A Dying Breed: Part 2

Every day kill just one, rather than today five, tomorrow ten . . . that is enough for you. Then your nerves are calm and you can sleep good, you have your drink in the evening and the next morning you are fit again.

– Colonel Erich ‘Bubi’ Hartmann, Luftwaffe

[Read Part 1 Here]

Today’s American fighter pilot doesn’t think twice about facing an enemy in foreign airspace, but it would seem that he is in a constant state of defensive reaction here at home.  As we mentioned in our last article, the constant flux of today’s political climate often places the fighter pilot squarely in the crosshairs of budget cuts and diminishing leadership opportunities. Sometimes it takes a voice from outside the organization, far removed from politics and chains of command, to reach the ears of those with the power to affect policy.  David Radcliffe of Las Vegas, Nevada is just that voice.

David has been an advocate for American air power over the past several years and has taken to the streets with his message: America needs its fighter pilots!  He is a member of the Air Force Association and Nellis Support Team, a non-profit organization dedicated to support Nellis and Creech Air Force Base personnel, activities, and operations.  He has served as the honorary squadron commander for the 8th Weapons Squadron at Nellis, has published an Op-Ed piece in Jane’s Defence Weekly, and was consulted by the Washington Times on an article discussing the plight of the fighter fleet.  I had the opportunity to catch up with David this past week to learn more about what he’s been up to.

Almost immediately in our conversation I forgot I was talking to a former cop turned luxury realtor, and felt like I was talking to one of the bros in the squadron bar on a Friday afternoon.  This guy knows his stuff.  He has become intimately familiar with several issues facing our aging fighter fleet and has made it his personal crusade to raise his voice and try to talk some sense in the crazy world of defense politics.

I asked David what he saw as the biggest problems facing the fighter community, and his answer was out before I even finished the question: pilot retention and acquisition of aircraft.  According to an article by Fox News in July 2013, the Air Force is currently short 200 fighter pilots, which deficit will grow to 700 in the next eight years if nothing is done! David believes the attrition in the fighter pilot ranks is the direct result of several factors negatively impacting the career field.

“Do more with less” has placed a heavy burden on the officers flying the jets.  The extra “qweep” (the fighter pilot term for administrative tasks that detract from tactics and flying) has grown almost to a breaking point and is starting to have an impact on pilot proficiency and focus.  Imagine a doctor having to worry about becoming an expert in the Defense Travel System (just to get paid for a TDY), spending personal time and money to maintain the squadron building, focusing on additional duties having nothing to do with medicine, and planning social functions in an effort to bolster his Officer Performance Report  – all instead of becoming the know-all expert in his field of medicine.  Would you want to be seen by a doctor with so many distractions?  This inability to focus on tactics and the need to become a Jack-of-all-trades (master of none!) is driving pilots – not just fighter pilots – away in droves.

In addition to the extraneous tasks required of fighter pilots, other factors are weighing heavily into the retention issue.  David noted the airline hiring boom and wonders if military salaries are sufficient to keep up in spite of the latest increase in pilot retention bonus.

Gone are the glory days when the ramps overflowed with fighter jets…

Also, the operations tempo has gone from difficult to ridiculous.  David told me the story of an F-16 pilot friend of his stationed in Italy: He was on his way home from a deployment when he was asked to turn around and go back because the unit replacing his unit did not have enough pilots to fill the tasking!

Finally, an increased accident rate associated with flying aging aircraft may be scaring some of the best and brightest away from military service.  The Air Force’s fleet of 4th Generation fighters (A-10, F-16, F-15) has been in service now for over 30 years.  While upgrades have been made to avionics, sensors, and weaponry, the airframes are old and have a lot of hours on them.  David firmly asserts a recapitalization of the fleet is necessary if we want to not only maintain pilots, but also be tactically relevant in the combat arena.

Speaking of recapitalizing the fleet, David believes we need to take a good look at where the fighter fleet currently stands.  We have several aging jets that are gradually being retired from service well beyond their original service life.  The F-22 production line is closed and the F-35 is years away from operational capability.  Once the F-35 reaches operational capability, David sees the acquisition rate of 24 aircraft per year as less than sufficient to recapitalize the fleet.

At this point in my conversation with Mr. Radcliffe I started to feel depressed, and understandably so.  Is there a way forward?  Is there hope for the fighter pilot and the Combat Air Force?  Are we all destined to fly unmanned aircraft?  David’s answer did not give me the comfort I sought.

“There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer.  It’s going to take a serious change in organizational mindset,” he said.  “People are going to have to tell the Boss what he doesn’t want to hear, and the Boss is going to have to be willing to listen.”

The way forward, David says, is to first ensure units have the funds to frequently attend large force training exercises (LFEs) such as Red Flag.  LFEs are the best way for combat aircrew to truly prepare for battle and the most effective way to practice integration amongst 4th and 5th Generation assets.  When you put up the numbers of aircraft that you would see in a real-world coalition operation, you increase the proficiency of pilots and you provide them with “stress inoculation”: by stressing them in training, you reduce the levels of stress experienced in combat lending to a more precise air battle.

When asked if he thinks Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPAs) are the answer to the problem of a waning fighter fleet, he gave me the standard fighter pilot answer: “It depends.”

“Air-to-air missile technology was all the craze when the F-4 came into service and the answer at the time was to take the gun out of the jet.  We quickly saw the enemy adapt by bringing the fight inside of the minimum ranges of the missile.  Again, there is no one-size-fits-all answer here.”

David is truly unbiased when it comes to the topic of RPAs – he is a strong advocate for them as well.  But in the arena of air dominance, he doesn’t believe they are responsive enough or capable enough to fulfill the role of a manned fighter.  David sees the future of fighter aviation similar to the way other technology visionaries see it: Flights leads are live humans in the cockpit leading and commanding a flight of drone wingmen (known to fighter pilots as missile trucks) into battle.  Being able to control the drones without having to rely on satellite uplinks and a cast of several people just to operate them would improve their effectiveness and reduce their cost while keeping the key element – the manned fighter – in the equation.

By focusing on retaining pilots, smartly restructuring the combat fleet of the Air Force, and giving our pilots and operators more opportunities to train in real life we can keep our Combat Air Force effective, relevant, and ready to preserve air dominance.

Our third and final article in the series will focus on the fighter pilot and his/her role in leadership.  Join us soon!