By Kent Johnson February 26, 2021
Tucked down deep within the massive $1.4 trillion FY21 omnibus appropriations bill – the colossal spending law signed in the waning hours of 2020 – was an important section addressing the lingering shortage of pilots in the U.S. Air Force. The language, which appeared in the explanatory statement for the defense portion of the bill, directs the U.S. Air Force to brief the House and Senate Appropriations Committees on the pilot shortage: The briefing shall, at a minimum, include an update on the development of the Service's strategic plan to address the shortage, the metrics used to measure the effectiveness of all lines of effort, data comparing actual pilot production and monthly targets for each phase of training for all tracks, information on the impact of trainer aircraft maintenance and associated logistics efforts impacting the pilot training shortage to include aircraft availability rates for each platform, simulator usage and availability data, pilot retention metrics, and a comprehensive summary of all appropriated funds expended to date for each line of effort aimed at addressing the pilot shortfall.[i] It is more than timely that Congress takes a hard look at this problem and works in a focused manner to understand and address all of the pilot shortage's contributing factors. This is called the “total package approach,” analyzing all components necessary to ensure a fully functional aircraft and well trained maintainers and aircrew. This approach is especially critical as we continue to rebuild, modernize and recalibrate our military to address the conventional challenges posed by peer and near-peer competitors in multiple parts of the globe – challenges that will require significant degrees of airpower and pilots for all types of aircraft. In truth, this is an issue that the U.S. Air Force has been wrangling with for quite some time, and multiple voices – from think tanks to defense commentators in media, to policy-makers and even aircrew and pilots – have been warning us about. Of course, like any problem, the pilot shortage is not due to a single thing. Multiple elements have combined – everything from retention issues and deployment burnout to competition from a healthy private sector – culminating in the shortage and magnifying its impacts. However, what is notable in the FY21 bill language – and which is not often highlighted as a contributing factor but vital to recognize – is the role of trainer aircraft maintenance. In short, this is an issue that Congress and the U.S. Air Force should take a very hard look at and fix – for two closely-related reasons: Number One – you don’t have pilots without training, and Number Two – you don’t have training without adequate numbers of aircraft that are operationally ready for flight.
On its face, this seems almost “no brainer” simple, but it is fundamental to acknowledge. Maintenance – and having a robust supply chain of parts – are literally and figuratively the “nuts and bolts” behind successful flight operations of any kind. And the higher the operational tempo, the greater the need for repairs, overhauls, and component replacement. Fortunately, it looks like Congress recognizes these realities and is seeking better understanding of everything behind the pilot gap. Moreover, these issues directly impact America’s unsung hero, trainer aircraft – the venerable T-38 Talon, which continues to perform in an exemplary manner, and is expected to keep training our nation’s pilots for at least another decade.[ii] And with the new trainer jet, the T-7 Red Hawk, not expected to meet full mission capability for quite some time, tackling maintenance concerns for the T-38 Talon takes on greater importance. Focusing on this issue will keep training sorties up, which is critical if the U.S. Air Force decides to push more pilots at increased rates through the training pipeline to close the shortage gap. Here, Congress can play a huge role by ensuring that proper oversight is conducted and that the U.S. Air Force's concerns are heard and addressed. Additionally, Congress can make certain that funding resources – which support maintenance programs and contracts and that purchase aircraft parts – are consistently appropriated at proper levels year-over-year to maintain high training tempos. In the end, even if all of the other issues driving the lack of pilots are solved – as long as trainer aircraft sit idle in hangar bays due to maintenance lags or missing parts, the shortage will endure. Fortunately, fiscal requirements to ensure consistent maintenance cycles – are within the defense world – and not terribly expensive. Frankly, this is something Congress can make happen without too much pain. Without question, the pilot shortage is real – and its impact on our overall level of readiness, defense capability, and force posture cannot be overlooked. It is an ongoing challenge that needs attention, and Congress is right to tackle all of the issues that constitute the problem-set. As the 117th Congress moves onto defense authorization and appropriations for fiscal year 2022, addressing maintenance problems related to trainer aircraft should be a top priority. It’s the nuts and bolts of the pilot training shortage.