So how does an apex predator like a WIC IP example get to the point that they are ready to bail with only eight years left? And how do Congress and the military fix it?
First, let’s establish one thing right off the bat. This is not a new problem. Airlines and military have always been cyclical. When one is feast, the other is famine. It never fails. But the problem here is that both are rapidly approaching the point of famine.
A Shortage of Pilots
Airline retirements are near record highs . With over 18,000 retirements in the next five to seven years, airlines are starting to worry that they won’t be able to fill seats. The problem – not enough qualified applicants and the military is no longer a stable provider. Not only are people just leaving the military for the airlines, but they’re not even joining in the first place (or choosing different career fields).
This is not really the article to point fingers. There have been many, many issues at play, like burnout from a decade and a half of regular deployments with no end in sight, promoting managers over leaders, initiatives like TAMI-21 that took qualified guys out of the cockpit to fly UAVs, force shaping, sequestration, and huge cultural changes.
That ship has sailed. There’s no changing any of that, so all we can do now is identify the current problem and move forward.
It’s Not About the Money
Military leaders looking to fix the problem have started throwing money at it. It’s the easiest, simplest solution, but it’s not effective. Yes, the money in the airline world is better, but guys aren’t leaving just because of the money. They’re leaving because they’ve been devalued. They’re leaving because they feel like they can’t accomplish their mission (or worse yet, they don’t even know what their mission is anymore.)
You can throw all the bonuses at the problem you want, but until you address the cultural issues, nothing will change. People are leaving to pursue a better quality of life. Money can help, but when people feel like the job is just not worth it anymore, or that the Air Force doesn’t value their experience and contribution to the mission, they’ll seek other options.
It Starts With a Culture Shift
The old saying is that ‘happiness = reality minus expectations’. The people getting out now are people I went to pilot training with. We spent the first few years of our career being told that the mission was number one. Fly. Fight. Win. That’s it.
Instructors harped on knowing your aircraft and tactics to survive in combat. We were told we were warriors and treated as such. Ask any pilot out there, and they’ll look back on their first few years fondly because that’s when the mission was the most important.
In the last six to nine years, the military has gotten away from that. Managers have spent so much time trying to convince everyone that they’re warriors that they’ve minimized (whether intentionally or unintentionally) the people who actually go downrange.
The reality is this – everyone is a support asset. Whether you’re an A-10 guy doing good work supporting a SEAL team, a tanker giving gas to a four ship of Raptors, a Finance Officer, a Comm Officer, or a PJ, you’re supporting. This applies all the way to the grunt on the ground supporting the commander’s intent (which supports our national objectives).
It doesn’t mean any job is better or worse than any other. It’s not a hierarchy or zipper-suited sun god mentality. It’s a realization that Air Force and Naval Aviation spend millions of dollars and rely on highly trained officers to fly and employ their platforms as effectively as possible. Period. Let people do their jobs. Anything else is just queep (non-mission related additional taskings).
The military has to do a better job of recognizing this.
Minimize Mission Creep
Look, I get that some of the General Military Training is necessary. I don’t think anyone is arguing that ground jobs aren’t necessary to keep the lights on, but we can do a better job of staying focused on the mission.
Mission creep – duties that take away from the job of flying – can be dangerous. It can lead to distractions and unnecessary stress factors. It can cause the loss of aircraft.
I’ll get to the why in a second, but a lot of the training can be minimized. Some of the roadblocks can be removed. For example, the entire finance model needs to be demolished, set on fire, and completely redone.
The Defense Travel System is an abomination that causes more man hours of work than any other system. There is absolutely no reason it should be that hard for ANYONE to go on a Temporary Duty Assignment. Nor should any member of the military be worried about getting paid or having a hit on their personal credit.
Get rid of DTS. Get rid of the government travel card program (fun fact, did you know that if the military fails to pay it on time, the member will get a hit on their credit report? Does that sound like a good thing? Doesn’t happen in the civilian world.)
Pilots don’t need to be wing execs, admin officers, or maintenance officers. This is a failure in both the AF and Navy. Ground jobs should be directly related to the actual mission. If it’s not, find someone with less than a few million invested in them to do it.
Trust Your Officers
The government spends millions of dollars training the average pilot. They’re given officer training and extensive training on the UCMJ and Code of Conduct. Why, then, would you take them away from their jobs to waste time on what should be common sense?
Junior enlisted are optimal candidates for lectures on Sexual Assault, Drunk Driving, Suicide Awareness, Transgender Awareness, OPSEC, Cyber Security, et al. If you’ve made it through officer training school and UPT and don’t have the sense to not rape, share secrets, drive drunk, or kill yourself then you deserve the full wrath of the UCMJ. No amount of cartoon Uncle Sams will change that. It’s a waste of time and money.
The trust issues don’t stop there, unfortunately.
