The U.S. Air Force has lost its way. Outside observers may seem surprised at this but since 2001 the exit interviews of pilots, especially combat pilots, show more frequent references to aimless leadership, a lack of purpose and not enough emphasis on flying skills as key reasons why experienced pilots want to leave. Pay, promotions and time spent away from family (usually overseas) are less frequently mentioned. Pilots, especially combat pilots, still had a sense of mission but the leadership acted more like a corporate bureaucracy than the leaders of a combat organization. This was nothing new but the shift in attitude accelerated in the 1990s as smart bombs replaced the traditional unguided (”dumb”) ones and the last generation of senior leaders with intense combat experience (the fighter-bomber pilots of the Vietnam War) disappeared into retirement.
While the first wave of air force leaders (until the 1970s) were bomber pilots, and the next wave were fighter pilots by the 1990s the next wave consisted of technocrats and bureaucrats. These men were often pilots but had won their battles in the research and development, project management and budget politics. They were skilled at handling Congress (where the money came from) and saw aerial combat as one of many tasks and one that had shown up very little since the 1970s.
Yet combat pilots were still recruited to master complex combat aircraft and modern combat. But these days the air force has fewer than 3,000 fighter pilots and they are essential personnel, but the air force can’t keep these fighter pilots in the air force because fighter pilots want to fly, if only because that’s how you maintain your skills as combat pilots. Yet their main job, as in most of their time, was spent behind a desk, not in a cockpit. Flying had become too expensive to allow pilots to do a lot of it.
Not enough of the air force leadership noted that while the Cold War had been won and the mighty Soviet Air Force largely gone it was being replaced, by the late 1990s, with a rapidly modernizing Chinese Air Force that was decidedly Old School when it came to air combat training. Chinese combat pilots were getting the same quality of aircraft and training the U.S. Air Force used to enjoy and were on a trajectory to surpass their Western rivals. This seemed to alarm and motivate the army and navy more than the air force. That’s because naval aviation was still led by combat pilots who still got lots of flight hours, usually while operating off an aircraft carrier at sea. That is what makes navies dangerous, spending a lot of time at sea where, even in peacetime, it can be very dangerous just moving around out there. Carrier pilots were always recognized as being special because operating from a carrier is a lot more difficult and dangerous than from a land base.
Army aviation, almost all of it helicopters, was also still led by combat pilots. That’s because army pilots were very old school. They were frequently under fire and flew without parachutes. The army pilots still have to deal with ground fire and plenty flying time as well as combat experience. If you wanted to know what air force fighter pilots used to be (or air force leaders encouraged them to be), look to the army and marine helicopter gunship pilots. The closest thing the air force has is the A-10 ground attack aircraft. Air force leaders have been trying to eliminate A-10s since the Cold War ended. But the A-10 has seen more combat than any other fixed-wing aircraft and are enormously popular with their primary customers; the ground forces. Air force pilots notice this and realize that the air force is turning into a force of “lions led by over-educated donkeys.”
Since 2012 it has been obvious that the air force was undergoing a major cultural shift, which was made public by an announcement that year about how many air force bases would lose traditional amenities like swimming pools, bowling allies, hobby centers, and golf courses. Part of the problem was that these facilities were not as heavily used as they once were and were thus losing more money because of less revenue from the user fees. This is all because air force personnel (and military personnel in general) have changed their recreation habits over the last two decades. More airmen and family members are at the gyms or out running and hiking. Then there are video games and less consumption of alcohol, especially outside the home. This has already led to the closure of many officers and enlisted clubs and all the social programs that they hosted.
The air force was making all these cuts to save money, as well as recognizing lifestyle changes among its personnel. One thing that was not changing was air force personnel expecting a more comfortable lifestyle than the other services. This has long been a source of humor to sailors, soldiers, and marines for a long time. This didn't change with the war on terror and won't change with the current cuts. For example, many of the U.S. Air Force personnel stationed at Bagram air base (north of Kabul) in Afghanistan just after 2001 complained about the poor living conditions soon after they got there. To make their case some of them put together and distributed a collection of photos as evidence. The complaints included too much dust (which Afghanistan has in abundance). The dust covered everything and rendered some of the equipment at the base gym inoperable. Complaints also included laundry that came back still a bit damp and a dreary volleyball court. There were many other complaints, including long lines to get a meal and having to sleep in tents (that were not air conditioned).
When all this hit the Pentagon, air force officers cringed. But it was very old news. Even before the Army Air Force went off to form the independent Air Force in 1947, the "zoomies" (as air force personnel were eventually nicknamed) were known for their higher standard of living. The air force personnel regarded this criticism as misplaced. The air force was a technical organization and it required rigorous standards of cleanliness and organization to maintain all those aircraft and their equipment at high levels of readiness for combat. The zoomies can ultimately point out that, since World War II the U.S. Air Force has not just had air superiority wherever it operated but usually domination of the air.
