Trump executive order lets Air Force recall up to 1,000 retired pilots for active duty

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump signed an executive order that allows the Air Force to recall for active duty up to 1,000 retired aviators for up to three years.
  • Previously, the Air Force was able to rehire up to 25 retired officers for critical aviation-related positions.
  • The new action could ease the fighter pilot shortage and boost military readiness just as the new Afghanistan war strategy is ramping up.
  • However, on Sunday an Air Force official indicated they had no current plans to act on the authority granted them by the president's order.
Air Force Capt. Michael Slotten, a 61st Fighter Squadron F-35 student pilot, climbs into an F-35 Lighting II at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., July 7, 2017.
Photo: Air Force/Staff Sgt. Jensen Stidham

Invoking the National Emergencies Act, President Donald Trump on Friday signed an executive order that allows the Air Force to voluntarily recall up to 1,000 retired aviators for active duty.

The action could help ease the combat pilot shortage in the force and improve military readiness as the administration steps up its new Afghanistan war strategy to defeat the Taliban and terrorists. The new strategy in the 16-year-old war, unveiled in August by Trump, includes additional U.S. troops going to Afghanistan as well as increased U.S. air support for the Afghan military.

"We anticipate that the Secretary of Defense will delegate the authority to the Secretary of the Air Force to recall up to 1,000 retired pilots for up to three years," said Pentagon spokesman Navy Cmdr. Gary Ross in a statement after the order was announced.

However, on Sunday an Air Force official indicated they had no current plans to act on the authority granted to them by the president's order.

"The Air Force does not currently intend to recall retired pilots to address the pilot shortage," Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said Sunday in an email statement. "We appreciate the authorities and flexibility delegated to us."

F-16 Fighting Falcon pilots prepare for takeoff for training exercise at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti.
Photo: Air Force/Staff Sgt. Kenneth Norman

Trump's executive order signed Friday amends emergency powers signed by President George W. Bush after the terrorist attacks on September 11. Last month, Trump extended the post-9/11 emergency powers.

According to the Pentagon, the Air Force is currently short by about 1,500 pilots.

"This is a national pilot crisis, not just a military crisis or an Air Force crisis," Brig. Gen. Mike Koscheski, the Air Force's Aircrew Crisis Task Force director, told CNBC in an interview last week. "The Air Force is partnering with industry to look for ways to just increase pilot production overall...because that's going to be in the interest of the country — not just the military."

Other branches of the U.S. military also need more pilots, including the Navy, and the executive order signed Friday could be used later to help address those challenges.

Friday's executive order gives Defense Secretary James Mattis "additional authorities to recall retired aviation officers regardless of certain limitations on status, period of service, and numbers to mitigate the Air Force's acute shortage of pilots," Ross said.

Even before the presidential order, the Air Force was able to rehire up to 25 retired officers under what's known as the Voluntary Retired Return to Active Duty program and bring them back to active duty in critical aviation-related staff positions. Trump's executive action, though, allows the Air Force to temporarily exceed the limit of 25 rehires.

The military's pilot shortage crisis has been compounded by pilot shortages in the commercial airline industry, which offers aggressive pay. Also, the pilot shortage isn't limited to the U.S. but is a worldwide problem expected to continue for years to come.

Between 2017 and 2036, the world's commercial aviation industry will need 637,000 new commercial airline pilots, according to a Boeing forecast released in July. U.S. pilots have a mandatory retirement age of 65, and the shortage of pilots poses a serious challenge particularly for regional airlines.

The Air Force is responding to the pilot shortage with various incentive programs to keep officers in uniform longer, including "a 100 percent promotion opportunity" program launching later this year. There's also an aviator retention pay bonus worth up to $350,000 over a 10-year term.

Still, pay isn't always a deciding factor for pilots to leave the military. Family considerations and longer deployments also factor into decisions.

Koscheski said the military has increasingly offered retention initiatives that focus on work-life balance and quality of life.

"We're looking to provide more time for the air crew member to have with their family and some work time at home," he said, before cautioning that "there's limits to that based on mission requirements."