Under Secretary of the Air Force Matthew Donovan told airmen at Vance Air Force Base to prepare themselves for a new era of superpower competition similar to the Cold War, during a graduation address at the base on Friday.
Donovan spoke to graduating pilots in Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training Class 19-06, and visited with the News & Eagle on national defense strategy, the ongoing pilot shortage, challenges to force retention and the future of Vance Air Force Base.
The visit was a return trip to Vance for Donovan, who earned his wings at the base in 1983, before going on to fly F-15s and rising to rank of colonel before entering government civil service.
Donovan told the graduates Friday they should expect a world that looks “eerily similar” to the one he faced when he graduated.
“As I sat in my graduation seat, the threat of Soviet power was never more real, and we would continue to face the Warsaw Pact for another eight years,” Donovan said.
Today’s pilots will operate under a new National Defense Strategy that “recognizes that the era of unchallenged American dominance is over,” Donovan told the newly-minted pilots.
The resurgence of Russia and emergence of China as near-peer competitors will pose new threats as the pilots embark on their careers, he said.
“Our Chinese and Russian competitors spent the past quarter century learning how we fight and where our vulnerabilities lie,” Donovan said. “They’ve adapted with the single-minded purpose of exploiting what they’ve learned to further their strategic aims.”
As the Air Force prepares to face those threats, its airmen also will face internal challenges, including an ongoing pilot shortage, an increased operational tempo that strains family life and the need to grow and retain talent.
Donovan said the Air Force’s current shortage of 2,000-3,000 pilots out of a designed force of 22,000 pilots is more an issue of retention than recruiting.
“We have no problem attracting talent or recruiting pilots,” Donovan said, “and we’re increasing pilot training production … and that includes here at Vance.”
Vance graduated 330 pilots in 1983, when Donovan graduated — almost the same number the base graduated last year. This year Vance is slated to graduate 420 pilots — a 34 percent increase over last year.
To help address the pilot shortage, Donovan said the Air Force also is reviewing requirements for staff positions that currently call for officers with cockpit experience, to prioritize operational assignments over staff posts and “make sure all the cockpits are filled.”
Donovan said he’s confident the Air Force has “arrested the decline” in pilot numbers, but the attractiveness of the pay offered by airlines continues to be a challenge for pilot retention.
Family life and force retention
As airmen weigh the possibility of higher pay in the private sector, they also weigh quality of life in the service against that of civilian life.
That may be a growing challenge for all branches of the armed forces, based on a survey released this week by Blue Star Families, a research and advocacy group focused on issues affecting military families.
The annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey of more than 10,000 service members, veterans and dependents, found frequent time away from family, high operational tempo and limited opportunities for spouses’ career advancement were sources of stress for service members and their families.
Nearly half of military spouses surveyed reported their primary stresses come from financial issues, frequent deployments and frequent relocations from base to base.
Donovan addressed the stresses placed on military families during the graduation speech.
“Life as an Air Force pilot can involve long stressful days, exercises and deployments, and the constant internal pressure to be the best at your craft,” Donovan told the graduates and their families. “That requires copious amounts of love, support and understanding from the people around them, and we recognize that your service and sacrifice is essential for the defense of our nation.”
In an interview after the graduation, Donovan said the balance between operational requirements and caring for families has “always been a factor for us.”
“We recruit individuals but we retain families,” Donovan said.
That has become more difficult since his days as a junior officer, Donovan said, as more spouses today have advanced degrees and certifications, and career aspirations of their own — aspirations that are hard to realize when moving every several years.
According to Pew Research Center, only 25 percent of couples with children had dual incomes in 1960. By 2015 that number had risen to 66 percent, and is expected to continue to rise. But, frequent moves can make it hard for military spouses to find stable work, and bring in the dual income that’s increasingly expected — or needed — in American society.
“I spent 31 years as an officer and a pilot in the Air Force and I moved 19 times,” Donovan said. “That’s not an unusual number of times.”
That number of moves can make it hard for spouses to maintain credentials in skilled professions, which can affect retention, Donovan said.
“When a family member moves into a state … if you’re only there for a couple of years, you’re losing income and losing proficiency,” Donovan said.
The problem is exacerbated, he said, because there often isn’t reciprocity between states for professional credentials needed for spouses’ jobs.
To help relieve that stress on military families, Donovan said Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson is working with the secretaries of the Army and Navy and state officials to push for more reciprocity of professional credentials between states.
A growing force
Donovan said stress brought by increased operational tempo also should be relieved as the Air Force grows to meet new strategic demands.
Defense spending has been on the rise over the last two fiscal cycles, and is expected to rise again this year.
In a January address to base and community leaders, U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla. said he expects a 5 percent increase in defense spending to $750 billion for fiscal year 2020, after increases to $700 billion in FY 2018 and $716 billion in FY 2019.
With those increases in defense spending, Secretary Wilson has called for an increase in the number of operational squadrons from 312 to 386 by 2030 — an almost 25 percent increase — to prepare for the possibility of conflict with Russia or China.
Donovan said that increase in demand for pilots should make Vance, and the Air Force as a whole, safe from base reductions or closures for the next several years.
“When we increase the Air Force by nearly 25 percent to meet the operational requirements, we have to have a place to put all those things,” Donovan said.
In addition to increased force demand, Donovan said Vance is on “solid footing” due to the strong relationship between the base and community.
“How does the community support us? That’s an important question for us,” Donovan said, “and you don’t get a much stronger relationship than you do between the Enid community and Vance and the Air Force in general.”
© 2019 The Woodward News (Woodward, Okla.)
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