US Air Force/Master Sgt. Jeffrey Allen
The US Air Force has been shedding pilots over the last few years, so much so that it has begun to reconsider admission requirements and duty assignments and is weighing the possibility of paying pilots up to nearly $500,000 to stay in the service.
In addition to those inducements, the Air Force is reportedly considering more aggressive measures to retain fliers.
Air Mobility Command chief and Air Force Gen. Carlton Everhart told CQ Roll Call that he and other senior Air Force generals planned to meet with US airline executives in May to discuss ways to stem the outflux of pilots in a manner that benefits both the service and the airlines without resorting to "stop-loss," or involuntarily extending military personnel's tours of duty.
Everhart said that airline representatives were already aware of what was at stake.
"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 told Roll Call.
Stop-loss policies have been implemented in the past, but they are not typically well received.
via U.S. Air Force
In 2004, when the US Army said thousands of active and reserve troops could be forced to serve an extra tour overseas, John Kerry, a Vietnam Veteran and then a presidential candidate, decried it as a "backdoor draft."
Later that year, a California Army National Guard soldier challenged it in court, arguing the stop-loss measure had no relation to the terrorism threat to the US.
According to Everhart, the exodus of pilots and other support crew members was having a deleterious effect on the campaign against ISIS.
"If I don’t have pilots to fly, the enemy has a vote," he said to Roll Call, "and if I can’t put warheads on foreheads, then [ISIS] is winning."
The US military's service branches are all dealing with insufficient pilot numbers, but the shortage is especially acute for the Air Force — including active duty, Air Force National Guard, and Air Force reserve wings.
John Millman/YouTubeThe branch is 1,555 pilots short of the mandated 20,300. Testimony cited by Roll Call indicated 950 of those absent were fighter pilots.
Lt. Gen. Gina Gross, the Air Force's personnel chief, said last month that the service was short 1,211 fighter pilots.
The dearth of manpower extends to support crews — the Air Force was lacking 3,400 maintenance personnel at the end of last year.
Everhart told Roll Call that pilots were increasingly discouraged by the effect that mission requirements and budget restrictions had on them.
Continuous deployments abroad leave little time for family or training, and while at home, pilots are often pulled in to administrative duty and see little time in the air.
In an effort to keep them onboard, the Air Force has gotten approval to offer up to $35,000 a year to pilots who stay in the service. Those who max out their extensions and stay 13 years can earn up to $455,000.
But the draining of the Air Force's ranks is likely to continue, possibly even for a decade or two, according to Everhart.
Throwing "more money at the problem," isn't guaranteed to fix it, said California Rep. Jackie Speier, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Subcommittee for military personnel.
"Military pilots serve for love of country and for love of flying," she said.