In the Sandbox

Aug. 1, 1998

Maj. Ralph Phillips is the kind of officer that the Air Force dearly wants to keep. The combat-tested F-16 pilot loves to fly, loves the Air Force, and declares unabashedly: “I have a very strong desire to serve my country.”

However, the 36-year-old Air Force Academy graduate and Desert Storm veteran is leaving active duty after 14 years. He says he is being driven out of the service by a combination of factors that have overwhelmed his once-strong intention to make a career in the Air Force.

When Phillips, who is with the 27th Fighter Wing at Cannon AFB, N.M., is pressed to itemize the reasons for leaving the Air Force, he answers, “higher optempo” and “spending more time away from my family.”

Then, he adds, “If that desert deployment wasn’t there, it wouldn’t be a problem.”

When he says “desert deployment,” everybody knows what Phillips means. He refers to long and frequent rotations to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Persian Gulf zones that take Air Force personnel away from their families as well as the training and education that are vital to maintaining a professional edge.

Such deployments have become an unpleasant and unavoidable fact of life for the combat air forces in the 1990s.

“It [the decision to leave] is mostly due to the impact on my family life,” explains Phillips. “What I’m doing to my family, the cost to them, doesn’t make it worth my selfish desire to serve.” Phillips called leaving USAF “the toughest decision I’ve ever made in my life.”

Sand in the Gears

As demonstrated in the case of Phillips, desert duty is fueling one of USAF’s most serious problems-the exodus of skilled, experienced pilots from the service. No single factor is driving this retention problem. However, senior Air Force officials and pilots agree that a major cause is the explosion in operating tempo, particularly the frequent deployments to Southwest Asia–commonly referred to as the “Sandbox.”

It appears that too much time in the Sandbox has worn to the bone not only Air Force pilots but also support personnel.

Air Force leaders note that since the end of the Cold War they have reduced the total force by one-third and their overseas bases by two-thirds. However, operating tempo has soared 400 percent, fueled by a flurry of contingency missions. While these have included Bosnia, Africa, and several other world hot spots, the bulk of the deployments have been to Southwest Asia.

“Southwest Asia is the No. 1 irritant, the one thing pushing guys out of the Air Force,” argues Lt. Col. Kurt Dittmer, commander of the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill AFB, Utah. Dittmer said six of his most experienced F-16 pilots are leaving the Air Force this year, mainly because of frequent family separations-especially those caused by “that desert deployment.”

Dittmer warned, “We’re going to get to the point where we’ll have only young guys left.”

Unfortunately for the Air Force, Phillips and the Hill pilots are not isolated cases. The service is suffering such a rapid exodus of experienced pilots that it expects to have a shortage of nearly 800 by the end of 1998 and a deficit of more than 2,300 pilots by 2002, if the trend continues.

This flood was barely a trickle last year and was hardly a drip the year before. The 1998 separation rate for pilots at the end of their service commitments is up 80 percent over that of 1997. “That’s an alarming signal,” said Lt. Col. Russell Franz, a rated-officer programs specialist at the Air Force Personnel Center, Randolph AFB, Texas.

Though less severe at the moment, a similarly disturbing trend is starting to show up among Air Force enlisted personnel, particularly Air Combat Command fighter aircraft crew chiefs. In that group, second-term retention is around 35 percent. “There won’t be anyone left in the F-16 community in a few years,” a Fighting Falcon pilot now at the Air Command and Staff College at Maxwell AFB, Ala., said recently.

Navy and Marine Corps officials also are concerned about increasing resignations among their fixed-wing pilots, although the situation is not yet as acute as that now facing the Air Force. In the Navy, the “take rate” for the pilot bonus falls well below requirements for carrier-based fighter, anti-submarine, and electronic warfare pilots. The Marines also are losing too many of their fixed-wing pilots, with particular shortages in the AV-8Bs and KC-130s.

Coming Home

The Clinton Administration in early summer implicitly recognized the Sandbox factor when it approved the Pentagon’s request to bring home from Southwest Asia many of the bomber and fighter aircraft it had deployed to the region in February after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein failed to comply with United Nations resolutions regarding weapons inspections.

