Is the USAF Really the Best Trained Air Force In the World?

F-35A on takeoff. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jose Miguel T. Tamondong.

In a recent article published by War On The Rocks, a USAF F-15 pilot argued that the Air Force needs to upgrade its aggressor aircraft, a statement with which I wholeheartedly agree as I think American airpower is important to keeping the peace. I am an admirer of the USAF, especially some of its aircraft like the incredible F-16 and A-10 which are truly effective and greatly needed today. But he made another statement with which I strongly disagree and that is the USAF sets the “world’s standard” in pilot training. (1) This is a very bold statement to make given the pathetic number of flying hours that American fighter pilots currently receive and have received in recent years.

For example, in 2013 the conservative magazine National Review reported that American pilots were flying fewer hours than those of China, a peer competitor. According to the author, “U.S. pilots are flying only 120 hours or less per year, a drop of over 50 percent from a decade ago. In fact, American pilots now fly fewer training hours than do Chinese, Indian, or some European pilots…”(2) That amounts to only 10 ten flying hours per month, which is about the same as what the pilots got during the dark days of the late 1970s when readiness was abysmal. (3) Despite all the money that is given to the Air Force, it still finds itself unable to properly train its pilots. Pilots also use simulators but many don’t believe they fully compensate for the lack of time in the cockpit. Simulators, for example, are nowhere near as stressful as actual combat flying.(4)

According to my calculations based on USAF Accident Reports between 2011 and 2020, the average A-10 pilot received 15.8 hours per month over a ninety day period before the mishap in 2011 (5), F-15C pilots a paltry 5.8 hours in 2020 (6), F-15E pilots, 19.4 hours in 2012 (7), the pilots of the F-16CM, just 4.9 hours in 2020 (8) and F-22 pilots, only 12.8 hours a month in 2018 (9). Finally, F-35A pilots flew only 9.1 hours per month in 2020. (10) Just a reminder, no aircraft, including extremely expensive stealth aircraft, which the Chinese claim they can easily detect (11), is better than the pilot..

It used to be that only those flying the F-35, the most expensive fighter program in the Air Force were getting low hours, but now all fighter pilots in the USAF are getting low hours, especially the F-16, which supplies almost half of the USAF’s fighter inventory. It seems that with its enormous budget, that throwing more money at the problem won’t solve it. Indeed, they are already throwing lots of money at the F-22 and F-35 that cost from $50,000 for the F-22 to $40,000 for the F-35A per hour to fly according to the GAO.(12) The need now is to design more simple and less expensive to acquire and maintain aircraft so that a lot more money can be spent on maintaining pilot proficiency, something you won’t read about in the late Tom Clancy’s updated book Fighter Wing (2004), or in the movie Top Gun or its sequel Maverick, which glorifies American pilots in a way that still suggests they are the best in the world. I am sorry to say this, but they are not, and I am not just talking about poor performance in the Vietnam War, either. I honestly wish I could say otherwise because I fear that a war between the US and China may be coming. Winslow T. Wheeler, former Director of the Center for Defense Information, has said reputedly the Israelis were getting 50 hours a month in the 1980s, which made them probably the best Air Force in the world at that time. At the same time, USAF fighter pilots only were getting about 15 to 20 hours a month, which is better than they get now, but still very inadequate.

If we look at fighter pilot performance in the 20th century, especially the two world wars, it is clear that US pilots were not the best. A few people have suggested one should look to American allies like Australia and even Canada, which historically have provided outstanding pilots. In his book Air Aces, historian Dan McCaffery says that “Canada has produced, by far, more aces capita than any other nation on earth.”(13) Former Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) fighter pilot Chick Childerhose said in his book Wild Blue that Canadians were the top allied pilots of World War I, and “The tradition of Canadians as superlative fighter pilots extended into World War II, of course.” (14)

