House defense leader at Wright Patt, says AF pilot shortage growing

The Air Force has been “hemorrhaging” pilots in a growing shortage that shows the impact sequestration has had on the military, a top congressional defense leader said.

Making his first trek to Wright-Patterson, House Armed Services Committee chairman and U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said the shortage of Air Force pilots could exceed 1,900 based on what the high-level congressional leader was told last week. At the end of fiscal year 2016, the Air Force estimated it was about 1,500 aviators short.

“This is an example of where cutting the defense budget by 20 percent since 2010 has real consequences,” Thornberry said at a press conference Monday at the Miami Valley base with U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, chairman of the House Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee.

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Thornberry and Turner went on a private tour Monday of the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, which dedicated a $29.5 million foreign technology exploitation facility last Friday, and met with Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, commander of the Air Force Materiel Command, to discuss defense needs.

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Turner said sequestration, or automatic defense budget cuts, has had a “devastating impact across the board” to the Department of Defense. The spending reductions were enacted under the Budget Control Act of 2011 and meant to last a decade.

“This is all about we need an adequately funded budget with consistency so that the Department of Defense can plan,” he said.

On Friday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order expanding Air Force authority to recall up to 1,000 retired pilots for up to three years, but an Air Force spokesperson said the military branch did not plan currently to pull those pilots back into the cockpit, the Associated Press reported.

The Air Force was limited to recalling 25 retired pilots under current law.

“We are short (aircraft) maintainers in the thousands and even if we are able to pass the ideal defense budget next week, you can’t just flip a switch and have a competent fighter pilot or a competent maintainer appear out of thin air,” Thornberry said. “It takes time to develop the expertise, it takes money to go through the training.

“That’s part of the reason the Air Force is looking at these other authorities to bring people back in because we’ve been hemorrhaging pilots,” the congressman added. “When they can’t fly, they leave.”

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Pentagon spending has been capped at last fiscal year’s levels since Oct. 1 when Congress failed to pass a new defense bill before the start of the 2017 fiscal year. Since then, the military has operated under a continuing resolution, set to expire Dec. 8.

“One of the highest priorities … in the next few weeks in Congress is to have an adequate defense budget passed and signed into law so that these people (at Wright-Patterson) have the resources and the funding stability they need to just focus on their work,” Thornberry said. “They don’t need to worry about Washington politics interfering with what they do because it is so important to the country.”

While the Pentagon has pushed as recently as this month for a Base Realignment and Closure process, citing nearly 20 percent excess capacity, Thornberry said an analysis is needed first before bases close or units relocate.

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“Before you start closing bases or giving up training ranges, you better know what size military you will need because once you give something up, you’re never going to get it back,” he said. “Certainly for me, I don’t rule it out, but I want to see the data and I want to see the assumptions that it’s based upon before me move forward.”

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