Air Force Warns: We Could Run Out of Pilots

The Air Force is flying into gale force winds as commercial airlines start a hiring spree while military aviators struggle with low morale due to cutbacks and idle jets. And the Air Force may see a shortage as pilots vote with their feet.

Over the next year, the commercial airline industry is going to begin hiring tens of thousands of new pilots as aging flyers retire and the industry regains its economic footing. That could put dark clouds in the way of the Air Force's wild blue yonder as it tries to persuade pilots to stay in a service even as top officials worry that pilots don't have enough yoke time.

"If pilots aren't flying in the Air Force because of our readiness issue, we worry that a number of them are going to say, 'I'm flying somewhere else,'" acting Secretary of the Air Force Eric Fanning told Foreign Policy in an interview this month. "If I'm looking at my jet parked on the ramp instead of flying it and I can get a job somewhere else flying, then I'm going to do that. So we are concerned that there is a sort of perfect storm approaching us in terms of flying retention."

Fanning said current retention rates are better than historical averages. But he fears there are a number of lagging indicators that don't tell the real story of how furloughs, the government shutdown, and lower readiness rates will affect the force over the next few years. The Air Force has publicly raised the alarm about its lower readiness rates because of sequestration and budget cutbacks. It may be using the threat of a pilot shortage to convince its budget overseers in Congress to ensure the service is properly funded. But no one disputes the factors at play are real.

Those factors start with the commercial aviation sector. There are three issues the industry is facing that could affect the Air Force in a significant way. The biggest one is the change to mandatory retirements for commercial airline pilots. In 2007, the FAA changed the mandatory retirement age for pilots from 60 to 65, keeping more seasoned pilots in the cockpits. But now thousands of those pilots are reaching retirement age and the airline industry, which is experiencing a comeback, will confront a shortage of experienced pilots across many airlines.

"That wave is just hitting," said one Air Force official.

The FAA also increased the minimum number of flying hours pilots must have after the crash in Buffalo, NY, in 2009 of a Colgan Air commuter flight that pointed out problems with more inexperienced pilots. There are additional crew rest regulations as well that require airlines to maintain more pilots on staff.

The numbers suggest the Air Force's fears are grounded in reality: Some worst case scenarios suggest the airline industry -- including international carriers -- could hire as many as 50,000 pilots over the next 10 years, and some estimates are even higher. If the industry aggressively targets pilots serving in the U.S. Air Force, the service could be in for some turbulence. The Airline Pilots Association, the primary trade group representing the interests of pilots and which is tracking the issue, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

It's a major concern for the Air Force, not only in the next year or so, but for the next several, said Dick Newton, executive vice president at the Air Force Association in Washington. "As the current demand for pilots grow from the U.S. airline industry so will Air Force pilots be compelled to leave the service for civilian cockpits," he said. "Coupled with the recent grounding of Air Force flying squadrons as a result of sequestration, many Air Force pilots aren't sure what the future is in store for them." Newton said as a result, many will seriously consider a civilian career which guarantees them flying time -- and in most cases a more stable lifestyle for their families without deployments and frequent moves that are a hallmark of the military lifestyle. The Air Force is perhaps uniquely vulnerable to the threats of such private sector hiring binges. None of the other armed services has so many individuals whose skills so easily and directly translate outside of military service. The Air Force is watching all of this very carefully. In July, top Air Force officials from the service as well as the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve met to discuss a variety of issues with industry leaders. But the hiring frenzy the airline industry is embarking on became a central discussion point as thousands of Guard and Reserve pilots are already working for the airline industry. Airline executives meeting with defense officials gave the Air Force a heads up: They would be having to hire thousands of pilots. Then this fall, the Air Force four-stars met for an Air Crew Summit at Andrews Air Force Base, MD, to discuss the potential pilot shortage.

"That's the level of attention this is getting," said one Air Force official.

It's the active-duty side of the Air Force that is in the private sector's crosshairs, since many commercial pilots are already serving in the Air Force's Reserve and Air Guard components. And it's as yet unclear just how many pilots the airline industry will hire. The forecast may not be dire yet. There is plenty of reason to worry, however. Thousands of pilots were furloughed in the wake of 9/11 and some may be asked back into service. Many have been grounded for years, while others may have found flying opportunities in the Guard and Reserve or in other jobs in the private sector. But only when the industry can determine what that "take rate" is will the Air Force begin to see how it should shape its own retention efforts.

The Air Force is already facing a pilot shortage in its combat air force, where the service has not been able to train as many pilots as it needs. The Air Force, Guard, and Reserve has a requirement for about 5,000 fighter pilots; there are about 4,400 -- a shortage of about 600. That shortage could change depending on the budget number the Air Force is given over the next year or two.

