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Research Question

  1. How should the Air Force address its persistent shortage of fighter pilots?

The Air Force faces a persistent and critical shortage of fighter pilots. Within the active component, fighter cockpits are generally filled to capacity, while staff positions calling for officers with fighter experience are often filled at around half to two-thirds of stated requirements. The supply of fighter pilots is limited by the capacity of the Air Force to train new pilots and to absorb new, inexperienced pilots in operational units, with absorption typically being the most binding constraint.

This report examines the feasibility and likely impact of paths available to either increase the supply or reduce the demand for fighter pilots. Supply can be addressed by increasing the capacities to train and absorb inexperienced pilots or by increasing retention of experienced pilots. Demand can be addressed primarily by converting staff requirements from active duty fighter pilot to other workforce types. The authors find that supply-increasing alternatives will have limited impact, and therefore reductions in demand are needed.

Key Findings

Factors That Determine the Fighter Pilot Inventory

  • The key elements that determine the size of the pilot inventory are the capacity to train new pilots (production), the capacity to introduce new pilots into operational units and give them enough flying time to turn them into experienced pilots (absorption), and the retention of experienced pilots that largely determines how many new pilots are required each year (sustainment).
  • Absorption is typically the most binding constraint: Production in excess of absorption capacity results in unacceptable degradation of training and readiness in operational units, as available flying hours are spread too thinly across inexperienced pilots, slowing their development.
  • During the past several decades, the Air Force has faced reductions in its fighter aircraft inventory that have caused its absorption capacity to fall below its sustainment needs.

Addressing Fighter Pilot Shortages

  • A feasible path toward addressing fighter pilot shortages would involve increased use of simulators, more first-assignment instructor pilots going into fighter units, an optimistic retention outlook, more active associate units, and limited use of reservists filling AC requirements.
  • However, this path would still leave a shortfall if retention remains at current levels. Overcoming this shortfall will require reductions in demand. A reduction of 400 requirements (primarily by converting staff or other nonoperational positions from fighter pilot to other workforce types) would result in a relatively robust system.

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by four elements of the U.S. Air Force: the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations (AF/A3); the Deputy Chief of Staff for Manpower, Personnel and Services (AF/A1); the Commander, Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC/CC); and the Director, Air National Guard (NGB/CF). The research described in this report was conducted within the Manpower, Personnel, and Training Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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