Call Off The Drone Wars? Air Force Paying $225K Bonuses to Fighter Jocks

Just a few years ago, the U.S. Air Force was shoveling its fighter jocks out of their ejection seats and into leather-chaired drone cockpits in the Nevada desert. Now, it’s offering fighter pilots up to $225,000 in cash bonuses to stay in the service for nine years. Maybe the much-hyped end of the American fighter ...

U.S. Air Force
U.S. Air Force
U.S. Air Force

Just a few years ago, the U.S. Air Force was shoveling its fighter jocks out of their ejection seats and into leather-chaired drone cockpits in the Nevada desert. Now, it's offering fighter pilots up to $225,000 in cash bonuses to stay in the service for nine years. Maybe the much-hyped end of the American fighter pilot isn't quite here.

This news comes as the military puts an increasing premium on fighting high-end wars, with a particular focus on the Pacific, against adversaries equipped with weapons designed to keep American forces far from their borders. Such conflicts would involve high-tech aircraft, ships, missiles and cyber weapons instead of huge masses of tanks and infantry. These wars will also require stealthy, jet-powered fighters and bombers capable of carrying lots of weapons. The only planes in the Air Force's inventory matching that description are manned, and they will be for the next decade or more (though the military is hustling to change this).

The Air Force, along with the Navy (and the Marines to a lesser extent), operates the majority of the high-tech toys that would play a huge role in the big fights of the future that Pentagon planners are focusing on.

Just a few years ago, the U.S. Air Force was shoveling its fighter jocks out of their ejection seats and into leather-chaired drone cockpits in the Nevada desert. Now, it’s offering fighter pilots up to $225,000 in cash bonuses to stay in the service for nine years. Maybe the much-hyped end of the American fighter pilot isn’t quite here.

This news comes as the military puts an increasing premium on fighting high-end wars, with a particular focus on the Pacific, against adversaries equipped with weapons designed to keep American forces far from their borders. Such conflicts would involve high-tech aircraft, ships, missiles and cyber weapons instead of huge masses of tanks and infantry. These wars will also require stealthy, jet-powered fighters and bombers capable of carrying lots of weapons. The only planes in the Air Force’s inventory matching that description are manned, and they will be for the next decade or more (though the military is hustling to change this).

The Air Force, along with the Navy (and the Marines to a lesser extent), operates the majority of the high-tech toys that would play a huge role in the big fights of the future that Pentagon planners are focusing on.

So while the Army is getting rid of more than 70,000 active-duty soldiers in the coming years, the air service is trying to hold onto its premiere employees and is only panning on cutting a few thousand people after the war ends in Afghanistan.

Fighter pilots can get half the cash up front in a lump-sum payment of $112,500 with the rest being doled out over the nine years of service, Air Force Times is reporting. Until now, fighter pilots were eligible for up to $25,000 in bonus money for a maximum commitment of five years in the Air Force.

As with everything else in the Air Force, fighter jocks are treated differently; other pilots can only get bonuses totaling $125,000 for five-year contracts, according to the paper.

Just a few years ago, the Air Force was putting fighter jocks into drone seats, and for several years now has been cutting the number of fighter units around the country (sometimes turning them into drone units).  This year, it has been forced to temporarily ground a serious chunk of its fighter squadrons around the world as a result of sequestration.

Despite all this shrinkage in the fighter community, the service is facing a shortfall of fast jet drivers.

"As we started looking at the data through [fiscal year 2013] and in the out years, we realized that the shortage hasn’t gone away, and as a matter of fact, as we look at our projections, we think that shortage is going to continue for the next several years," Lt. Col. Kurt Konopatzke told the Air Force Times. This shortfall was caused by the fact that experienced fighter pilots, who would normally be tapped to train newly minted fighter jocks were spending all their time on combat missions abroad, according to the paper.

The Air Force thinks only 65-percent of the 250-or so fighter pilots who are eligible for the $225,000 bonuses will take them, leading to a $36.6 million drain on the service’s coffers.

This news dropped the same week that the Army revealed it will cut 10 of its 3,500-soldier Brigade Combat Teams. However, the land-service expects most of the soldiers in those units to be absorbed into the remaining 33 BCTs that will grow to about 4,500-troops apiece instead of heading for the door.

Still, the Army is expected to shrink from 560,000 to 490,000 active-duty troops after the war in Afghanistan winds down.

So, while drones, and their operators, will make up an ever-increasing percentage of the Air Force’s fleet, they will work hand in hand with thousands of manned fighter crews for decades.

John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.

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