The U.S. Air Force is facing a serious shortage in fighter pilots. Out of 495 fighter total pilot jobs this year, there are 723 vacancies. As late as 2012, the number of vacancies was only 64. Beyond the pilot shortage, we also have another shortage of 4,000 maintenance personnel to repair, refuel, and rearm our aircraft.
Last July, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah James and Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein presented some ideas on how to address this problem. In a joint op-ed, they blamed this crisis in part on a “prolonged hiring wave” embarked upon by the commercial airline industry as many of its senior pilots reach mandatory retirement age. The Navy and Marine Corps are facing parallel challenges.
Many senior commercial pilots have hit their mandatory retirement age, and the minimum requirement of 1,500 flight hours gives military pilots an advantage in commercial hiring. What’s more, 13 years of continuous deployments has taken their toll on military pilot morale, as has sequestration.
Congress and the Air Force seem to agree that retaining pilots will require an increase to the annual bonus given to mid-career pilots. Currently it stands at $25,000 per year. The Secretary of the Air Force has pushed for an increase to $35,000 dollars a year. The Secretary also wants to create more flexibility so that pilots can spend more time with their families.
Retaining the force we have is crucial. It takes years to train a pilot for air-to-surface and air-to-air engagements. We also need to give them more time to train.
Air Force General David Goldfein has testified that we need 80 percent of our pilots to achieve “full-spectrum readiness.” He said that less than 50 percent of our combat units are ready. Last July, Air Force Director of Current Operations Major General Scott West testified that our forces are ready to handle nuclear deterrence operations and counter-terrorism operations. Our forces need more training to prepare for operations against a near-peer competitor (Russia and China).
Whatever your opinion of the 1986 movie hit Top Gun, it boosted recruitment for Navy pilots by some 500 percent. It’s probably time to play that card again.
Paramount Pictures has been trying to green light a sequel for years. The Pentagon should fully cooperate on a sequel, provided that they can have a hand in the script as a means to help meet our recruitment goals.
The Navy provided suggestions in the script so that the original movie would be more believable. That Navy allowed scenes to be filmed on USS Enterprise and it made some of its F-14s available.
There has been talk of a sequel for years. In October, Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer confirmed that they would reprise their roles in a sequel. Cruise said, “We’re discussing it.” The original film’s producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, said recently, “I’m saying right now no CGI on the jets. If we can figure all that out, and the Department of Defense will allow us to do it, that would be fun.”
Rumor has it that the sequel would involve drones and fifth-generation fighters. The movie would also explore the military’s need for pilots.
Ironically it was the reliance on technology that led to the creation of Top Gun in the first place. In 1967, Navy and Air Force suffered 1:1 parity in losses against North Vietnamese pilots in air-to-air combat. This was humiliating, considering that this was a third-rate power. In Korea, the ratio was 13:1.
In the Korean War, American pilots were fighting against Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean pilots. The F-86 Sabre was similar to the Soviet Mig-15, but our pilots were better.
During Vietnam, the Air Force believed technology would fix things. The Navy came up with the Top Gun school, because it learned that 96 percent of the pilots shot down in Vietnam had no more than four missions.
Top Gun trained people in air-to-air combat, and the ratio quickly went from 1:1 to 7:1. Since the 1972 Christmas Bombing, only one American has been shot down, and that was in Desert Storm.
We can’t rely just on our technological advantages. The Russians (Sukhoi PAK FA) and the Chinese (Chengdu J-20 and Shenyang J-31) are already developing planes to rival the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lighting II. Pilots matter.
I don’t know if Tom Cruise can inspire a new generation of Americans to love the F-22 the way he got young people in the 1980s to love the F-14. I think it’s worth a try.
My hope is that Top Gun 2 will succeed, not just at the Box Office, but in helping the Air Force meet its recruitment and retention goals.