No one begrudged the air force the clean sheets and hot food during World War II, for the heavy bomber crew casualties over Germany were horrendous (worse than in the infantry) and the ground crews often manned forward airbases that were within range of enemy artillery or snipers. The air force enlisted personnel were known as a bright and resourceful bunch, who could improvise better living conditions and this was no accident. During World War II, the Army Air Force got priority when it came to the best (in terms of book smarts and skills) draftees. After the war, the air force used "better living conditions" as a way to induce bright young lads to volunteer for the air force rather than wait be drafted into the army. So while the draft lasted until 1975, the air force rarely had to take draftees or recruits who did not meet their high standards.
Of all the services the air force had the highest proportion of troops involved in highly technical and administrative jobs. But most of these occupations were just that, jobs. The navy went to sea, the army and the marines went out to "the field", but the air force generally stayed at their ever more comfortable bases. Even in the 1960s, navy and army officers joked about what an air force officer considered a "hardship post" (a base with only one golf course). Airforce ground personnel did get shot at again in Vietnam, although most air force bases were located in safer places. Moreover, the senior air force NCOs in Vietnam had World War II experience, so the younger airmen had no one to complain to except each other.
After the Vietnam War, the draft disappeared and the air force had to hustle to keep its ranks full of quality personnel. Excellent living conditions were still seen as a good recruiting tactic, and living quarters for unmarried personnel began to resemble the suburban apartment complexes these young men and women would be living in if they were still civilians. The troops worked hard, lived well, and everyone was happy.
Then the Cold War ended in 1991, and the air force, like the other services, had to sort out what kinds of wars they would encounter in the future. By the late 1990s, the air force decided that the wars of the future required "Air Expeditionary Wings" (AEW). These units would contain about a hundred combat and support aircraft and several thousand air force personnel. They would be trained and equipped to fly off, on short notice, to some overseas hot spot. In most cases, the AEW would operate from an existing air base but, if need be, the AEW could operate in a more primitive environment. Like the bombed-out Bagram air base in Afghanistan. Apparently, the young airmen were not sufficiently briefed about the possibility of "living rough" and keep quiet about any dissatisfaction with the accommodations. Not while soldiers, marines, and a few air force personnel were out in the hills living under far harsher conditions.
It's not that no one in the air force has familiarity with living rough. Pilots and air force security personnel are trained to operate under "austere conditions". The pilots undergo training on how to evade capture if they must bail out over enemy territory. Security personnel train as light infantry and air force pararescue commandos spend a lot of time in the bush. But most air force personnel expect middle class civilian amenities after they've put in a day's work. And during times of intense operations, the troops will work 12 or 16-hour shifts to keep the aircraft flying. But the fact of the matter is that the air force has long since ceased to be a "field force." The army and marines still practice rough living as part of their training and sailors expect cramped quarters aboard ship. But for many in the air force, the tents, damp laundry, and dust of Bagram were a bit much. Over the last decade, the air force personnel deployed to combat zones adapted. The accommodations got a bit better but the airmen (male and female) no longer complained. Back home everything was still better than at army, navy, and marine bases. But living habits and leisure time activities were changing, and the air force leadership spent a lot of time addressing that as well as the shrinking number of combat aircraft they could afford and the cuts to their budget because the army was doing most of the fighting and needed the money. Fighter and bomber pilots were getting a lot of flight time but senior leaders ignored the fact that most of that flight time was spent flying in circles waiting from troops below to call for a smart bomb. By 2010 it became obvious that China was building modern fighters and while these pilots got some training in delivering smart bombs, most of their combat training was about taking control of the air away from the Americans. American fighter pilots saw this as a serious challenge, U.S. Air Force leaders were less impressed although they had to pay attention to how their dwindling number of fighter pilots making it clear that inattention to combat flight training was their main reason for leaving.
What air force leadership missed was the critical nature of all this. This small number of combat pilots justified the existence of the entire air force. Yet because of the high cost of buying and operating combat aircraft, there are fewer and fewer of them. When the Cold War ended in 1991 the air force had 134 fighter and 18 bomber squadrons. Twenty-five years later there are 55 fighter and nine bomber squadrons. These units are the tip of the spear and there was never any doubt their continued existence was essential. But air force policies are driving the pilots away. Consider that for a long time the air force depended on most of these highly trained (at great expense) combat pilots to stay in the air force for at least 20 years. For a long time, the air force was able to do that, keeping 65 percent in uniform for 20 years. That could still be possible if the air force let the combat pilots fly, but the air force does not and the pilots leave. Currently only a third of fighter pilots are staying in for twenty years and that percentage is shrinking.
These changes in attitudes by leaders and pilots is no secret but nothing seems to be done about it and the air force is running out of pilots. The response has been to address some of the problems (allow NCOs to operate UAVs) but not others. Pilots still spend most of their time doing pointless (to the pilots) office work and less preparation for combat. Airforce leadership is more concerned about empire building (a Space Force and more Cyber War resources) than maintaining the combat edge the air force has built since World War II and is now, according to the combat pilots, in great danger.
