’s slight break in pilot attrition.

“There are a lot of possibilities for increasing the flow of pilots into the pipeline,” he said. “Minority pilots, in particular, are relatively short numbers in the Air Force. I think we can do something about that.”

Jacobson agreed that the Air Force can cast a wider net for prospective pilots, but argued the bigger focus should be on training airmen faster to fill the workforce gap.

“We do not have a recruiting problem,” he said. “What we have right now is a production problem.”

If confirmed, Kendall added, he would review the size of the Air Force’s uniformed workforce “to ensure we continue to balance risk in maintaining legacy capabilities to support ongoing deployments and operational tempo against demands of future force requirements.”

As of October 2020, the Air Force had 329,839 active-duty members, including about 64,000 officers and 265,800 enlisted airmen, according to the Air Force Personnel Center.

In his bid to succeed former Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett, Kendall also pledged to focus on personnel challenges including racial and gender-related disparities, sexual assault, ideological extremism, suicide and subpar military housing. The Department of the Air Force hasn’t made enough progress on those areas, he said in written answers to the committee’s questions.

“We’re on the brink of some important change that I hope will be very beneficial in this area,” he told Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, who is spearheading legislation to move military sexual assault prosecution out of the chain of command for the first time. “Change is necessary and hopefully we can move forward.”

Kendall said he’s found military command climates to be generally positive, but suggested investigations could reveal new information about toxic base culture, such as at the Army’s Fort Hood in Texas. The installation has been under particular scrutiny after 20-year-old Spc. Vanessa Guillen was killed there last year.

“I think it is, frankly, at the root of the problems that we have with sexual assault and sexual harassment,” he said. “If we can’t address that, we’re not going to be successful at prevention.”

The nominee added that he hadn’t seen the National Commission on Military Aviation Safety’s December 2020 report that tallied 224 deaths and 186 aircraft lost as a result of mishaps from fiscal 2013-2020, totaling $11.6 billion in damages.

His hearing comes the day after an unnamed contractor for Draken US died when their Dassault Mirage F1 crashed in a residential area near Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.

“That sounds unacceptable to me, quite frankly,” Kendall said of the statistics. “I will take a look at that report and I will see what … action is necessary.”

Rachel Cohen joined Air Force Times as senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), the Washington Post, and others.

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