Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy recently signed a memorandum that increased the ADSO—or active duty service obligation—for Army pilots. Starting in October, all personnel selected to attend the Army’s initial entry aviation training will incur an ADSO of ten years upon graduation from flight training—a dramatic increase from the previous six-year commitment.
The extended ADSO is intended to increase Army pilots’ retention in the future. Unfortunately, it will likely not have the opportunity to do so due to the negative impact it will have on retention in the near term. The service should find a better way of addressing its shortage of pilots.
All branches in the military are facing a pilot shortage. The Department of Defense released a report in July 2019 that laid out the challenges the military faces with pilot retention and included plans of action from each branch.
The report focused on the unmet demand for pilots in the commercial aviation sector that has attracted military pilots. Commercial airlines offer higher salaries, more career control, and stabilization. Additionally, because of rules that the Federal Aviation Administration has put into place over the last decade that make hiring civilian pilots difficult, many regional airlines have created rotary-wing transition programs that substantially ease the transition for Army helicopter pilots.
The report included a figure showing that the Army faced a shortfall of 330 warrant officers—who comprise 70 percent of the Army’s pilot ranks.
Why the ADSO?
Two main variables affect pilot strength in the military: production and retention. Of the two, retention is the variable that should be targeted. The congressional study on pilot retention noted, “One of the most important variables in meeting pilot requirements is the retention rate, as this is used to estimate what level of new pilot production is needed.”
Over the last few years, Army senior leaders took steps to address the pilot retention challenge. The Army increased monthly pilot pay from a maximum of $850 per month to $1000 per month, offered $35,000 annual bonuses to qualified warrant officers who extend for three years, and reduced combined training center rotations to two per twelve-month period for each combat aviation brigade.
In the report provided to Congress, however, increasing the service obligation was not mentioned as a possible solution to pilot retention shortfalls. This may be because the Army has not undertaken the same in-depth approach to understanding this problem as other services. The DoD report to Congress included a description of Air Force efforts to assess the problem:
The Air Force gathered data on what drives separations from an October 2015 Fighter Pilot Retention “Air Force Smart Operations for the 21st century” event, the 2015 Air Force Exit and Retention surveys, the August 2017 Dedicated Aircrew Retention Teaming Summit, and a series of three aircrew retention crowdsourcing surveys sent to 9,000 aircrew members that culminated in March 2018.
The Army, by contrast, could only say that “Army senior leaders recognize there are growing civilian opportunities for Army pilots. As a result, the US Army Aviation Center of Excellence initiated a survey to better inform future incentive and quality of life programs designed to increase retention.”
The Army’s blind spot with retention data is further highlighted by comments made by Brig. Gen. Michael McCurry, the director of Army aviation for the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff G-3/5/7, who said in September, “One question I often get asked is, are the airlines impacting your shortfall? Well, the short answer is, we don’t know. We don’t have good measurements out there right now to tell us why an aviator is getting out of the force.” Without useful data, the Army cannot implement targeted retention solutions.
Increasing the ADSO, though, does not require data—it is guaranteed to increase retention. It is the cheapest method for increasing retention rates, delivers a long-term investment in human capital, and provides a more predictable model for pilot production requirements. But at what cost?
The Problems with the ADSO
Traditionally, the Army has not struggled to recruit pilots. In the same discussion about retention data, Brig. Gen. McCurry also said, “People still want to fly. Our young NCOs want to become warrant officers and get out and fly. So the recruitment piece has not historically been our challenge, it has been capacity and production.” But what if the new ADSO invalidates this assumption?
This ADSO will likely cause a sharp decline in recruiting among cadets selecting their branches and enlisted soldiers and civilians interested in becoming Army pilots. A reduction in accessions will turn a long-term solution into a short-term problem.
Cadets, who have not experienced the Army for even one day as an officer, are now asked to commit up to eleven years for the opportunity to fly for six years—if they are lucky—while spending the rest of that time on staff, in professional military education, or in broadening assignments. Furthermore, for cadets who may want to pursue a civilian career after a stint in the Army, the opportunity costs are higher the longer they stay. These cadets may not be willing to forgo an extra four years of civilian work experience to serve as aviation officers.