The force reduction operation will bring home more than 2,500 people and 100 aircraft from Air Combat Command, as well as troops from the other services.

A forward deployed Air Expeditionary Force in Bahrain left the region in early June. DoD reverted to its policy of sending AEFs for periodic visits, rather than for extended deployments.

To explain the move, DoD spokesman Kenneth Bacon said, “The President approved these redeployments because they allow us to protect our interest in the Gulf while reducing the wear and tear on the forces.”

The exodus of skilled pilots not only threatens future combat readiness but represents the loss of an enormous investment. The Air Force estimates it has invested $5.9 million to train the average pilot by the ninth year, when most are eligible to leave active duty.

The situation, needless to say, has the full attention of Air Force leaders, Pentagon officials, and even some members of Congress, who are working to counter the combination of factors behind the dangerous erosion of experienced pilots.

“It’s not their fault they are leaving,” Gen. Michael E. Ryan, Air Force Chief of Staff, told reporters recently. “Maybe it’s our fault.”

Several pilots emphasized that going to the desert didn’t bother them nearly as much as what they did when they arrived and how they were forced to live while they were there.

“The very first time I went to Dhahran [Saudi Arabia], I thoroughly enjoyed it,” said Capt. Lou Foley, an F-16 pilot from Shaw AFB, S.C., referring to the major Saudi city and associated air base in that country’s eastern province. The Gulf War had ended recently and “there was a sense of purpose,” he said.

“Each time I go back, I find it less and less stimulating,” Foley said. “The flying is boring” and there is nothing to do while on the ground because the deployed units now are “stuck at Prince Sultan” AB, literally in the middle of the desert.

This fall, Foley is leaving the Air Force after serving in uniform for nine years.

Similar comments come from a veteran A-10 pilot who flew numerous combat missions during Desert Storm and has since 1991 gone back several times on temporary deployments.

“Saudi isn’t fun,” the A-10 pilot said. “To most [Saudi nationals], we are hired guns saving our stake in the oil reserves. The Saudis considered us as [members of a] lower society and had a [condescending] attitude while I was there. … I just couldn’t believe their arrogance and hypocrisy.”

According to this pilot, things were better when the main provisional wing was deployed in Dhahran. The Air Force moved the entire wing to Prince Sultan, near the desert town of Al Kharj, after the June 1996 terrorist bombing of the Khobar Towers housing complex. It is an outpost with heavy security and scant amenities.

“Where’s the End?”

Pilot retention has generated the most headaches. However, the frequent trips to the Sandbox since the war also appear to be grating on Air Force enlisted personnel.

“I think the troops look at the desert and say, ‘Hey, it’s been seven years [since the end of the Gulf War]; where is the end to this?’ ” said Eric W. Benken, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force.

Benken noted that many airmen go to the desert several times and then get an unaccompanied tour to Korea. “After a while, that begins to take a toll,” he said.

Gen. Richard E. Hawley, commander of Air Combat Command at Langley AFB, Va., has been one of the most senior voices calling for a redeployment of Air Force units back from Southwest Asia to the United States. He agreed that conditions can be improved for the units deploying to the desert.

Permanent housing is replacing the air-conditioned tents most personnel have occupied at Prince Sultan, he said, but he added that the No. 1 need is improved training for those pilots deployed to the area.

As Hawley puts it, “Enforcing a no-fly zone involves a lot of takeoffs and landings, refueling, and a lot of left turns.”

Hawley said he wants to make the desert deployments “more like Red Flag,” the highly realistic series of training exercises held at Nellis AFB, Nev. He would hold at least one such exercise or combined strike training mission during each deployment.

The ACC commander also is trying to reduce the length of the deployments to the Gulf from 90 days to 45 days.

Hawley said he had pushed the Pentagon for a decision to bring back the additional air units sent to the Gulf. With the “demonstrated ability of airpower to respond quickly to a crisis,” Hawley said, “we don’t have to have our forces deployed on a continuous basis to forward areas to get our job done. In the time it takes to prepare the political ground, we can be there.”

