The Air Force hopes that a new review underway at service headquarters will help reverse its longstanding fighter pilot shortage, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown said Wednesday.

Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, the service’s deputy chief of staff for operations, is taking a fresh look at whether the Air Force needs hundreds more pilots to fill policy-making and managerial jobs — or if airmen with a different background could fare just as well, Brown said during a discussion at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

If it succeeds, the review could also reshape who wields influence among Air Force planners and policymakers in a typically pilot-heavy culture.

“Do all the pilot positions we have on staff actually require a pilot, or does it require someone with operational expertise?” Brown said. “How do we ensure that all of our airmen, to the best of our ability, have a little operational acumen?”

At the start of fiscal 2023 last October, the Air Force stood around 700 pilots short of its 13,000-person active duty goal, and around 1,200 pilots short of the 8,000 it needed across the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve.

Overall, the Air Force’s pilot workforce is around 91% staffed. While combat flying units have all the aviators they need, Brown said, three in 10 policy jobs sit empty because the service doesn’t have enough pilots to fill them.

In some cases, it’s because having a pilot in the seat has become the norm.

“You had a pilot come into that job, you liked it, and you said, ‘From here on out, I need to have that,’” Brown said. “That’s not necessarily the case.”

Will the review eliminate the pilot shortage altogether? No, Brown said. It’s one piece of a broader strategy to recruit and retain a stable workforce that is large and skilled enough to defend the nation.

He pointed to the latest push to award bonus pay to aviators who decide to stay in the Air Force after their initial 10-year contract is finished. Those pilots can earn up to $50,000 a year on top of their base salary, combat bonuses and other compensation.

The service is also exploring new initiatives to boost the quality of life for airmen and their families, like keeping service members at the same base longer to offer more stability in the workplace and at school.

“We’ve got to manage this very closely to ensure we are doing the right things,” Brown said. “Don’t do a ‘one size fits all.’”

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

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