A key symbol of the jet fighter culture vanished in 2011 from Nevada's Nellis Air Force Base, the hub of air-war strategy and tactics, when senior Air Force officials ordered the "Home of the Fighter Pilot" sign to be taken down to be more welcoming for drone operators.
"It wasn't inclusive enough for the large mission at Nellis," a spokesman for U.S. Air Combat Command, which oversees the service's arsenal of bombers and jet fighters, told The Washington Times.
The vacant space is now a symbol of the fighters and bombers giving ground to remotely piloted aircraft, whose operators at Nellis control drones flying surveillance and hunt-and-kill missions thousands of miles away.
Since a high point in 1991 with the historic Desert Storm strikes on Iraq, the Air Force fighter colony has grown smaller, with fewer flying hours and declining readiness rates. A flier shortage has necessitated that a squadron readying for deployment "borrow" pilots from a returning unit.
One man trying to bring public attention to the decline is neither a fighter jock nor government watchdog. He is a real estate salesman in Las Vegas, about a half-dozen miles from Nellis, whose avocation is to play booster for the men and women who operate F-16 Falcons, F-15 Eagles and other jet fighters.
"I'm just a civilian. I've not been in the military before," David Radcliffe, a member of the nonprofit Nellis Support Team, told The Times. "But it's just the elephant in the room, quite frankly. It's not being talked about as a serious issue."
'The appeal is fading'
A former Las Vegas police officer, Mr. Radcliffe said he has established contacts with several fliers. He knows of pilots who fly only twice a month, a rate that makes it difficult to maintain skills for operating a supersonic jet.
A cutback in flying hours has gone on for some time, since before automatic "sequestration" budget cuts began March 1 and ushered in a whole new set of flying restrictions.
"These are perishable skills," he said. "You just can't do it twice a month and call it good. I just want to keep those kids from being killed and our Air Force as capable as it can be. Sequestration can easily hollow it out."
Mr. Radcliffe decided last winter to take his boosterism up a notch. He wrote a column for the British publication Jane's Defense Weekly, arguing: "The notion of being a fighter pilot has always been the stuff of childhood dreams, but within the USAF, the appeal is fading."
Relying on his sources, he wrote of a declining interest by cadets at the Air Force Academy in trying out to be fighter pilots. More want to go the cargo plane route, an avenue toward a civilian job as an airline pilot.
"Pilots are getting little flying time," Mr. Radcliffe wrote. "This is not what they signed up for."
The Times showed the article to two retired Air Force generals with many fighter flying hours to their credit. Both endorsed its general accuracy.
Confirmation on some points also came from an active-duty fighter pilot — Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, who just happens to be the Air Force chief of staff.
"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.
The website "Fighter Pilot University," founded by ex-fliers, laments that political correctness has "run amuck" inside squadrons.
"We're a group of recently retired fighter pilots who are shocked by the slow and continuous erosion of our fighter pilot traditions and background," the group states.
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