On Wednesday, Heather Wilson, the Secretary of the Air Force, announced an expansion of 2017’s Voluntary Retired Return to Active Duty Program that aims to lure as many as 1,000 retired aviators back into the ranks in order to address ongoing pilot shortages within the branch.
At the end of the last year, an internal Air Force report indicated that the service was short nearly 2,000 pilots — or about 10% of the total pilot force — and that many of those gapped positions are most heavily concentrated among fighter pilots with less than eight years experience in the cockpit. The Air Force has been working to remedy these shortages by improving standard of living and pay for pilots as a retention tool, but thus far these endeavors have failed to address pilot shortfalls.
This problem has been brewing for some time, with an earlier report filed in April of 2017 showing the branch was already short more than 1,000 fighter pilots alone. In late September Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said,
We are in a crisis … if we don’t find a way to turn this around, our ability to defend the nation is compromised.”
Last October, President Trump amended an executive order to permit the Pentagon to recall the same number of pilots the Air Force now hopes to entice back into a uniform, though Air Force officials promptly issued a statement indicated that they had no active plans to forcefully recall any aviators. It’s likely that the order was established as a contingency in case the Air Force fails to resolve the pilot shortage using initiatives like the Voluntary Retired Return to Active Duty Program.
Returning pilots would be placed in a number of different possible roles, but would not be required to deploy into combat zones unless they volunteered to do so. Instead, many pilots would find themselves in training roles or even at desk jobs, thanks to the extended tours afforded through Wednesday’s changes. Trainers would help to expand the pilot corps by increasing the courses available to pilot trainees, as well as increasing training availability for pilots in need of more advanced training in order to move forward in their careers as military aviators. In the past, some departing pilots have cited a lack of training opportunities for career advancement as among the issues prompting their departure. Maj. Eliza Jarding, Air Force’s Personnel Center VRRAD rated liaison, said,
Officers who return to active duty under VRRAD will fill rated staff and active flying staff, test, training and operational positions where rated officer expertise is required … We can match VRRAD participants to stateside or overseas requirements where they’ll fill critical billets that would otherwise remain vacant due to the shortage of rated officers.”
According to Air Force Secretary Wilson and General Goldfein, the training shortcoming some blame for the pilot shortfalls are in large part due to budgetary limitations brought about by sequestration and inconsistent financing due to delayed budget approvals.
Last year, Goldfein told lawmakers, “if we cannot move past sequester in its current form, we’re going to break this force.” Now, with budgets more or less on track, the Air Force will need to find a way to encourage pilots to stay in uniform while drawing those who have retired within the past five years back — otherwise there will be significant changes to the way America utilizes aviation the world over, or a large scale recall of aviators that will undoubtedly do little to improve morale.
Featured image: From foreground; U.S. Air Force Capt. Aaron Schuett, Capt. Cody Clark, Maj. Jason Bianchi and Capt. Robert Hendrick, all F-15C Eagle aircraft pilots with the 493rd Fighter Squadron, head to their aircraft before a training mission during the Tactical Leadership Program (TLP) at Albacete Air Base, Spain, Jan. 18, 2013. The TLP is a multi-national program that enhances key leadership and mission planning skills needed for NATO operations. By Senior Airman Lausanne Morgan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons