An F-35 student pilot climbs into an F-35 at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, July 7, 2017.
- The US Air Force is increasingly focused on preparing for a fight with peer military — Russia or China.
- In such a fight, the service is likely to lose pilots and aircraft in numbers that would be hard to replace.
- “In a peer fight, we’ll take losses in both, so we need capacity in both,” the head of Air Combat Command said last year.
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US Air Force leaders are increasingly concerned about large-scale pilot and aircraft losses in a war with a peer-level adversary.
During an event in October, Gen. Mark Kelly, head of Air Combat Command, noted that the Air Force needed to be mindful of its sustainment capacity, particularly when it comes to pilots and the advanced aircraft they fly.
“Historically, in a peer fight, air forces normally lose because they run out of pilots before they run out of platforms,” Kelly said, noting that both Germany and Japan “ran out of pilots before they ran out of airplanes” during World War II.
Air Combat Command is responsible for organising, training, and maintaining combat-ready units for the US military’s combatant commands, and Kelly, a career fighter pilot, echoed a sentiment that Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown Jr. expressed in his first major strategic document, published almost two years ago.
Future airmen “are more likely to fight in highly contested environments,” Brown, the service’s top officer, wrote at the time, “and must be prepared to fight through combat attrition rates and risks to the Nation that are more akin to the World War II era than the uncontested environment to which we have since become accustomed.”
Pilots and jets
Pilot shortages aren’t new and aren’t unique to the Air Force. A 2019 Defense Department report said all of the military’s service branches “are experiencing pilot shortfalls due to several years of underproduction in pilot training and reduced aircraft readiness.”
But it’s a particularly acute problem for the Air Force, especially its fighter fleet. The service estimates that it needs to retain about 21,000 pilots across its active, Guard, and Reserve components and sets a goal of training 1,500 new pilots each year.
It has had difficulty meeting that goal and has struggled for nearly a decade to close the gap between the number of pilots it has and the number it seeks. The shortfall was roughly 2,100 pilots in 2019, 1,925 in 2020, and 1,650 in 2021. The Air Force has also fallen short of its training goal. It trained 1,263 pilots in 2020 and 1,381 in 2021.
There are many reasons for the shortfall.
Training new pilots is extremely time-consuming, expensive, and difficult. It can take up to five years and cost between $3 million and $11 million to train a new mission-ready fighter pilot.
The service has also struggled to retain trained pilots who can get higher salaries and better benefits from civilian airlines. Replacing an experienced pilot can take as long as eight years.
The time and expense of that training has only increased as aircraft have gotten more advanced. Moreover, elements of the Air Force’s selection process, such as requirements for flight hours, are largely unchanged since the 1970s, which limits the pool of potential candidates.
The Air Force is also worried about its ability to replace lost pilots and aircraft — what Kelly calls “sustainment capacity.”
“In a peer fight, we’ll take losses in both, so we need capacity in both,” Kelly said. “Our sustainment enterprise, and our weapon systems sustainment accounts, are designed for steady-state, often just-in-time logistics supply chains, and a ramp to a surge sustainment and supply capacity is a tough, very tough business.”
The Air Force operates sophisticated aircraft — especially low-observable fifth-generation fighters and bombers — that would be hard to replace quickly like aircraft used in World War II.
“It’s not like turning, for example, Ford’s Willow Run plant into B-24 factory, that, oh by the way, produced a bomber every 63 minutes in World War II, or turning a Packard plant to convert it to produce Merlin engines,” Kelly said. “It just doesn’t happen in today’s supply chains and high-tech manufacturing practices.”
Kelly and other Air Force officials have warned that the service’s air-to-air weapons haven’t kept pace with its advances in aircraft.
As a result, they say, those aircraft may have to get closer to their targets, exposing them to the increasingly advanced anti-aircraft weaponry that Russia and China are fielding.
“We will not get a good return on that investment of low-observable platforms if, due to weapons limitations, we have to push them into ranges where everyone is observable,” Kelly said.
The Air Force has a number of initiatives underway to combat these problems.
It is reforming its selection and training processes in order to get more active pilots into aircraft more quickly without sacrificing quality.
A new program called “Undergraduate Pilot Training 2.5” includes realistic virtual-reality simulations aided by artificial intelligence as well as remote instruction to help new pilots get through initial training within seven months instead of a year. After that, those pilots can move on to training in the specific aircraft they will fly.
Nearly 200 pilots have graduated the new program since July 2020, and the program is expected to become standard across the Air Force by the end of 2022.
The Air Force is also trying to expand the pool of pilot candidates by decreasing the amount of flight experience needed, encouraging ROTC cadets and enlisted personnel to become pilots by giving them air and ground experience through flight simulators and aviation courses, and accelerating training for civilians with flight experience through the “Civil Path to Wings” program.
The Air Force is also seeking longer-range fifth-generation weapons for its fifth-generation aircraft to give them better chances against rivals with advanced weaponry.
“The short version is that we will enter a peer fight with the capability and the capacity in people, equipment, platforms, and resources that we have on hand and be very challenged, as every nation will be very challenged, to surge industry to meet the demands of consumption that a peer fight would bring,” Kelly said.
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