Leadership: June 2, 2005

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The U.S. Air Force is cutting training (flying hours) for its combat pilots. Thats why it's tough being a general in the U.S. Air Force these days. Faced with redistribution of the defense budget to pay for U.S. Army operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the air force suddenly has $3.7 billion less than it expected this year. This is out of a budget of $123 billion. Most of that money goes to three areas; Operations and maintenance-$39 billion, Procurement- $31 billion, Research and Development- $21 billion. The Air Combat Command (ACC), which controls the actual combat aircraft (including their maintenance and training), has been told to cut $825 million. Cutting everything in sight, except flying hours, still left ACC short. So they cut 32,000 flying hours, to save $272 million. 

Cutting flying hours in wartime, from a historical perspective, appears to be wrong. The air force learned during World War II that an edge in flying hours (during training) was a key to victory, and keeping American pilots alive in combat. This was documented after the war, when it was possible to examine German and Japanese training records, and compare that with combat losses. As the war went on, American pilots got more flying hours during training, while Japanese and German pilots got less. Combat losses went up when you had fewer flying hours during training.

But that was a different war. Today, the U.S. Air Force is not turning out thousands of new pilots a month for a world war. Most air force pilots already have hundreds, or thousands, of hours in the air. ACC will not cut hours for training new pilots. The cuts, which amount to ten percent of flying hours for the fiscal year (which ends in September), but a 60 percent cut for the rest of the fiscal year, will fall mainly on pilots not getting ready to go to Iraq or Afghanistan. The generals are gambling that this cut will not put American pilots at a disadvantage in any major air war that might occur in the next year. Its a reasonable gamble. American pilots are, arguably, the most experienced and effective in the world. Moreover, the air force combat pilots have little involvement in the war on terror. There are a few hundred air force warplanes in action over Iraq and Afghanistan. Those two wars are being fought mostly on the ground. The training cuts will not affect the time spent in the air by pilots operating in combat zones. But if North Korea turns into a major war, which appears to be a long shot at the moment, the air force would be heavily involved. The same thing with China trying to invade Taiwan. Another distant possibility right now. 

There are alternatives. The air force could cut more from the procurement budget, which is buying aircraft and equipment for future wars (especially China, which grows more formidable in the air year by year.) Same with the Research and Development budget. Cuts made anywhere are a risk, for air wars that may occur in the near future, or a decade from now. 

The air force generals will take some heat for cutting flying hours. Thats something history, and a lot of combat pilots, agree is a very bad thing. But generals are supposed to look at the big picture, take the long view, and make decisions based on incomplete information (like what the future will bring.) It would have been easier to slash Procurement and R&D, in order to keep the pilots flying. Some will say the generals are too intent on keeping the F-22 and F-35 programs going, and are aware they dont dare touch the transports (which are the hardest working air force planes at the moment, moving people and material to combat zones.) You cant even say time will tell, because if there isnt a major war in the next year, and the flying hours are restored next fiscal year, everyone will be home free. But if there is a war, lack of flying hours now, will mean more dead pilots then. Its tough being an air force general.

 


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