Unquestionably, the Air Force needs to retain experienced operators if the service hopes to remain the most powerful air force on the planet. The question of how to best do this surfaces in many areas. How to retain more women and minorities? How to retain more fighter pilots? Earlier this week, Defense Industrialist editor James Hasik asked the same regarding the Air Force’s remotely-piloted aircraft (RPA) pilot force. He penned an article decrying the Air Force’s three-pronged approach of pay, pool, and potential.

The reality is, two years ago, the Air Force shelved thousands of Airmen, a choice Congress foisted on the service. Congress has repeatedly tied the Air Force’s hands by refusing to allow a base realignment and closure (which, ceteris paribus, would free up money for personnel and modernization), and Congress has yet to remove the specter of sequester. Couple those conditions with a quarter-century of combat and increasing combatant commander requirement, and you’re left with the “smallest, oldest, and least ready [Air Force] in history.” 

Hasik conveniently sets aside these legislative and wartime realities and attacks the only remaining levers available to senior leaders. Hasik’s first criticism is “…that the ‘pay-and-benefits’ approach will still only get the Air Force so far so fast.” Hasik assaults the bonus plan by rephrasing the law of diminishing returns, casting the $35,000 RPA bonus as all but ineffectual.

As the beneficiary of monthly aviation career incentive pay and a five-year pilot bonus, the money I received did play a factor in my decision to not leave the Air Force. But it wasn’t the only factor. I suspect this mindset likely holds true for the ‘enterprising’ aviation and submarine force Hasik cites, a force who is eligible to receive either aviation continuation pay or nuclear officer incentive pay. Offering bonuses to RPA officers who fly three times as many hours as “the silk scarf crowd” is a solid first step. Whether or not lieutenants or senators deserve more pay is not particularly relevant to the Air Force’s choice to pay RPA pilots more money. Considering the life-and-death decisions these Airmen make on a daily basis, I don’t find it unseemly at all.

Expanding pilot sourcing options was another smart Air Force move. Hasik seems to disagree with the choice of the aircraft, writing that it’s “like operating an Army drone.” The selection of the RQ-4 Global Hawk was deliberate. The RQ-4 did not suffer the same manning issues as the MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper, offering a more stable training environment for this new initiative. Proposed congressional directives to further enlarge the pipeline without understanding the effects may undermine a system that has already started to “correct pilot shortfalls.”

Moreover, it is not, as Hasik intimates, a non-thinking person’s weapons system. Enlisted candidates must take the EPQT (Enlisted Pilot Qualifying Test) and TBAS (Test for Basic Aviation Skills), pass a flight physical, and meet a screening board. And that’s all before selection. Afterwards, the training pipeline lasts several months and involves multiple hours of practice flights and emergency scenarios. All this in preparation to execute combat missions almost immediately after graduation. An error as small as entering a “0” instead of a “1” into an aircraft navigation system can land you on the wrong continent. It takes a tremendously capable and intelligent individual to perform in combat, and that’s who the Air Force is choosing to fly these weapon systems.

Lastly, Hasik describes more “enterprising” individuals as having entered the aviation and submarine force. As the New York Times reported, less than 0.5 percent of the population serves in all-volunteer military. The preponderance of the force signed up after 9/11, meaning they volunteered to serve in a time of combat. As a result, our Air Force is fortunate to have some of the most “enterprising” individuals in every career field and across the service, and they are certainly not unique to the pilot career field.

Computers and aptitude tests don’t yet have the fidelity to screen for the most imaginative and resourceful Airmen. Cultivating a crop of creative Airmen comes from leaders who are comfortable with innovation and who trust their subordinates to think outside the proverbial box. As a squadron commander, it was my Airmen who developed the most imaginative and cost-conscious solutions to pressing problems. In fact, innovative Airmen are projected to save the service $120 million

Returning to the question of the RPA force, Hasik is right to assert that creativity is important when establishing a new career specialty. RPA crews have flown millions of hours. We’re pushing more money, time, and resources to the RPA community. Together with the Army, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard, these enterprising men and women give our Nation an unmatched advantage over our adversaries. If Hasik truly believes these career fields lack traits such as adaptability, creativity, imagination, and innovation… that’s the real shame.

Lt. Col Fairchild is the US Air Force Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the US Government.

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