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“Decreasing force structure, increasing ops tempo after [the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks] combined to create a readiness problem that started to really show itself in about 2003, and our readiness statistics have been declining steadily ever since,” Gen. Welsh said in January.

He said full-bore fighter training has been pushed “onto the back burner in order to take care of the current fight. That’s had an impact on us.”

In response to questions from The Times, Air Combat Command, with headquarters at Langley, Va., said its 3,250 active-duty fighter pilots are 200 short of what is needed “to meet operational and staff requirements.”

“The Air Force has been at a very high operational tempo for more than a decade,” the command said. “This high ops tempo has fallen on a shrinking number of active-duty airmen as the force has been reduced.”

It has cut flying hours by 30 percent since 2006 up until Tuesday, when the numbers further worsened. The air command said it would start shutting down or curtailing operations for one-third of its combat units in order to funnel flying-hours funding to those getting ready to deploy.

Idle time of three months generally leaves a unit unable to mobilize as mission-ready, meaning that a large portion of combat airplanes might not be able to respond immediately to a crisis.

A force in transition

More and more, the Air Force is turning to the Air Guard and reserve units to go to war. The fighter community today totals 330,000, less than half the number in 1980, and is a mix of active-duty and reserve personnel.

The reserve backstop will work only if pilots leaving the active force continue to joint reserve units. The service has relied on reserve squadrons to volunteer to deploy to take pressure off active units going multiple times to Iraq and Afghanistan.

If they stop, “that will hurt the air reserve component because they’re not going to get the flow of experienced folks they need to sustain operations with minimal training overhead,” the Air Combat Command told The Times.

The war on terrorism and its need to kill terrorists one by one in remote areas has hastened the shift toward remotely piloted aircraft. The Pentagon has even created a war medal for drone operators sitting in the safety of a control room continents away from the fighting. The Air Force owned only a few drones in 2001, but now flies 285 — and the number keeps growing.

Pilots have seen it coming.

“The modern fighter pilot is becoming more of a sensor manager or aerospace technician, and many of the tasks may not even require a pilot,” then-Lt. Col. Pete Zuppas wrote in a 2007 article that appeared on the Air Force’s website.

“MQ-1 Predators or drones carrying weapons like laser guided air-to-surface missiles are becoming the most valued air power asset in many current scenarios,” wrote the now-retired fighter pilot. “There are scientists with great plans in motion for even more capable unmanned combat aerial vehicles to share and possibly rule the skies of the future.”

The Air Force today has seen money that could have gone for flying hours eaten up by the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Its cost has skyrocketed and its scheduled arrival in operational units keeps being pushed to the future just when the Air Force needs to replace airframes that first flew more than 30 years ago.

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