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Stop-Loss an Option for Air Force to Keep Departing Pilots

‘If I can’t put warheads on foreheads, then [ISIS] is winning’

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Matthew Bruch, an aerial photographer with 1st Combat Camera Squadron, takes a self portrait during a flight in an F-15D. (Matthew Bruch/U.S. Air Force)
U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Matthew Bruch, an aerial photographer with 1st Combat Camera Squadron, takes a self portrait during a flight in an F-15D. (Matthew Bruch/U.S. Air Force)

Faced with pilots leaving the Air Force in droves for the airlines, top generals are considering the option of forcing some to stay in the service against their will, a senior Air Force general told CQ Roll Call. 

Gen. Carlton Everhart, chief of the Air Mobility Command, said in an interview that he and other senior Air Force generals will join Gen. David Goldfein, the service’s chief of staff, alongside representatives of the other armed services, in a meeting with U.S. airline executives May 18 at Andrews Air Force Base.

The goal of the meeting will be to find ways to solve the exodus of Air Force pilots to the industry in a way that is mutually acceptable for the U.S. military and the airlines — without the Air Force having to resort to “stop-loss,” a means of forcing Air Force personnel to stay in the service beyond the period of their commitment.

Everhart said he has already told airline executives that stop-loss is an option. “I said to the industry … if we can’t meet the requirements, the chief could drop in a stop-loss — and you need to understand that,” he said.

The shortages, especially in fighter pilots, are beginning to hurt the Air Force’s fight against the Islamic State, or ISIS, Everhart said.

“If I don’t have pilots to fly, the enemy has a vote, and if I can’t put warheads on foreheads, then [ISIS] is winning,” he said.

‘Not good’

With Air Force pilots leaving the service in great numbers, there is growing talk of boosting bonuses to retain them. But money, it turns out, is usually the least important reason a pilot stays or goes.

That doesn’t mean an increase to the $35,000 annual enticement that is available to pilots after a decade of service would necessarily be a bad idea. But the pilot shortage — a hot topic this year in Congress’s defense committees — may be more a function of pilots being pushed out by the declining state of Air Force readiness than about the pull of big bucks in the airline industry, according to lawmakers and military leaders.

There are not enough pilots today across all the U.S. military services, but nowhere is the shortage as bad as in the active-duty Air Force, the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve, which are some 1,550 short of the 20,300 required pilots, officials testified this month. An estimated 950 of the missing Air Force pilots are supposed to be in fighter jets.

“The upshot is: The numbers are not good,” said Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Airland, which oversees many Air Force programs, at a March 29 hearing.

But just as important as the shortage of pilots is a dearth of maintenance personnel, said Everhart, whose command oversees the Air Force’s support fleet — comprising transport, refueling, aeromedical and VIP aircraft.

The maintenance shortage has gotten far less attention than the pilot issue, but the Air Force was some 3,400 short of its required number of maintenance personnel at the end of 2016, even though the required number has dropped, officials say. In response, the service is hiring more and more maintainers with less and less experience, officials say.

And now the service is also beginning to lose other key types of skills to the civilian sector — from air traffic controllers to cyber warriors, Everhart warned.

Readiness roots

The problem is something of a contradiction, inasmuch as service members are either overworked or underused, Everhart and others say.

First, when pilots, maintainers or air traffic controllers leave the service in great numbers, those who remain in the Air Force have more work to do. And the Air Force has been working overtime not just since 9/11,  but for a decade before that in enforcing a no-fly zone over Iraq after the first Gulf War.

The frequent and lengthy deployments put strains on families. Pilots deploying to such a degree do not have enough time to train for missions other than what they had been doing in the war zone, officials say.

At other times, however, pilots are not flying enough. When they return to stateside bases, Air Force pilots spend less and less time in the air — which was, after all, the reason they entered the service.

Pilots are flying less partly because the degraded condition of aging fleets of aircraft, combined with often insufficient funds for training exercises, have made planes less and less available to fly, Everhart and others say. The shortage of maintainers also drives down aircraft availability. To top it off, pilots are increasingly called on to perform administrative tasks, instead of flying, because the Air Force downsized its office staff to save money.

“It’s all connected,” Everhart said.

The Pentagon’s overall budget is still one of its largest ever, despite a downturn in spending since the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the enactment of budget caps.

Nonetheless, the aging of the military’s inventory, exacerbated by the wear and tear of war, have left equipment less ready than is normal or desirable. It may or may not be a crisis, but it is certainly a problem, experts say.

Love and money

In surveys, pilots list money as less important than non-monetary factors in decisions to stay in or leave the military. An imbalance between work and family life and an excess of administrative tasks are ranked higher as reasons for leaving than insufficient salary or bonuses.

“Military pilots serve for love of country and for love of flying,” said Jackie Speier of California, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, at a March 29 panel hearing on the issue. Trying to “throw more money at the problem” in the form of higher bonuses will not necessarily help, she said.

Indeed, military officials confirmed under questioning at the House Armed Services hearing that they are not sure if anyone stayed in the service because of the bonus.

Everhart said he doubts the money was the reason anyone stayed. He points to his heart when asked what keeps pilots in the Air Force.

To be sure, money still matters to some degree. U.S. airlines began a hiring binge as the economy improved in recent years, and they offer Air Force pilots lucrative salaries.

Air Force pilots are attractive targets for airline recruiters, because military pilots are considered proficient with half the flight hours of nonmilitary pilots.

And because the airlines began in 2009 to allow pilots to fly until the age of 65, up from 60, military pilots could look forward to a lengthier commercial career after leaving the service.

The giant sucking sound from Air Force pilot ranks is only expected to grow louder in the years ahead.

“If you look at the projections I’ve seen, I think this is going to be a problem for a while,” Everhart said. “Ten, 15, 20 years from now.”

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