Recent articles about pilot retention all miss the mark. Retention is a symptom, not the problem. There are serious flaws in the institution caused by lack of civilian support. Fix the environment and retention will take care of itself. The environment will change only when the civilian leadership thinks the public demands Naval readiness.
As a captain for a major airline, I see the retention failures of naval aviation daily. Pilots are running away from the Navy—not toward the airlines. When asked why they left the military, most pilots point to the politically correct environment and the pace of deployment. Money—if it is mentioned at all—is an afterthought.
Civilian leadership's lack of understanding of, or empathy for, the military in general and the post-Tailhook Navy in particular is a problem. This should not be news. President Clinton's views on the military were well known before the 1992 election—and he has been elected twice, trouncing two combat veterans in the process.
Politicians read public opinion polls and there is no public mandate for a robust Navy at present. If the public does not understand the need for a strong fleet, politicians will not take up the cause. As long as the World War II generation was a large part of the electorate there was no real requirement to sell the need for a strong Navy. They remembered Pearl Harbor and a long costly war. The nation is losing these people, however, and post-Vietnam War voters are more ambivalent. To them, the Cold War is over, there are no big threats, and many think the military should be used as a social laboratory since it isn't doing much else.
Changing those attitudes requires a sales job—from Chief of Naval Operations to the most junior sailor. Public relations must have top priority. Fleet hometown news releases, speakers at high school career days, and cooperation with outside support organizations must gain greater emphasis. Commanders must cultivate positive relations with sympathetic members of the press. The Navy has an exciting and interesting story to tell. No opportunity to tell that story should be missed. And when issues are too politically sensitive for Navy leaders to take a stand, individuals out of uniform must step up, both as individuals and members of professional organizations.
Lack of contact with the Navy is another reason much of the public is ignorant of the fleet. An isolated, elitist, professional military is not healthy for a democracy, and long service commitments are a major cause of that isolation. As a first step, reducing the commitment for new naval aviators to five years would have a positive effect by making the service more attractive to the kinds of potential applicants naval aviation wants. The additional training costs will be more than offset by positive effects on the Navy and society. Many of these future civilian leaders forgo military service because they cannot sidetrack their careers as politicians, judges, doctors, and businessmen for ten years. The Navy still trains airline pilots at ten years, and the airlines will take them. Note the number of former lieutenant commanders, commanders, and captains in airline cockpits.
In addition, officers with long commitments are, by definition, career officers for whom the next assignment assumes paramount importance. The aftermath of Tailhook '91 demonstrated the harm careerist attitudes can cause when they permeate senior leadership. More citizen warriors in the ranks with their healthy skepticism make that kind debacle much less likely.
Understand this: The bonus will not solve pilot retention problems. The difference in compensation is too large. Over the last 25 years it has taken five years at most to upgrade to captain at my airline, and the average captain earned $155,000 in 1997 plus stock options and profit sharing. Other carriers pay even more. Incomes remain at these high levels until age 60, and airports do not go on cruise.
No realistic bonus program can match those numbers. In addition, the large number of airline pilot retirements over the next decade suggest heavy demand for pilots, regardless of the business cycle. A bonus may help pilots who are on the fence, but they are so dissatisfied right now that the decision isn't even close.
Some people have suggested naively that the Navy can buy loyalty and increase community involvement by gutting support facilities and monetizing benefits (See "The Sailor & the State," pp. 30-33, May 1998 Proceedings). Two things are wrong with that idea. First, the proposal attacks the close-knit service environment that attracts and keeps many members. Second, the administration would gladly cut benefits, but the increase in pay—if there was one at all—would not come close to making up the difference. It is better to expose more of our citizens to what is good about Navy life than to trash the system, in the hope our sailors will develop a meaningful relationship with civilians in the checkout at K-Mart.
Loyalty must be earned by support and respect from the civilian leadership, by defining a meaningful mission and providing adequate forces and funding to accomplish those goals.
It is easy to look at the appalling readiness and condition of many fleet units and blame the politicians. It isn't the politicians. It is the public. And until the public concludes that the Navy has value in today's world, things will not get better.
Colonel Clausen was a naval aviator from 1968-1977.