The impact on warrant officers may be as severe as the impact on would-be aviation lieutenants. After all, it is the warrant officer exodus to the airlines that has driven the Army’s pilot retention focus. Prospective warrant officers can see that the Army is having trouble retaining pilots, and they can also see that increasing the service obligation by four years works against their best interests. If pilots today are so unhappy that they are leaving in numbers higher than expected, why would prospective pilots accept a much longer service obligation for that same experience?
There are also discussions within the Army aviation community of additional changes that would make becoming a warrant officer even less appealing. Although neither has been officially announced, the Army is rumored to be considering two proposals: a provisional status for warrant officer candidates until they graduate flight school and an increase in time-in-grade to make chief warrant officer 2.
Proponents of the new ADSO have suggested that the Army is catching up with the Air Force and the Navy by matching its pilot obligation with theirs. However, Army aviation should not be compared with the other military branches—not least because of the widely varying costs of producing pilots. The Government Accountability Office reported, for example, that it can take two years and three to eleven million dollars to produce a mission-ready fighter pilot. These figures do not include initial training—they solely account for the time and cost associated with the platform-specific training. For the Army, the costs are much cheaper. To create a mission-ready helicopter pilot, the Army invests between six hundred thousand and one million dollars during approximately one year of flight training.
Another disparity is the pay inequality between the military’s pilots. Again, 70 percent of Army pilots are warrant officers, while Air Force pilots are all officers. A chief warrant officer 3 with eight years of service earns $5093.70 per month, whereas a captain with eight years of service earns $6435.00 per month, a difference of $1,341.30 in favor of non-Army pilots. The disparity grows as pilots continue service, with a difference of $1,560.80 per month in favor of a major with fourteen years of service compared to a chief warrant officer 4 with fourteen years of service.
The Way Forward
While the ADSO goes into effect in October, its effect on retention won’t be felt for at least six years after the first ten-year ADSO class graduates—likely not until late 2027. Unfortunately, it probably won’t exist long enough for it to achieve the desired effects.
The severity of the decline in recruiting will be unknown until the recruiting data comes in from the first affected class of cadets and warrant officer candidates. But if online discussions are any indication, this ADSO will turn away a lot of prospective pilots. If retention suffers too much, the Army will face a pilot production shortfall that will add to the existing shortage.
If the Army rescinds this ADSO and reverts to the original six-year obligation, it will have six years to develop solutions to increase retention. The first step the Army must take is to implement exit surveys for pilots to determine why they are leaving. With this data, the Army can tailor solutions to address the issues that cause pilots to leave.
Furthermore, the Army should implement quality of life and quality of service surveys for every pilot who remains. Exit surveys are important, but those only capture the opinion of those whom the Army has already lost. The Army must also capture the opinions of those it can still retain.
Lasting solutions must come in the form of quality of life and quality of service improvements. With survey data in hand, the Army will likely find that it needs to continue to invest in its aircraft fleet to ensure pilots receive adequate flight hours to remain proficient. It must continue to remove burdens that plague the warrant officer community, such as non-pilot-related duties and frequent deployments to combat training centers. And finally, the Army will likely find that it should increase flight pay beyond what has already been offered. A RAND Corporation study found that even $35,000 a year would not be sufficient to stem the flow of Air Force pilots—the study concluded a bonus cap between $38,500 and $62,500 would be necessary to make a meaningful impact.
The future of Army aviation depends on retaining the pilots in whom it invests so much. However, increasing the service obligation of new pilots is the wrong course of action. It involves no effort to understand the underlying factors that cause Army pilots to depart and is nothing more than a surface-level solution to a fundamental problem. By collecting data and then improving quality of life and quality of service with targeted retention initiatives, the Army will not just increase retention—the positive changes will increase the appeal of serving as a pilot in the Army, and recruiting will increase as well.
Brennan Randel is a captain in the United States Army and is the former commander of Alpha Company, 4-2 Attack Battalion stationed at Camp Humphreys, South Korea. He is the author of the jumo brief, a free weekly newsletter for Army leaders.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Sgt. Scott Tant, US Army
The Army has had pilot shortages off and on ever since I can remember.