The Air Force doesn’t trust its officers to not lie or cheat on PT tests, so it hired civilians to monitor them. Why? Has there ever been a fighter package that didn’t get the gas they needed because the co-pilot couldn’t do 80 pushups in a minute?
The Air Force and Navy both spend way too much time and effort worrying about a PT test that has little to no relevance on mission accomplishment. The communities that require high levels of physical fitness already have their own tests. A standard is necessary, but when it takes away from doing the job and needlessly disqualifies capable warfighters, it’s another example of mission creep.
You see, what happens when you don’t trust your people is that you focus on things that have nothing to do with mission accomplishment. You take away morale patches, change boot colors, redesign the PT uniform, and hire people to enforce the standards at just over minimum wage.
Think about that for a second.
Someone with millions of dollars worth of training can have his career ruined by a GS-3 with an axe to grind.
If you trust your people, all of that takes care of itself. People become happier. And they stay.
Fix the Promotion System
You wouldn’t rate your dentist based on how good he gives colonoscopies, so why does the military insist on comparing apples to oranges in their promotion system?
When you seek to promote pilots who fulfill the same wickets as a Logistics Officer, you get management over leadership. You get guys who check the squares and fill in the OPR white space just to get promoted. When you tell a guy that he needs more bullets for his ground job, you’re sending the message that the actual mission is a secondary job.
That’s outright wrong.
The promotion system needs to be revamped. Compare pilots to pilots. Value experience and qualifications over turning boxes green. These are the leaders you want leading your squadron. You want the guys who can walk the walk.
Beyond that, the emphasis on Professional Military Education should be removed. There’s only one school in the USAF that is relevant – the Weapons School, or Top Gun in the Navy.
Pilots learn leadership in their jobs. An Aircraft Commander learns how to lead through her upgrade program. A young flight lead gets a crash course in leadership in the flight lead and mission commander upgrades. You can’t teach that with PowerPoint.
O-1 through O-4 should be automatic promotions. At O-5, if you’ve (or should have) reached the highest level in your community (Instructor Pilot), then PME should be focused on how to run that squadron. PME and theory is best for the higher ranks.
Eliminate below the zone for O-5 promotion and mask selection for IDE/SDE for promotion boards. It levels the playing field for everyone within their year group and sets a true senior leadership track for O-6 after demonstrating ability to lead as a squadron commander.
Give credit where credit is due. It is often said that the Weapons School teaches Ph.D level courses and training. For example, give WIC instructors credit for in-residence IDE at the completion of their tour. No one else in the Air Force is as capable of integrating platforms and effects across the battlespace. This will keep apex predators where the Air Force needs them to be. Similar equivalencies can be drawn from other rungs in the career ladder. Studying theory in an academic environment is grossly insufficient in comparison to actual qualifications and credibility in the community.
Have separate rated and non-rated boards. Fighter pilots can easily be trained with on-the-job training for how to do 90% of the jobs in the Air Force. The inverse is not at all possible. There’s the simple reason that the Air Force has literally invested millions of dollars in training an individual fighter pilot. Instead of promoting career fields based on “the needs of the Air Force,” they favor an “everyone is equal” policy in line officer promotions, thus contributing to the current crisis.
Without credibility in their field, leaders are just managers. They won’t know how to fix the problems. And guys who don’t want to advance beyond O-4 are ok, too. These guys are your workhorses. They are there to teach the young guys and keep the metal moving. Let them do their thing.
Up or out created this mess.
Improve Quality of Life
In combat, warriors will do whatever it takes to get the mission done. That much is guaranteed.
At home, in peacetime, however, there are things that can be done to enhance quality of life and keep people from burning out. Having pilots move every two to three years adds undue stress to families.
The first, and most important, is to get rid of Individual Augmentees. IAs are a scab on the entire profession. They are mobilizations of individuals (mostly involuntary) to deploy for 180-360 days overseas, usually with the Army and always in a non-flying role.
If the Army has a personnel problem, fix it. But why would you take a trained aviator out of the cockpit where currency is life and send them to the sandbox for a year just to write PowerPoint slides. It’s completely unsatisfactory, and it happens in both the Active Duty Air Force and Navy, and Navy Reserve. Lots of people would jump at the opportunity to deploy doing their job, but this is not a pilot job and shouldn’t be.
Let people go home to their families. The typical flying sortie takes anywhere from six to twelve hours from mission planning to debrief completion. When you add unrelated ground duties, that day can extend to fourteen plus hours. In a peacetime setting, there is no reason this should ever be the case.
When you remove these jobs, the days will get shorter.
Leaders can also deploy assets smartly. When not deployed, the endless cycle of TDYs can also keep people from their families. Guys end up bailing because they’re tired of being gone constantly. Train smartly at home. Use training hours efficiently, and let guys have some downtime before rolling into the next event.
Days off can be just as important to staying sharp as training exercises, and it’s another reason guys are bailing to the airlines.
Coming Sunday: How Congress, the Military and the Airlines Can Work Together