Fighter Pilots Aren’t Flying Enough to Hone the Skills of Full-Spectrum War

Fighter Pilots Aren’t Flying Enough to Hone the Skills of Full-Spectrum War, by John Venable.

Fighter force readiness has been declining since 2003, but it took a big dive in fiscal 2013, when funding cuts forced the Air Force to temporarily ground half of its active-duty, combat-coded squadrons and reduce overall flying hours by 18 percent.

It got worse. In 2014, additional cuts led to shortages of spare parts and aircraft maintenance workers. Fighter pilots, who once averaged over 200 flying hours a year, struggled to get 120 hours that year.

Last year, the average rose to 150 hours with a slight uptick in funding and by rolling in the surge of flying time accumulated during combat deployments. Flying in a combat environment may sound like an incredible opportunity to employ and refine high-end skillsets, but it isn’t. The vast majority of a fighter pilot’s time in a cockpit over Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria is spent holding (loitering), waiting to be employed in that low-threat environment. While they fly much more frequently, the opportunity to actually drop munitions comes infrequently. And after they return home, those pilots often average less than one sortie a week.

To put this into context, in the 1980s and ’90s, Air Force fighter pilots averaged three to four sorties a week, flying over 200 hours a year in order to achieve “full spectrum capable” readiness. It enabled them not just to sustain proficiency, but to improve their skills.

There’s a pretty well-accepted formula for this. When pilots fly only two sorties per week (averaging slightly over 100 hours per year), their skills decrease with every passing week and the likelihood they will be effective or even survive in combat drops precipitously. Fly three sorties a week, and they sustain their baseline faculties. Fly four sorties a week – at least 200 hours a year—and they get better at everything.

Obama’s priorities. Well, what do you know:

The current state of Air Force fighter unreadiness is one we haven’t witnessed since the Carter Administration.

It’s also a false economy. Compared to the high cost of the aircraft and their maintenance, the cost of keeping pilots in top form is relatively minor — yet it buys a lot of performance, as long experience from WWII on shows.