While the air force still pays lip service to the long practiced goal of ensuring all its fighter pilots underwent ten very realistic combat training sorties (taking off, carrying out a mission, and landing), this is no longer seen as important as it once was. This “ten sorties” rule was the result of studying the combat histories of fighter pilots found that those who survive ten combat sorties are much more likely to continue surviving and have a good chance of becoming an ace (five or more aircraft shot down). Creating realistic training sorties has been difficult because you are never sure who you will have to fight. But since the 1970s, the U.S. military has been a believer in the "ten sortie rule." But this rule has no meaning of pilots cannot maintain their combat flying skills/
The research that led to the ten-sortie-rule turned up all sorts of interesting, and sometimes useful, information. For example, it was found that some 80 percent of pilots killed in combat never knew that they were a target until the attacker opened fire. Interviews with foreign (especially Japanese and German) pilots showed that this was common and most of the victims were pilots with few combat sorties to their credit. All this led to discovering the concept of maintaining situational awareness (knowing exactly where you are and where everyone else is).
The air force has done a good job addressing the situational awareness issue. Probably one of the most valuable tools for maintaining situational awareness was JTIDS (Joint Tactical Information Data System). Development of this system began in the 1980s and mature examples of the technology only began showing up after 2001. JTIDS is a data link that gives the pilot complete and real-time situation report, showing what other pilots (and planes like the E-3) are seeing. Pilots who tested JTIDS reported drastic increases in their situational awareness. For example, in most cases, pilots with JTIDS had a 4-to-1 kill ratio in their favor against pilots without JTIDS. This capability is enhanced and built into the F-35 and F-22 and is seen by many pilots as more valuable than the stealth capabilities.
And then there's the mystery of what makes an ace. Since World War I (1914-18) researchers have been seeking to discover why some fighter pilots are aces while most (about 95 percent) are not. More recently there were studies that detected a unique difference in brain activity among fighter pilots. But little research has been possible on aces themselves because there are no more of them on active duty. Still, the research continues, as success in this area would make it possible to more efficiently recruit superior fighter pilots and train them faster and more effectively.
In some ways, the brain scan studies have confirmed some of the earlier work in this area. For example, studies have long sought to find common factors among aces. For World War I aces it was found that aces tended to be very accurate shooters, even if they were sometimes lousy pilots. World War II research found some similarities in eye color and the gender of children and an apparent ability to quickly size up any situation (situational awareness). Further research confirmed that aces were quick thinkers, who were better able to figure out where they were. But it was observed that these qualities were common in all who were more successful in combat, be it as tank crews, infantrymen, commanders on warships, or team athletes (football, basketball, hockey, and so on). But fighter pilots were individuals that fought in a way where it was easier to measure individual success and recognize those who were superior at it.
Meanwhile, since the 1950s only three U.S. Air Force pilots have become aces. There may never be any more aces. In nearly a century of operations, only 816 American air force fighter pilots have become aces. Most (87 percent) of those were in World War II (1941-45). There were 39 aces in the Korean War (1950-53) and only three during the Vietnam War (1964-72). In the last two decades, no fighter pilots have scored four or more victories. On the plus side, combat aircraft became safer to fly. A century ago most combat pilot fatalities were not from enemy action but from their own aircraft failing during operation (especially landing and takeoff). Ground fire is less of a threat now that pilots can find targets and launch guided weapons from a safer altitude in aircraft equipped with a lot of countermeasures.
Since World War II, the U.S. Air Force, along with American naval aviation, has become the dominant air power on the planet. Moreover, the availability of nuclear weapons has restrained the major world powers from fighting each other directly. So the only wars are between second and third-rate proxies, who face American fighter pilots. These smaller nations tend to see their air forces destroyed on the ground, or have too few aircraft in the air to allow American pilots to become aces. The biggest threat to American pilots is anti-aircraft fire, either bullets or missiles.
The future of air combat is seen to be in unmanned aircraft, including robotic fighters that no human pilot could overcome. This is because the unmanned aircraft can undertake maneuvers that the human body cannot handle. Too tight a turn at too high a speed causes human pilots to black out. Robotic aircraft do not have this problem. Moreover, a robotic aircraft would be run by software that could possess a better degree of “situational awareness” than any human pilot. This isn’t science fiction, as many current warplanes have numerous functions run by computers. This is often done because a human simply could not make flight decisions, and execute them, fast enough to prevent the aircraft from crashing. Braking systems on many automobiles use the same technology. It’s not a revolution in technology that is creating the robotic fighter but an evolution. The ace is becoming extinct. But the essence of what makes a pilot an ace is still subject to capture so that it can be incorporated in the software that will act as future combat pilots.
But if there are few experienced combat pilots left in the air force what will the robotic pilot emulate? Meanwhile, combat pilots still rule the sky, if you have such pilots and enabled them to stay in the air long enough and often enough to gain the necessary skills. Pilot quality is still important and many air force pilots do the math and realize that they are losing their edge because their leaders will not provide the resources for the fighter pilots to train.
The departing air force pilots believe that not a lot is happening to maintain an effective force of combat pilots. So these pilots are off to fly for a living, as commercial pilots. The pay is better, the flight hours are more numerous and their leaders have a sense of purpose and mission. It’s a welcome change for the frustrated pilots, many of whom would prefer to be professional fighter pilots if only the air force would allow such a thing.