Leadership: Done In By Its Own Success

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January 31, 2009: The U.S. Air Force is trying to prevent fighter pilots from losing control of the air force. The situation is serious, because the pilot demand, and pilot shortage, is preventing pilots from serving in staff positions. These jobs provide  necessary skills needed for pilots to reach the highest rank, and command of the air force itself. Currently, only three percent of the staff positions allocated for pilots, had pilots available to fill them. For most of last year, over half the pilot staff positions went unfilled.

Currently, air force leadership is dominated by fighter pilots. But change is in the air. Over the last three decades, better electronics have changed everything, and the air force wants to change to keep up. To that end, the air force is emphasizing intelligence more, to the extent that hotshot intel officers are being groomed for the highest jobs, and are available to fill staff positions that help them reach those senior jobs. 

This is the second major shift in leadership direction since World War II. After 1945, the bomber pilots took over the air force. This was because the "bomber union" performed spectacularly (if not particularly effectively) during World War II. At the end of World War II, if was air force bomber pilots that commanded aircraft carrying nuclear weapons.

Then came Vietnam, when it was fighter-bomber pilots who got most of the combat time, and recognition. Thereafter, the air force found itself dominated by two generations of fighter pilots. But now the smart bomb has changed the landscape once more. This began during the 1991 Gulf War, when a small percentage of smart bombs inflicted a majority of the actual damage on the enemy. By 2001, the much more effective GPS smart bomb was available, and it was obvious that American jet fighters were so lethal that most potential opponents feared even coming up to face them. Electronics have made U.S. fighter aircraft even more lethal than before.

American pilot training is still way ahead of everyone else. Thus the combination of superior missiles, AWACS, pilot training, and a lot of other new technologies you rarely hear about (mission planners, improved maintenance systems, and so on) makes U.S. fighters the most deadly on the planet. Not unbeatable, but not the kind of people you'd really want to have hostile encounters with.

But demand for pilots to operate UAVs, and keep the transports, intelligence and combat aircraft operating in war zones, has kept the pilots busy. The constant trips to the combat zones, caused an increasing number of pilots to leave for better paying, and less disruptive (to family life) jobs in civil aviation.

But the current recession is causing more layoffs in civil aviation, and the air force is trying to get some of those pilots back. This would allow more pilots to take those staff jobs. Even so, the domination of the air force leadership by its 13,000 pilots may be coming to an end. Done in by its own success, so to speak.

 

 


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