To retain pilots, the service offers a fairly standard maximum retention bonus of $25,000 per year for pilots in years in which there are shortages. The Air Force had asked for a five-year commitment in return. Now pilots can sign up for nine years for a maximum of $225,000. And to sweeten the deal, the Air Force last year began offering 50 percent of the bonus in a lump sum. Air Force officials say they think the retention bonus program may prevent an exodus of pilots but say they just don't know what the next few years will look like. During fiscal 2013, 132 fighter pilots out of 211 eligible took the pay -- a 63 percent average. Overall, the take rate for the retention pay for all pilots was about 68 percent. Those are healthy rates by most standards. But it's still anybody's guess what effect a commercial airline hiring frenzy will have on Air Force pilots already experiencing a lot of down time.

"Pilots like to fly, they like to yank and bank," said C.J. Ingram, a program analyst at the Air Force. "They're not getting the flying time, so that's not making them happy."

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National Security

Navy Secretary on Prostitution and Bribery Scandal: 'We Go After People'

For months, the U.S. Navy has weathered a titillating scandal involving a fat-cat defense contractor from Malaysia who allegedly used cash bribes, prostitutes and posh hotel rooms to lure top Navy officials into providing classified information he used to defraud the United States. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus addressed the controversy for the first time Friday, pushing back against the notion the service is a soft target for corruption while acknowledging even more Navy officers could be take down by an ongoing investigation.

"We go after people," he told reporters at the Pentagon. "We have set up procedures to try to prevent fraud, but any time -- any time -- you have this kind of money, there are going to be people trying to steal. Trying to defraud the government."

Mabus' comments came three days after a senior agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, John Bertrand Beliveau, pleaded guilty in federal court in San Diego after admitting to serving as a mole for the contractor, Glenn Defense Marine Asia. According to court documents, he tipped off the company's CEO, Leonard Glenn Francis - widely known as "Fat Leonard" - and enjoyed luxury trips in which prostitutes would meet him on Francis' dime. Francis is accused of bribing Navy officials in exchange for information he allegedly used to overcharge the U.S. military millions of dollars to service the ships, a process known in the mariner world as husbanding. He has pleaded not guilty.

Mabus defended the Navy's ability to ward off crooked contractors on Friday, but also highlighted several new efforts to crack down on billing problems with contractors. In September he directed a senior official, Assistant Navy Secretary Sean Stackley, to review acquisition strategy for husbanding contracts worldwide. That has since led the service to develop so-called "red teams" that are scrutinizing the process, and will eventually lead to change, Mabus said. The Navy also is conducting a broad audit of its service contracts that is due in June.

The Fat Leonard scandal already has reached the highest ranks of the Navy. On Nov. 8, the service announced that it barred two admirals from being to access their access to classified information, effectively relieving them from duty. Vice Adm. Ted Branch and Rear Adm. Bruce Loveless -- the service's director for naval intelligence and director of intelligence operations, respectively -- have not been charged with any crimes, but were suspended due to unspecified links to the scandal. Navy officials said the allegations against the two senior officers "involve inappropriate conduct prior to their current assignments and flag officer rank."

Two active-duty Navy officers -- Cmdr. Jose Luis Sanchez and Cmdr. Vannak Khem Misiewicz -- have been charged by authorities with accepting bribes and women in exchange for ship schedules and other sensitive information. The others charged in the case are Francis, Beliveau and Alex Wisadagama, another Glenn Defense employee who allegedly participated in the plot.

Mabus said he was briefed about the investigation for several months before authorities made the first arrest in the case. The Navy began investigating the case in May 2010 after contracting officials noticed suspicious billing by the Glenn Defense, and eventually planted false information about the status of the case when it realized Beliveau was effectively acting as a mole for Francis, Mabus said. Meanwhile, the service continued to award multi-million dollar contracts to Glenn Defense because it didn't want to jeopardize the investigation.

"If the Navy suspends a company's ability to compete for contracts or refuses to award a contract to a low bidder, we are required by federal law to give that contractor a reason why," Mabus said. "In this case, a notification would have tipped off GDMA that something was wrong."

In addition to the five men charged and the admirals who lost their security clearances, the Navy also has suspended Capt. David Haas as deputy commander of Coastal Riverine Group One in San Diego and relieved of command Capt. Daniel Dusek, who commanded the amphibious ship Bonhomme Richard, in connection with the investigation. The officers implicated in the scandal nearly all share one of two commonalities: service on the Blue Ridge, the command ship for the Navy's 7th Fleet, or service at Fleet Logistics Center Yokosuka in Japan. The facility provides repairs and maintenance to a variety of U.S. and allied ships and equipment.

The Navy's problems with awarding contracts to service its ships has widened in recent weeks to include another company, Inchcape Shipping Services, which the service cut ties with last month after concluding that it had "questionable business integrity." On Friday, the New York Times reported that a third company, Multinational Logistic Services, had suspended a senior executive, Akbar Khan, who had worked previously for Inchcape.

Mabus left little doubt more officers will be implicated in the scandals. And if federal authorities decide not to pursue criminal charges against some of those involved, the Navy will review allegations against them itself. A single four-star admiral with no connection to the case -- yet to be identified -- will lead the service's own investigation if that becomes necessary and oversee each case, the Navy secretary said.

"I would rather get bad headlines," he said, "than let bad people get away."

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