Crisis as One-Fourth of Fighter Pilot Jobs Not Filled, Watchdog Finds

F-16 pilots from the 180th Fighter Wing, Ohio Air National Guard, walk toward the terminal at Amari Air Base, Estonia, Jan. 14, 2018. (DoD photo by MC3 Cody Hendrix)
F-16 pilots from the 180th Fighter Wing, Ohio Air National Guard, walk toward the terminal at Amari Air Base, Estonia, Jan. 14, 2018. (DoD photo by MC3 Cody Hendrix)

The U.S. military's fighter shortage is expected to get worse over the next three to five years, and more emphasis should be placed on how the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps reevaluate their fighter pilot workloads and training opportunities before the problem reaches a point of no return, according to a new Government Accountability Office report.

According to the GAO report, issued Wednesday, each of the services' fighter pilot shortage gaps hovers at roughly 25 percent. The Air Force has the largest gap, which is expected to grow until at least 2023.

The problems are a direct result of "aircraft readiness challenges, reduced training opportunities, and increased attrition of fighter pilots due to career dissatisfaction," the report said.

"To help increase fighter pilot numbers, the military services are taking actions, including increasing the amounts of financial incentives to retain pilots," it said, but added recommendations, such as reevaluating workload and deployment schedules, for each of the service secretaries to take going forward.

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GAO's findings comes amid Military Times' in-depth report showing that military aviation mishaps have increased exponentially over the last five years.

Each of the services classifies a shortage differently: the Air Force considers pilot communities with less than 100 percent of pilot authorizations filled to be insufficient. The Navy considers itself in shortage when it's unable to fully staff deploying squadrons. And the Marine Corps considers itself to have an "unhealthy" shortage if less than 85 percent of authorizations are staffed.

The Air Force, for example, has a shortage of 2,000 pilots in the midst of an effort to grow its remotely piloted aircraft ranks. The shift has had significant effect on retention in the fighter pilot community, as previous fighter pilots have moved into RPA jobs over the last few years, the report said.

From fiscal 2013 to 2017, the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps had fewer fighter pilots than authorized positions, or billets funded by Congress, the report said.

In the Air Force, Congress had not provided as many authorizations between 2006 and 2013 as it had in the past, which led to some overmanned career fields in 2011. But as Congress made more positions available between 2014 and 2017, the Air Force saw more jobs than pilots, creating a mismatch in its fighter pilot community.

"This gap grew from 192 fighter pilots (5 percent of authorizations) in fiscal year 2006 to 1,005 (27 percent) in fiscal year 2017," the report said.

The service has been sounding the alarm on the pilot shortage since 2016, when it noticed its pilot shortage had grown to at least 700 pilots, then-Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen David Goldfein said in an Op-Ed in DefenseOne.

That number grew to 2,000 by November 2017.

"[We're] almost 2,000 pilots short [in] a force that has 20,000 pilots, so that's one in 10 that we're short," Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said during a briefing at the Pentagon at the time.

Meanwhile, GAO said it could not track down the same kind of detailed staffing data for the Navy that it had for the other services. But through interviews with Navy officials at various commands and locations as well as analysis of available data from between 2011 and 2017, investigators determined that the service had a gap of 57 fighter pilots (12 percent) in fiscal 2013, which grew to 136 fighter pilots (26 percent) in fiscal year 2017.

GAO reviewed data related to fixed-wing fighter pilots' first at-sea tours, completed between 3 and 6 years of service.

"Navy officials told us that they believe current gaps in the fighter pilot community could increase through mid-2019," the report said.

Like the Air Force, the Marine Corps has had fewer fighter pilots than authorizations in recent years. From fiscal 2006 through fiscal 2017, their pilot gap grew from 63 fighter pilots (6 percent of authorizations) in fiscal year 2006 to 322 fighter pilots (24 percent) in fiscal 2017.

Within the last two fiscal years, the service has been unable to fully staff fighter pilot positions.

"[The] gap between staffing levels and operational positions increased from 12 fighter pilots (1 percent of authorizations) to 57 (7 percent) in fiscal years 2016 through 2017," the report said.

The Navy has said it is extending deployments as necessary to fulfill manning requirements for squadrons deploying overseas. This plan to an extent has helped alleviate some of its gaps. For example, extending fighter pilots' deployments has allowed the Navy to reduce the fiscal year 2017 first-tour fighter pilot gap from 136 pilots, or 26 percent, to just 75 pilots, or 15 percent.

But the band-aid solution cannot become the norm, GAO said.

Regardless of service, "squadron leaders and fighter pilots told us that these approaches are having a negative impact on the fighter pilot workforce," the report said.

"Specifically, squadron leaders and fighter pilots told us that the high pace of operations for senior fighter pilots has limited their availability to train junior pilots, which has constrained the military services' ability to increase the number of pilots with specific qualifications."

Various incentives such as bonuses, a tiered flight pay approach and extended rotations at preferred locations are ongoing.

But GAO also recommends that each of the services should reevaluate the workload it requires of its pilots.

Officials have said that's easier said than done.

Wilson last year said she's concerned pilots may be at higher risk for mishaps because of the high operational tempo of missions around the globe.

"I worry about that -- I think we should all worry about that," Wilson said during a briefing at the Pentagon on Aug. 25. "When we characterize our readiness levels, we prioritize being in the current fight and the nuclear mission. That means that some of the missions against integrated air defenses, we're not as ready."

She added, "That doesn't mean we won't go. It means fewer will come back. I think we need to understand that."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @orianapawlyk.

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