Equally significant for naval aviation retention is the failing leadership of senior officers, reflected in part by the Tailhook debacle. The congressional finger-pointing and name calling following the infamous Tailhook convention was regrettable, but not surprising. What was surprising, however, was the silence of senior Navy and Marine leadership as a few over-zealous elected officials butchered the honor and dignity of all naval aviators and the institution of naval aviation as a whole. Indeed, individual promotions and duty selections are still tainted for officers even remotely connected to the event.
We can only conclude that risking one's career defending the proud institution of naval aviation was not a valid choice for the flag-rank officers who could have made a difference. This point is not lost on a single Navy or Marine pilot. Unfortunately, the officers who embody patriotism, character, courage, and loyalty—the officers who should one day be squadron commanders—will be the first to leave. Many can't stomach belonging to an organization whose leaders apparently believe that loyalty is a one-way street.
The Air Force isn't faring much better at controlling its operational tempo. In January 1996, while at Spangdalhem Air Force Base in Germany, I spoke to F-16 pilots who were deploying in excess of 200 days per year. I also spoke with an enlisted AWACS controller who had been deployed for 8 of the past 12 months. Indeed, one contributing factor in the F-15 shoot-down of two U.S. Army helicopters over Iraq was AWACS crew fatigue, owing to excessive deployment.
It follows that the National Guard and Reserve are being tasked in greater numbers to help alleviate the burden on the active forces. However, with increased peacetime tasking and the accompanying higher operational tempo, many traditional part-time guardsmen and reservists are reassessing their employment situations. It's becoming too difficult for many reservists to balance a full-time job and a Guard or Reserve position, with its ever-increasing time commitment. For the first time in half a decade many Air National Guard units, including my own, are recruiting pilots because of voluntary attrition. As operational tempo increases, so will the departures of good people who desire more from life than just work.
The retention of the best pilots in our military forces requires leadership—period! At the squadron level, commanders should demand that personnel use all of their annual leave, and ensure that the time is available to do so. They truly should work toward maximizing non-deployed time so that personnel can spend real time with their families, or at leisure sports or hobbies. Equally important, our flagrank leaders must ensure that quality-of-life issues remain near the forefront of strategic decision making. The best weapon systems in the world are useless without competent people manning them.
Our military leadership must relay to our civilian leadership with conviction that we cannot continue to do more with less. A smaller U.S. military must result in less strategic presence, or we risk the loss of its effectiveness and character through attrition of its best people. We live in the most prosperous, successful nation in history. A voluntary military cannot continue to succeed when its people are worked like dogs, while civilian career and leisure opportunities abound.
Finally, our senior military leadership must walk the walk, as well as talk the talk. On issues of combat effectiveness, cohesiveness, and the well being of our troops, they must show courage, passion, and commitment. There is no room for hypocrisy and careerism when it comes to taking care of our troops. If taking a stand on a controversial issue threatens a promotion or a career, tough. That's what commanders get paid for. Leadership really does start at the top.
Major Griffiths is a commercial airline pilot for a major airline. He was a Marine Corps pilot from 1982-1989. He flew for the South Dakota Air National Guard from 1990-1996. He has flown the F/A-18, the A-7D, and the F-16C.