In the 1950s, even some USAF senior officers acknowledged that the Canadians flying the Canadair Mark VI Sabre were the best fighter pilots in NATO. For example, in Leslie Robert’s book, There Shall Be Wings, he says “Canadian supremacy in aerial gunnery has been no chance achievement as trophies demonstrate. At Cazaux in France on April 19, 1957, No. 1 Air Division {RCAF} flew away with the team-shooting award in competition with the United States and France… An American officer holding high air rank described the Canadian operation in these words: ‘It isn’t gunnery. They [Canadian pilots] hold absolute control of the air in their area. Heaven help anybody who tries to get through the screen of Sabres!’ The view is echoed by the British and French, West Germans, whose ground-crew have been trained by the RCAF at Zweibrucken, are equally high in their praise of their Canadian teachers.” (15)  Although flying hours for the RCAF are not adequate either these days, the RCAF remains a small but hard-core highly professional air force, with an RCAF pilot winning top honours at the US Navy’s Test Pilot School in December 2016, outperforming 30 pilots from the USAF, USN, USMC, USCG as well as pilots from the UK, Italy, and Australia. (16)

One reason the Australians and Canadians produced better pilots is because they do not use the Up or Out promotion system used by the USAF and therefore are committed to being excellent pilots first, and getting promoted comes second. If the USAF were to put greater emphasis on training instead of buying the world’s most expensive aircraft, it would get better results, which would be magnified if it dropped the Up or Out promotion system which encourages mindless careerism and a risk averse mentality at the expense of proficiency and professionalism. The USAF could learn a lot from the Australians and Canadians if it wants to be the best air force in the world.

NOTES

1)    Ryan Fishel, “Train Like You Fight: Updating America’s Adversary Fleet” War On The Rocks, November 1, 2022. warontherocks.com/2022/11/train-like-you-fight-updating-americas-adversary-fleet/

2)    Michael Auslin, “U.S. Air Force Pilots Fly Less Than China’s Do” National Review, December 20, 2013. www.nationalreview.com/corner/us-air-force-pilots-fly-less-chinas-do-michael-auslin/

3)    Roger Thompson, Lessons Not Learned: The U.S. Navy’s Status Quo Culture (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2007), p. 111.

4)    SkyCombatAce.com, “What Simulators Will Never Be Able To Simulate” www.skycombatace.com/blog/flight-simulators-cant-do

5)    United States Air Force Aircraft Accident Investigation Board Report, A-10C, T/N 80-0282. 75th Fighter Squadron, Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, 75th Fighter Squadron, 26 September 2011, p. 15

6)    United States Air Force Aircraft Accident Investigation Board Report, F-15C, T/N 86-0176, 493rd Fighter Squadron, 48th Fighter Wing, Royal Air Force, Lakenheath, United Kingdom, 15 June 2020, p. 20.

7)    United States Air Force Aircraft Accident Investigation Board Report F-15E Strike Eagle, T/N 90-0254, Southwest Asia, 3 May 2012, p. 26.

8)    United States Air Force Aircraft Accident Investigation Board Report F-16CM, T/N 94-0043 Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, 30 June 2020, p. 27.

9)    United States Air Force Aircraft Accident Investigation Board Report F-22A, T/N 07-4146 Naval Air Station Fallon, NV 13 April 2018, p. 9.

10) United States Air Force Aircraft Accident Investigation Board Report F-35A, T/N 12-005053 Eglin AFB, Florida 19 May 2020, p. 13.

11) Michael Peck, “RIP F-35 and F-22: China Claims It Has Radar That Can Detect Stealth Aircraft”, The National Interest, May 29, 2019. https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/rip-f-35-and-f-22-china-claims-it-has-radar-can-detect-stealth-aircraft-59977#:~:text=Stealth%20aircraft%20are%20shaped%20to,radar%2C%E2%80%9D%20said%20Global%20Times.

12) U.S. Government Accountability Office, Weapon System Sustainment: Aircraft Capable Mission Goals Were Generally Not Met And Sustainment Costs Varied By Aircraft, GAO-23-106217, November 10, 2022, pp. 202, 241.

13) Dan McCaffery, Air Aces: The Lives and Times of Twelve Canadian Fighter Pilots (Toronto: James Lorimer, 1990), p. 1.

14) Chick Childerhose, Wild Blue (Victoria, Hoot Productions, 1978), p. 68.

15) Leslie Roberts, There Shall Be Wings: A History of the Royal Canadian Air Force (Toronto: Harrap, 1959), p. 247.

16) David Niles, “Top Test Pilot From RCAF”, Canadian Aviator Magazine, January 12, 2017. canadianaviator.com/top-test-pilot-from-rcaf/

Roger Thompson is a research fellow at Dalhousie University’s Centre for the Study or Security and Development, the author of Lessons Not Learned: The US Navy’s Status Quo Culture, and a former researcher at Canada’s National Defence Headquarters.