A number of us have been warning about this for a while, but today’s Wall Street Journal carries an important piece by Julian Barnes on the decline in flying and training hours for U.S. Air Force pilots. Leading generals I’ve talked to over the past year have warned about the long-term cost of budget cuts that force them to shift money away from training and maintenance toward daily operations. Earlier this year, the U.S. Air Force’s Air Combat Command had to temporarily stand down 17 squadrons in order to deal with a budget-induced reduction of 44,000 flying hours. When the planes took to the skies again, many of those aircrews had to be recertified, which took several months and more money than if they had been allowed to fly all along.
Now Barnes comes along to report that U.S. pilots are flying only 120 hours or less per year, a drop of over 50 percent from a decade ago. In fact, American pilots now fly fewer training hours than do Chinese, Indian, or some European pilots, according to Barnes. When I interviewed General Herbert Carlisle, commander of Pacific Air Forces, for a column in the Wall Street Journal, he noted that training hours for U.S. pilots was dropping to the level once occupied by Soviet pilots during the Cold War. Their lack of flying experience, he noted, was one reason the U.S. remained confident of holding an air edge over Russia and its allies.
Indeed, the single most important reason America has the world’s best air force is the extraordinary level of training and experience of our fighter, bomber, and transport pilots, along with their ground crews and air-operations staffs. We long ago passed the stage of daredevil pilots hopping into their canvas biplanes on reckless missions of derring-do (which never actually happened, anyway). Today’s U.S. Air Force is the world’s most technologically advanced military service, with a ballet-like precision among all its highly trained and competent components.
From one perspective, the training of our airmen is even more important, due to the age of our air fleet. Front-line U.S. fighters like the F-15 are over 30 years old, while the youngest B-52 just turned 50 this year. Some of our tankers are even older. For many of these planes, maintenance eats up an increasing amount of money, even as they potentially face modernized counterparts in Asia and Europe. Thus, the skill of our pilots becomes an even more important differentiating factor.
We are at risk of throwing much of that away. While today’s Air Force has been engaged in overseas operations nearly constantly since the 1991 Gulf War, and is now comprised of the most experienced pilots in history, flying skills are a wasting asset. Unless continually maintained, they will degrade quickly. Budget cuts that are sapping flying hours for training and maintenance means less-prepared air and ground crews in short order. In the Journal article quoted above, Lieutenant General Burt Field, the current deputy chief of staff for operations, noted that already “we have a lot of squadrons that aren’t ready to go to the Korea fight,” referring to the possibility of a confrontation in North and South Korea.
Our command of the air and the superiority of our Air Force is a primary reason that the U.S. military has been the world’s most effective for decades. Not since April 1953 has a U.S. soldier or Marine been killed on the ground from enemy air attack. Generations of military planners have operated under the assumption of air control, and hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops, from file clerks to Special Operations Forces, have gone into combat under the watchful eye of U.S. Air Force pilots (often in conjunction with U.S. Navy aviators). Just as adversarial countries such as China and Russia are rapidly modernizing their air fleets, and improving their integrated air defenses, America’s pilots are being grounded by petty politics at home. That, as Lieutenant General Field notes, can lead to fatal mistakes; one day it also could lead to pilots less capable than the adversaries they will face. The cost of our misguided defense cuts may well be measured then in American lives needlessly wasted both on the ground and in the air.