The political battles over chronic deficit spending in the United States has led to sharp and often unexpected cuts in the military budget over the last few years. This has forced the U.S. Air force to make major cuts in the hours combat pilots fly for training. The latest cut reduces many pilots to 120 hours a year. That’s about half of what it was a decade ago. There is concern that this will threaten the domination of the air the United States has had since World War II. Moreover it’s been over 60 years since any American troops have been attacked from the air. Much of that is attributed to high number of hours American pilots spend training in the air each year. But with it costing over $20,000 an hour to keep combat aircraft in the air many military budgets can’t handle it.
It’s not just the United States that is facing budget pressures and the temptation to cut flying hours. In early 2013 the French Air Force adopted radical new training methods to deal with such cuts. Rather than cut the flying time of all pilots by 17 percent (from 180 hours a year to 150), half the pilots would remain at 180 hours while the other half would be reduced to 40 hours in combat aircraft (like the Rafale) and another 140 hours in a high-end jet trainer aircraft (that are much cheaper to operate than the Rafale, or similar aircraft). If there were a major war and the second line pilots were needed they would undergo 60-90 days of intense training in the Rafale, amounting to over a hundred hours of flight time, which the French air force leaders believe would make them roughly equal to the first line pilots in terms of capability.
All this is something of a gamble and it’s unclear if it will actually work. But the French have little choice, since the money is not there to maintain 180 hours a year for everyone and as the recent operations in Mali made clear, you need highly skilled and experienced pilots to carry off operations like that without losing aircraft.
The U.S., currently, and Russia, during the 1990s, used a similar two-tier system, where pilots not heading into a combat zone had their flight hours cut. But when a squadron was scheduled for a trip to a combat zone, pilots got a lot more flying hours for the few months before they went. This apparently was sufficient to get the pilots back (or reasonably close to) their former (with 180 or more flight hours a year) competence levels. The U.S. has already been using this system because of earlier budget cuts.
There are several other unknowns with the new French system. Continued budget cuts may result in using a high end turboprop trainer instead of a jet trainer. Then there’s the issue of simulators. Research into the effectiveness of high-end simulators (which cost less than ten percent per hour compared to the actual aircraft) is still unclear when you try to substitute simulator time for a lot of actual flying hours (like down to 40 hours a year). It has long been theoretically possible to substitute simulator hours for the lost flight time and still have a pilot able to perform at an acceptably high level. This new budget crises in Western air forces may be a way to finally clear up just how effective simulator use is.
All this is not a new problem. Over the last decade South Korea has been cutting the hours its combat pilots flew each year. By 2009 many South Korean pilots were down to 120 hours a year, which was the same level as the hundred or so North Korean MiG-29 and modernized MiG-21 pilots got. Many of the other North Korean pilots are lucky to get a few hours a month. But the Americans were upset because if there was a war the better trained U.S. pilots would end up doing more of the work. The South Koreans believed that the situation is so bad up north that the North Korean air force won't even be able to get many of their 500 combat aircraft off the ground. And those that do fly would be operated by very inexperienced pilots.
Since the end of the Cold War in 1991 the rising price of oil and shrinking defense budgets forced air forces everywhere to cut back on flight training for their pilots. That could have some interesting consequences. Over the last half century, it's been found that combat pilots need about 200 hours in the air each year to build and maintain their combat skills. So it's with great reluctance that some nations cut back on those flying hours. Back in 2005 South Korea cut its pilots back from 139 to 134 hours, and then to 131. In the 1990s, South Korean pilots were getting 150-200 hours. That's what German and Japanese pilots still g0t until recently. At the same time some European nations had their pilots in the air less than South Korea. Then again, the South Koreans are being practical about this, because their most likely foe, North Korea, has its pilots flying much less, on average.
The nations with the reputations for the most skilled pilots (Israel, United States, Britain, Canada) have always sought to get combat pilots in the air 200 or more hours a year. Taiwan gives it pilots 180 hours a year because China is increasing flight hours, with pilots in some elite squadrons already flying 180 hours a year. Most Chinese pilots get closer to a hundred and China can’t afford to give them more.
The importance of flight hours should be a no-brainer. During World War II (1939-45), when some nations simply didn't have the fuel available for pilot training, they saw combat (and non-combat) losses increase as training-hours-in-the-air declined. Nazi Germany's warplanes began losing, big time, when they could no longer produce enough fuel to allow their trainee pilots sufficient time in the air. This was a trend that had been ongoing since 1942. Up until that time new German pilots got 240 hours of flying time before entering combat. By comparison, British pilots only received 200 hours and Soviet pilots even less. Germany ruled the skies. But in late 1942, Germany reduced training time to 205 hours. The British now had the fuel, and increased theirs to 340 hours, while the US was providing 270 hours. In the Summer of 1943, the British increased flying time to 335 hours and the US went to 320 hours. At the same time, the Germans reduced it to 170 hours. In 1944 the Germans were down to 110 hours, while the British were at 340 hours and the Americans at 360. The pilots with fewer flying hours got shot down more often and in turn were less likely to shoot anyone down.
The situation was the same in the Pacific, where increasingly effective U.S. submarine attacks sank so many Japanese tankers that there was not enough fuel available to train pilots. In 1941, a Japanese pilot trainee 700 hours of flight time to qualify as a full-fledged pilot in the Imperial Navy, while his American counterpart needed only 305 hours. About half of the active duty pilots in the U.S. Navy in late 1941 had between 300 and 600 hours flying experience, a quarter between 600 and 1000 hours, and the balance more than 1000 hours. Most of these flight hours had been acquired in the last few years. But at the beginning of the war nearly 75 percent of the U.S. Navy's pilots had fewer flying hours than did the least qualified of the Japanese Navy's pilots.
On the down side, the Japanese pilot training program was so rigorous that only about 100 men a year were being graduated from a program that required 4-5 years. In 1940 it was proposed that the pilot training program be made shorter, less rigorous, and more productive, in order to build up the pool of available pilots to about 15,000. This was rejected. Japan believed it could not win a long war and needed the best pilots possible in order to win a short one.
Naturally, once the war began the Imperial Navy started losing pilots faster than they could be replaced. For example, the 29 pilots lost at Pearl Harbor represented more than a quarter of the annual crop. The battles of the next year led to the loss of hundreds of superb pilots. This finally forced the Japanese to reform their pilot training programs. Time to train a pilot, and hours in the air spiraled downward. By 1945 men were being certified fit for combat duty with less than four months training. In contrast, the U.S. Navy was actually increasing its flight time, while keeping pilot training programs to about 18 months. In 1943, the U.S. Navy increased flight hours for trainees to 500, while Japan cut its hours to 500. In 1944, the U.S. hours went up to 525, while Japan cut it to 275 hour. In 1945, a shortage of fuel had Japanese trainee pilots flying on 90 hours before entering combat. In the air, this produced lopsided American victories, with ten or more Japanese aircraft being lost for each U.S. one.
This experience was remembered after World War II, and reinforced when, in campaign after campaign, the side with the fewer training hours per pilot, suffered the greatest losses. Now, unable to afford fuel for training, flight simulators are being used more frequently. These devices are becoming cheaper and more realistic, but research (mostly from training exercises, not actual combat) shows that each hour of simulator time is worth only about half or two-thirds of an hour in the air.