U.S. Military Insights How the Adversary Air Gap Developed – and What the Outcome Might Be

In July 2016, the U.S. Air Force was short approximately 7,500 sorties a year. A few months later, the gap had expanded to 30,000–40,000 sorties per year. What is fueling this shortage?

While browsing FedBizOpps in July of 2016, I noticed a Request for Information (RFI) from the U.S. Air Combat Command’s Acquisition Management and Integration Center (AMIC). The RFI stated that AMIC were conducting market research to identify how best to fill a gap in advanced adversary air sorties at Nellis Air Force Base (AFB) in Nevada. In all, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) was short approximately 7,500 sorties a year.

A few months later, USAF’s adversary air gap had expanded to 30,000–40,000 sorties per year. The scope of the shortage had expanded beyond Nellis to include 11 additional AFBs: Eglin, Hickam, Hill, Holloman, Kelly, Kingsley, Langley, Luke, Seymour Johnson, Tucson, and Tyndall. How had this happened?

 1) Inactivation of the 65th Aggressor Squadron and its 24 F-15 Eagles due to Fiscal Year 2015 budget  constraints imposed on the Air Force. The inactivation only left the 64th Aggressor Squadron at NellisAFB,  which is flying F-16Cs, and the 18th Aggressor Squadron at Eielson AFB in Alaska, which is flying F-16  C/Ds.

 2) Increased peer-on-peer capability requirement for pilots flying 5th-generation F-22s and F-35s, both at  the Formal Training Units and at the actual bases where the aircraft reside.

 3) Shortfall of active duty Air Force pilots. This is being driven by multiple factors: operational tempo, quality  of life, pay, and increased hiring by commercial airlines, which is driving what some have called a “national  pilot crisis.”

With respect to adversary air, the losses of fighter pilots in particular have exceeded the Air Force’s annual production capacity. In August of 2016, the Washington Post reported that there were 723 fighter pilot vacancies among 3,495 jobs, leaving about 21 percent unfilled.

A 2015 study by military think tank Rand found that commercial airlines such as American, Delta and United will all boost pilot hiring during the next 20 years to replace their aging workforces. Major airlines will hire an average of 2,000 pilots per year over the next 10 years, with upward of 5,000 per year beginning in 2022. That compares with an average of less than 1,500 pilots hired annually in the previous 10 years. Additionally, Air Force pilots have the qualifications that commercial airlines are looking for: over 1,500 flying hours and 10-plus years of flying experience.

All of these elements will likely allow a new airborne adversary services sector to grow over the next decade or so, potentially becoming a multi-billion dollar industry. Companies like Draken, ATAC, Discovery Air, Top Aces and Tactical Air Solutions may be able to meet and fill the huge adversary air gap.

But ironically, this industry could end up contributing to the Air Force’s pilot shortfall. Companies will need to hire qualified fighter pilots, thus providing another commercial opportunity for military pilots to fly against their active duty and Air National Guard brethren.

So, keep your eyes on the Air Force pilot shortage, the commercial airline hiring, and, of course, the adversary air industry. A perfect storm is brewing… and our own Air Force will have to work extremely hard to stop the bleeding.

Col. Jon Klaus, U.S. Air Force, Ret.
Senior VP of Business Development, Air Domain
Saab North America

This post is part of Saab USA's U.S. Military Insights blog series, where our employees who have served in the U.S. military offer their thoughts on the issues affecting their branch.