We established OTH as a conversation-space to examine future security challenges and ways to approach them. One such challenge that demands near-term attention to ensure future effectiveness is recruiting and retaining a talented national defense team. We will be publishing multiple articles over the coming weeks from a variety of viewpoints aimed at advancing the conversation on this issue, beginning with this perspective from the US Air Force fighter community.
By Brad “Pedro” Bashore
The US Air Force finds itself in the midst of a human resource crisis and, without significant intervention, it may come up lacking in meeting complex future security demands. While certainly not the only manpower concern, one of the more acute elements of this issue is the growing fighter pilot shortage. As the previous Secretary of the Air Force noted a few months back, the Service could be short 1,000 fighter pilots in the coming years, nearly a third of the number needed. Change is required at every echelon to stem an unsustainable exodus that could leave the Air Force woefully unprepared for future wars.
Facing this challenge up close, the 33d Fighter Wing (33 FW) began a focused effort over the last year to identify and address its contributing factors. While the ideas presented here were derived from the Eglin Air Force Base community, many of them resonate with units across the Air Force. This article shares some of the top-level insights gained by the 33 FW as well as its approaches to addressing some the problems identified.
In early 2016, the 33 FW conducted a single question survey, asking all ranks and specialties: “If you could change one thing that would make you stay in the AF longer, what would it be?” The survey was sent to over 250 people and, although the polling audience was not statistically diversified, the respondents were from various career fields and demographics. The responses were anonymous and the results revealed many internal and higher echelon issues. Of the issues identified, two themes resonated with respondents above others:
- “I have no control over my life”
- “Stop wasting my time”
The 33 FW took these responses and organized working groups to recommend approaches to resolve the issues identified. The Wing adopted recommendations to address internal problems and pushed recommendations for external issues up the chain of command for higher-level consideration.
“I have no control over my life”
Survey respondents repeatedly communicated concern over a lack of transparency and unpredictability in the military assignment process. Lack of control for life-planning decisions is inherent to the military, but commanders at all levels can help alleviate this through simple focused efforts. According to Tim Kane, the current military personnel philosophy was formed in the early 1900s by Elihu Root, largely endeavoring to mimic the changes of the industrial revolution. This system stressed the interchangeability of personnel from job to job reflecting the mentality of the assembly line worker required to maintain a breadth of skills instead of specializing in just one field. Remarkably, the force developmental philosophy assumed a 40-year career. Only after World War II was the timeline compressed and the on-ramp made steeper. Today, the current model conflicts with the growing complexity and nature of air, space, and cyberspace warfare. Air Force officers are specifically trained not to act like a cog in a broader machine but are treated as such by an outdated and overwhelmed human resources program. The tremendous investment of time and money in specialized fields, including aviators, necessitates a more specialized management process.
This problem can be mitigated in part by diffusing some assignment and career management responsibilities from the Air Force Personnel Center into the hands of base-level commanders. Several of the respondents from the 33 FW stated that the personnel system often times does not account for the state or progress of specialty qualification development. Additionally, some assignment locations negatively impacted their families because of issues that included lack of spouse employment options in their field of training and inability to satisfactorily meet family member care requirements. If the Air Force empowered Group Commanders with Career Counselors, similar to those the US Navy uses, Permanent Change of Station (PCS) cycles could be controlled to better meet the needs of the respective units as well as the needs of each member. This approach would allow the military member to meet face-to-face with those empowered to make career movement decisions, enabling the member to articulate their unique situation. Ultimately, this would result in a higher level of control and satisfaction for the units, members, and their families.
Giving the Squadron Commander the ability to hire individuals similar to the private sector would further alleviate this problem. When speaking about the Force of the Future, the previous Secretary of Defense said:
In some cases our current system proves too rigid. It can limit the ability of our services to achieve the right force mix they need, especially at a time when we are trying to promote a wider range of experience, perspective, and training to strengthen the overall effectiveness of the force. That is why we want to give the military forces the authority to do things.
Recent Chief of Staff guidance stated that the squadron should be the “warfighting core of our Air Force.” Accordingly, giving squadron commanders this level of authority could not make more sense. As Tim Kane, author of “Bleeding Talent,” argues – if you allow squadron commanders to directly hire, retain, and fire an individual, the Air Force would “increase both employment longevity and productivity.” The resulting 33 FW suggestion is to approach PCS cycles with a merit based system as opposed to a time-based system. That would increase the motivation for members to individually excel and inherently increase unit productivity.
“Stop wasting my time”
In the age of a military force reduced to what some consider a skeleton crew, collateral duties previously performed by specialists are now distributed to personnel across the entire force. The 33 FW survey found that this negatively affects morale, challenging retention and threatening mission effectiveness. Some of the duties performed fail to directly (or sometimes indirectly) contribute to mission execution at any level. Instead, many activities are being done in accordance with institutional norms from a Cold War Air Force that was twice the size.
Leading the way for subsequent Chief of Staff guidance to reduce additional duties, the 33 FW suggested a swift change to almost every process of squadron administration. For instance, the mechanisms for inspections, which had drifted away from measuring mission performance, returned to the necessary focus on mission success. The 33 FW also advocated for the re-establishment of the Commanders Support Staff which, if fully staffed, would bring efficiency to squadron administrative processes and further reduce the administrative workload across the force. Further, with feedback from the 33 FW and other units the Air Force reduced 21 additional duties and eight Computer Based Training programs from annual training requirements. That this was a Chief of Staff level decision, however, indicates that the Air Force may still have a ways to go in further addressing this issue.
Headquarters Air Force has recently jumpstarted initiatives focused on maintaining and attracting its most precious resource – talented Airmen. This is imperative to the Service’s long-term viability and the maintenance of a professional, lethal force prepared for the future. While this article focuses on two major themes found within the 33 FW community, they are not the only issues at play. As the pilot retention bonus increases an additional $10,000, the Air Force must discern and address the broader concerns of its service members. Further, while the growing fighter pilot shortage may be placing additional light on the need to address personnel management issues, the issues themselves reach beyond the fighter pilot community. If the Air Force is going to maintain its capable all volunteer force into the future, aggressive measures must be implemented now with a focus on long term sustainment and continuous feedback to continually evolve to meet the need.
Brad “Pedro” Bashore is a graduate from the USAF Academy, USAF Weapons School, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, and Georgetown Public Policy Institute. He is an F-35A evaluator pilot with over 2200 hours and 430 combat hours in the F-15E and F-35. He is currently the 58 FS Commander at Eglin AFB, FL.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.