Readiness and retention are always fun topics in the aviation community. That is, if you like high blood pressure, bulging neck veins, and frothing at the mouth. I’m a SWO, so sign me up!
On Wednesday, a couple local news outlets in Hampton Roads, VA published two different articles worth digging into. One is clearly a puff piece written from PAO talking points, but the other one appeared to involve some actual journalism. The first reporter, Todd Corrillo, only interviewed the Naval Air Force Atlantic PAO. The second, Jaclyn Lee, interviewed at least seven current and former aviators, ranging from Lieutenant to Rear Admiral, and scoured publicly available information such as GAO reports and PERS-43 briefings. Buckle up.
I found some tidbits that were an interesting contrast to some other recent statements made by senior navy leadership, and I have some questions for you steely-eyed heroes of the skies (aka Air-SWO’s).
“[Rear Admiral] Kelley made it clear that he does not feel the shortage impacts military readiness. 13News Now asked, “And you guys have never deployed an air wing that was not ready?” To which Kelley said:
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. I would say that we man, train and equip to the very best that we can to meet requirements. Now if you said, ‘Is there anybody that’s deployed that we felt was somewhat challenged for one reason or the other… they may have gotten personnel later in the training cycle so that they weren’t able to get the qualifications level that they wanted to have for deployment?’ Yeah, absolutely. Are we looking at operational risk by doing it? No.””
Now, first of all, people tell me Rear Admiral Kelley is, in the highest form of compliment a naval aviator can give, a “solid dude.” That’s not for me to comment on, but I appreciate his candor. I suppose it’s a good thing he’s being forthright that air wings are deploying without meeting readiness standards, right? Don’t get me wrong. We’ve been there before in the surface community, but we learned our lessons the hard way. In fact, the two admirals in charge of certifying every ship in the Navy for deployment just testified this week to congress they hold an unwavering standard. Admiral Christopher Grady said “We do not ask a ship nor direct a ship to go on mission if they are not certified to do the job. Indeed there have been several occasions where I have said: ‘That ship is not ready. We will need more time.’ We know what the requirement is and if they’re not ready, they’re not going.” What’s interesting to me is these two admirals are also responsible for certifying every air wing for deployment. Does the unwavering standard only apply to surface ships?
“According to data from Tailhook 2017 and 2018 Symposium PERS-43 briefings, FY 2015 shows approximately 36 percent of junior officers declined the department head promotion. In FY 2019, approximately 63 percent of junior officers declined.”
“Entering the second year of the new AvB, Command Bonus take rates have already increased by 30% over 5-year averages. DH Bonus initial take rates and fleet feedback have also been positive. These trends mean more top-performing O-4/O-5 Aviators are choosing to stay Navy.”
“In the 2018 fiscal year, Naval Air Force Atlantic says six aviation communities saw an increase in the number of pilots taking a new Department Head bonus.”
These statistics appear to be inconsistent. What is the overall trend of aviation JO retention over a meaningful timeframe? A one-year spike amid a five-year downturn in DH bonus take rates is not meaningful. DOUBLING the rate of JO’s turning down the bonus over five years…is.
“The biggest increase comes from Airborne Electronic Attack and Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance communities, where there was a 250% increase in EA-18G pilots and a 256% increase in P-3/8 aviators taking the bonus over the year before.”
I would like to know the overall percentage increase, vice individual communities with particularly high increases. These statistics have the potential to be misleading. Yes, the VAQ and VP communities are healthy. What about the VFA community? What about the overall aviation community? Lets not talk in generalities or anecdotes. Lets just look at the numbers. In fact, why are even relying on bonus take rate as a proxy for retention? It seems like we should be able to examine actual data of aviators leaving the Navy. Then again, the Navy is trending toward making less information available to the public (e.g. aviation mishap data, firings for misconduct, flag officer nominations, etc.), so maybe its an operational security concern?
“We do a little bit more with less,” said Lieutenant Julius Bratton, an Instructor Pilot at VFA-106. “We run the squadron with fewer JO’s and the same amount of jobs so it’s inevitable that we’re going to work hard and feel overworked.”
This should be a red flag for the Commanding Officer of VFA-106. In 2017, the CNO explicitly warned the Navy to “fight against this do more with less mindset.” Admiral Richardson cautioned “if you let this do more with less mindset eat into our way of doing business, you start to see this slow decline in readiness.” We should take Lieutenant Bratton’s words as a barometer reading, but also not overreact to them. I trust he’s being sincere, but he also may lack the broader context that Rear Admiral Kelley has. It may be a stretch to say aviators are doing more with less, but certainly when you billet three department heads to VFA squadrons instead of four, you are doing the same with less.
So, aviators, when you look into the mirror, do you see yourself on the readiness incline or decline?
I could understand if our first reaction is to target the individuals who said these things, but let’s not, please. That would squander the opportunity to improve. These folks are being candid and honest. The (possible) inconsistencies just indicate we have more work to do.
As always, if you feel the need to tell me to stay in my lane, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!