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Synchronizing Change and Air Force Culture: Modernization and the Dirty Secret of Aircrew Shortages

Alumnus Mike Byrnes (F19) shares his recommendations for modernizing the U.S. Air Force, in an op-ed in War on the Rocks.

A few weeks ago, I sat in an audience of about a hundred aircrew, listening to a senior Air Force commander speak about pilot production shortfalls. The general was articulate, sincere, and sympathetic about why pilots are leaving the service. He didn’t hold back in expressing dissatisfaction with the practices the Air Force uses to train pilots — they were historically effective, but lack the agility required to meet the service’s modern-day needs. The general argued that the system is an assembly line with no individualized assessments or tailored use of resources. At the end of the line, graduates receive one of a host of three-digit specialty codes. The personnel system, in turn, sees only codes, not an inventory of a person’s actual abilities. When the personnel and training systems try to interact — for example, when trying to retrain an airman from one crew position to another on the same aircraft — they are remarkably poor at recognizing experience overlaps and interchangeable skillsets.

Then something really interesting happened. Taking a cue from the general, a colonel in the audience offered an outside-the-box solution — retraining crews of remotely piloted aircraft to fill needs in fighter aviation. Suddenly, the general’s willingness to explore new ideas vanished. He dismissed the suggestion, curiously, by referencing constraints of the existing training pipeline he just proposed replacing for its myriad deficiencies. He concluded, “there’s no shortage of young people out there who want to fly airplanes for us.” Why did the principles hold when the general considered them within the context of the fighter community but collapsed when applied more broadly?

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