RAND Study Addresses Air Force Pilot Shortage


Research on this study was undertaken jointly in the Manpower, Personnel, and Training Program and the Resource Management Program of RAND's Project AIR FORCE.

The report includes insight gained from RAND's participation in the Rated Management Task Force convened by the Air Force Chief of Staff to define and study these issues. The report also documents responses to specific questions raised by the Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force regarding the potential for Total Force alternatives to alleviate active unit experience problems that the analysis identified.

The study team communicated key results to appropriate Air Force leaders before the Four-Star Rated Summit made its critical policy decisions on pilot production and absorption for Fiscal Year 2000 and beyond.

F16c courtesy of Air Force (http://www.af.mil/)

The Air Force is facing the largest pilot shortage in its peacetime history. The FY99 shortfall exceeded 1200 pilots, and by FY02 it is projected to grow to about 2000 pilots, almost 15 percent of the total requirement. Half of the shortfall is in fighter pilots, which has serious implications for combat capability and operational readiness.  A new Project AIR FORCE report, The Air Force Pilot Shortage: A Crisis for Operational Units? examines the origin and nature of the fighter pilot shortage, along with retention issues, and shows that the real problem lies in experience levels in operational units.

The Nature of the Shortage

The Air Force has been losing unprecedented numbers of experienced pilots, who are leaving at the end of their initial active duty service commitment and at the end of an initial bonus-payback period. These losses apparently occur because employment opportunities are excellent in the private sector and because continued high tempos for contingency support operations are raising quality of life issues for pilots and their families.

The high loss rate combines with the difficulty of training new pilots and absorbing them into operational units to confront the Air Force with a growing shortfall. Half of this shortfall occurs in fighter pilots, where the shortage could approach 20 percent of requirements by FY2007. A related problem arises from the fact that the Air Force's exceptional losses have occurred only among experienced pilots, i.e., those who have completed at least one operational tour in their mission aircraft.

Experience Levels in Operational Units: The Real Issue

Operational units (i.e., those with combat responsibilities) are the only assignment options for newly trained pilots while they mature and develop their mission knowledge. Thus, these units require enough experienced pilots to supervise the development of the new pilots. As the proportion of experienced pilots in a unit drops, each one must fly more to provide essential supervision to an increasing number of new pilots. If the unit's flying capacity cannot increase, new pilots each fly less, extending the time they need to become experienced themselves.

Controlling Experience Levels

RAND researchers proposed options for controlling experience levels, but they noted that such options are limited. Although the only assured approach is to reduce the number of newly trained pilots absorbed into operational units, this is not a viable long-term solution because it cannot be accomplished without simultaneously reducing pilot requirements or improving pilot retention. The researchers thus sought alternatives that would yield the same advantages without reducing pilot production levels. Because units in the Guard and Reserve have much higher experience levels than active units do, researchers looked at the potential for Total Force solutions.

The first option they examined was to place active duty pilots in Guard and Reserve units for an initial operational tour to retain manageable experience levels. A second option calls for experienced Guard and Reserve pilots to serve as associates in operational units.

Although these alternatives show promise, they must be implemented carefully and evaluated thoroughly. The research team made recommendations to help guide implementation and also proposed that additional retention initiatives that defer, rather than discourage, airline careers for military pilots be examined more aggressively.