Senior Airman Cecil Lovette, 20th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief, goes through preflight checks with a 79th Fighter Squadron pilot in March during Red Flag 13-3 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. One month later, the 79th reduced its readiness status because of sequestration. (Staff Sgt. Kenny Holston / Air Force)
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The grounding of Air Force combat squadrons will not only have an effect on the long-term readiness of the fleet but also on the careers of pilots and maintainers whose planes were idle.
The Air Force on July 15 lifted the four-month grounding of 19 combat squadrons, with pilots returning to the air at a rate that will restore their currency in about three to four months. But this time will delay their career development, meaning that pilots will move on to instructor pilots and the weapons school later than their predecessors, and maintainers will be slower in their development into 5-level craftsmen and 7-level supervisors, said Lt. Gen. Burton Field, the deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements.
“It looks like our young folks will lose a lot of the experience that we have come to count on,” Field said at a July 25 event at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
During the standdown, pilots used academics and simulators to stay as ready as they could, but the months on the ground meant a drop in currency. Field said it will take three months for these pilots to be ready to train for “higher-end” missions, and will be “some time after that” for them to be fully ready.
The tangible effect of the grounding for the pilots means that now, many will not become flight leads or aircraft commanders until the middle of their second assignment. Others will not be instructor pilots until the middle or end of their third assignment, Field said. Previously, many instructor pilots could be first lieutenants or young captains. Now, there’s not going to be a weapons school instructor who is a two-year-captain, he said.
“When we cut out part of that training ... then we reduce the quality of the Air Force,” he said.
The same goes for the maintainers on the ground. The good news for some is that they were assigned to Total Force Integration units that still had Guard or Reserve planes in the air, allowing them to keep working. But for others, the planes stayed on the ground and maintainers were not able to practice their skills to the same level as before, Field said.
The lack of development means more 3-level apprentices, and not enough 5-level craftsmen or 7-level supervisors on the flightlines, he said.
When the Air Force was hit with sequestration, leaders focused on funding the highest priorities in the service, such as the nuclear enterprise and homeland defense. Next in line were commitments to combatant commands, and that meant the biggest hit would be to the combat forces not assigned to missions with the combatant commands, he said.
In addition to the full standdown of the fighter squadrons, several other units were kept at a lower tier of readiness — basic mission capable, that kept pilots flying at a lower rate to retain some currency until the fiscal year ended. These units included A-10s, F-15s, F-16s, F-22s and B-1Bs. The “tiered readiness” model is similar to the Navy’s approach to keeping ships in port at different stages of readiness following deployments.
On July 15, the Air Force announced it had received $208 million in funding reprogramming from Congress, which translated to 13,000 flying hours. The most went to the combat squadrons to return to fully mission capable, and then to the weapons school, aggressors, test units and the Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team.
“Since April, we’ve been in a precipitous decline with regard to combat readiness,” ACC Commander Gen. Mike Hostage said in a release. “Returning to flying is an important first step, but what we have ahead of us is a measured climb to recovery.”