Enforcing the no-fly zone over Iraq does not require a considerable number of aircraft and crews, Hawley said. He added, though, that the leaders of US Central Command frequently call for additional forces. “I would like to see the size of that force reduced to the level that can be sustained without stress on the force,” Hawley said.

Accentuating the push from the negative factors are the powerful pulls of a booming economy and the airlines’ enormous appetite for trained pilots.

Because of the expansion of air service and the forced retirement of now-older pilots who left the military in the Vietnam era, the major airlines will hire 3,854 pilots this year-more than all the pilots who are eligible to leave the services. That demand is expected to remain high for years.

“Comfort Level”

The availability of an airline job was cited as a factor in the decision to leave active duty by Phillips and four other resigning pilots interviewed for this story.

“The fact that the airlines are hiring did help to convince me,” said Capt. Chuck Cook, one of Dittmer’s pilots. Cook will be leaving this summer because he did not think he could give the necessary time to the job after getting married. Said Cook, “If the airlines weren’t hiring, if the economy wasn’t good, I think I’d stick with the Air Force. It gave me kind of a comfort level.”

Although most military pilots going to the airlines will take a pay cut for the first several years, Air Force officials acknowledge that after five or six years they will be earning more than if they had stayed in.

The Air Force knows that the real answer to keeping more of its pilots is to reduce the pace of operations and the time away from home.

In a survey of resigning pilots, the top two reasons for leaving were optempo, cited by 19 percent, and quality-of-life concerns, named by 14 percent.

“They’re very closely related,” Franz said. “Optempo is the primary driver. And as a result of the increased optempo, we’re seeing some dissatisfaction in the quality-of-life area.”

To address that, Air Force leaders have sought to reduce non-contingency deployments by cutting back on exercises and inspections and even curtailing their most cherished training exercises and contests.

They also skipped some planned Operational Readiness Inspections by giving air mobility units credit for short-notice, real-world contingencies, which tested the same capabilities.

Ironically, some of the pilots interviewed complained about losing valuable training exercises, like Red Flag.

“Those are the kind of deployments that are actually fun, that make me like the job,” Phillips said.

Dittmer agreed, noting that he turned down a chance to take his squadron to a Maple Flag exercise with the Canadians that “I wanted to do badly,” but he had been hit with several contingency assignments and had to cut one of the few things under his control to reduce the load on his pilots.

“The short-notice tasking is what kills my program,” he said.

But there may be limits to how much the Air Force can reduce the demand on its personnel. “We are an expeditionary Air Force,” Ryan declared. “That’s what the nation wants of us.”

The Mixed Record of Higher Pay

Of all the initiatives to keep experienced military pilots in uniform, boosting compensation rates near the top.

Congress has approved a major increase in the pilot bonus, raising from $12,000 to $22,000 the additional amount paid each year to a pilot signing up for five more years after the end of his service commitment. And to help the senior pilots coming off the bonus, the aviation career incentive pay was increased from $620 to $840 a month.

Because some pilots balked at the five-year commitment, the Air Force began offering $6,000 for a one-year extension, $9,000 for two years, and $12,000 for three.

As of May, 81 USAF pilots had taken one of the shorter extensions. The combination of the 81 and the 139 who signed up for a new five-year commitment still comes to only 40 percent of the 537 pilots offered a bonus.

Most of the resigning pilots said more pay was nice, but it was not enough to overcome their other concerns.

The bonus was “not a factor at all,” said Capt. Chuck Cook, of the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill AFB, Utah. The recently married Cook said, “If they offered me a million dollars, it’s still going to require the time” away from his wife.

Lt. Col. Russell Franz at AFPC noted, however, that when the higher bonus was offered retroactively to pilots who had decided to leave last year, 42 changed their minds and decided to stay in.

Otto Kreisher is the national security reporter for Copley News Service, based in Washington, D.C. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “The Base Closure Flap,” appeared in the July 1998 issue.