July was a busy and very productive month for AFA. We are closely tracking legislative proposals that affect Airmen and their families, and we are engaging in several issues that are critical to the Air Force. Two of those issues are the proposed Space Corps and the current pilot shortage.
Some in Congress have advocated for a separate Space Corps. The House of Representatives' plan would create a Space Corps within the Air Force to oversee military operations. This new corps would be similar to how the Marine Corps is a distinct service under the Department of the Navy and would be the first newly created military branch since the Air Force in 1947.
Secretary of Defense Mattis and Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson wrote letters opposing this idea. Space is a contested environment and as a nation, we will not go to war without space assets. AFA supports the Air Force’s view that a Space Corps is not needed at this time. AFA also supports Air Force efforts to consolidate Space Operations Command and Control into a single, joint command-and-control center. We clearly welcome the dialogue this issue has engendered. Even though we disagree with the proposed solution at this time, the fact that members of congress are fully engaged in enhancing and securing our nation’s space assets is a good thing. General Tom Moorman, the first Commander of Air Force Space Command, said the first Gulf War was the first space war. As we look forward, China has made space a priority and North Korea is working on signal jammers. Our country must be prepared as the next war will be fought in air and space.
In our August 2016 edition of Air Force Magazine, Lt Col Jason Cockrum, manager of Combat Air Forces career fields said the pilot shortage is “a huge problem…obviously it’s taken us a decade-plus to get here, and it’s going to take a decade to get out of it.” One of the reasons behind the critical shortage of Air Force pilots was the untimely reduction of flying squadrons. Cockrum said that the Air Force was able to cut its way out of shortages—fewer squadrons meant fewer cockpits to fill. However, Cockrum emphasized that the old approach will not work this time. “The problem now is, we’ve reached the floor,” he said. “There’s no more cut that you can take and execute the mission that we’re tasked to execute.”
This has resulted in a pilot shortage of 1,555, including 1,211 fighter pilots.
As Vice Chief of Staff, I witnessed the directed reductions of combat-coded fighter squadrons by nearly 60 percent—from 134 to 55—since the 1991 Gulf War. Because the airlines are hiring and the high operations tempo has not subsided over the last 26 years, retaining our most experienced pilots has been difficult. Another factor bearing on pilot retention is “queep,” which is a term used to describe extra duties, unrelated to flying—duties that negatively impact work-life balance. Interestingly, the Air Force has enough pilot applicants. The problem is they are not retaining enough of them.
Last September, Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein told the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), “What we found in the past—and we’ve been through this before because airlines have hired before—is quality of service is as important as quality of life. In addition, quality of service is making sure that you’re given the opportunity to be the best you can be in your chosen occupation. Pilots who do not fly, maintainers who do not maintain, controllers who do not control, will walk. And, there’s not enough money in the Treasury to keep them in if we don’t give them the resources to be the best they can be.”
General Goldfein is aggressively tackling this critical issue. One of his key initiatives is revitalizing the squadrons and improving work-life balance by reducing non-essential training and additional duties. He is also streamlining the transition between active duty and the Air National Guard and Reserve. General Goldfein is partnering with organizations like the Civil Air Patrol to train a new generation of pilots for the nation and for the Air Force. AFA is partnering in his efforts.
Stay tuned as we continue to seek the best possible outcomes for our nation’s space operations and pilot shortage.
Larry O. Spencer