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US Air Force Pilot Shortage Grows to About 2,000

A U.S. Air Force F-16 takes off during a joint international aerial training exercise hosted by Israel and dubbed "Blue Flag 2017" at Ovda military air base in southern Israel, Nov. 8, 2017.

The U.S. Air Force pilot crisis has grown, with the force's numbers short by about 10 percent.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told reporters at the Pentagon Thursday that as of last month, the Air Force was about 2,000 pilots short, in a force that is supposed to have about 20,000 pilots.

"We are too small for all of the missions we are being asked to carry out on behalf of the nation, and as a result we're burning out our people," Wilson said.

Wilson said she met an airman last week who had just returned from his 17th deployment.

"They are carrying a very heavy burden," she said.

Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein blamed the problem on sequestration — government spending caps imposed by Congress — followed by lawmakers' inability to pass a budget.

"What keeps me up at night is that if we cannot move past sequester in its current form, we're going to break this force," Goldfein said.

"Our biggest need right now is for a higher and stable budget," Wilson added.

She criticized Congress' current continuing resolution on the budget, saying it was both delaying readiness and accumulating risk.

'National-level issue'

The majority of the pilot shortage lies in the number of U.S. fighter pilots needed on the front lines of combat, Air Force officials told VOA Thursday.

Goldfein said that despite the shortages, the force should be able to prevent front-line degradations within the next year, but he added that missions were being carried out "on the backs on our airmen."

"We as a nation don't produce enough aviators, don't produce enough pilots to adequately service the requirement for military, business and commercial aviation," he said, calling the crisis a "national-level issue."

He added that the shortage crisis went beyond the pilots, stretching into the number of airplane mechanics as well.

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    Carla Babb

    Carla is VOA's Pentagon correspondent covering defense and international security issues. Her datelines include Ukraine, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Korea.

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