It’s shocking that the Army doesn’t have any institutional memory about what causes pilot shortage, which are primarily two broad topics: quality of life in the Army, and economic opportunities outside the Army. Raising the service commitment ignores the actual root causes.
They will NEVER get it right.
Reading this in Jan 21, after 10 months of pandemic lockdown. One of the reasons for the increased ADSO was related to demand from the private sector for pilots. Given the pandemic's direct and indirect effects on the aviation industry, is that even going to a concern going forward.
Andrew says that the army need s a pilot
Though I agree that there is a retention problem, especially within aviation, I'm not sure the Army is focused on the right issue here. While a longer ADSO may help from looking solely at the numbers, it won't be effective at retaining quality talent. Aviation has always been a highly desirable branch, and gaining a slot has been a matter of performance or differentiation from peers (whether OML or via a competitive application process). An ADSO twice as long as other branches (for academy grads) or 6+ years longer than ROTC counterparts is only going to deter quality officers that view an additional obligation as a loss of opportunity for careers beyond the service. While there are some top performers that will elect to pursue the branch because they plan on a career from the beginning, there are far more that may be hesitant or undecided about committing to a decade of their professional lives to a niche field when they're only 22 or 23 if they aren't already passionate about everything aviation. That hesitation will open up slots for others further down an OML or with less stellar accomplishments, potentially creating other issues related to performance or aptitude.
In the last decade, retention has always been a hot-button issue. The root cause cited by those transitioning at various levels has related to toxic climates, mismanagement of professional profiles, quality of life, and unit culture. I still don't understand how this ADSO extension is going to fix any of those issues, though it may act as a "gotcha" to get people "over the hill" in their Army career where they wouldn't feel like a transition at 10-12 years of service would be a good decision. Ultimately, the Army needs to focus on the retention of quality talent; not on retaining mediocre talent for a longer period of time "because they can mandate longer ADSOs."
There will always be external factors and organizations that draw quality talent from the Army, but the Army should have more flexibility in their ability and measures to retain quality talent. Especially if they view retention as a big enough problem to justify an additional 4 year commitment from aviators.
There's an easy answer to this – the oblivious, tone-deaf culture of "readiness" that GEN Milley fostered while serving as the CSA. His administration's definition of readiness was turning maximum amount of red chicklets on spreadsheets to green, sending people over and over to the field and CTCs without any break, and endless rotations to Korea and Europe. It's almost as though he completely and totally ignored the concept of morale and esprit de corps. I've been in the Army for a long time, and it's never been worse than now. At least in the early 2000s, there was the ARFORGEN cycle. One year dedicated to reset, one to training, one to deployment. Although busy, it left plenty of downtime for people to have actual lives. On the reset year, units focused on team building, socializing, individual skills, and professional development. It also left plenty of time to have a normal life and spend time with one's family. That is completely and totally gone. There is no replacement theory for ARFORGEN – they decided to just shelve it and go with "let's make everyone miserable all the time". This is anecdotal, of course, but nowadays there is no appreciable down time. 9 month rotations are followed by field time, followed by gunnery, followed by EIB, followed by a CTC, etc. It never ends. There is no reset.
This is doubly applicable for aviation formations. Due to the extreme demand produced by the GWOT, ground formations are insatiable with their demand for aviation support. This means that a BCT that goes to a CTC once a year always demands CAB support. Guess what? There are a lot more BCTs, SF groups, SFABs and NG/USAR units than there are CABs. This means that aviation formations get screwed doubly – they have to support everyone's demands, while being vastly outnumbered. Their workload is increased several fold versus the units that they are supporting.
So why are aviators getting out? Because honestly put – the lifestyle sucks nowadays. The OPTEMPO is higher now than it was at the height of GWOT. People have no time to actually live their lives. A large number of aviation personnel have a lot of passion and dedication to the mission, but that can only last so long when your life consists ONLY of the mission. From this mid-grade officer's perspective – this constant obsession with readiness is actually detrimental to readiness. In an all-volunteer force, you won't be ready if most of your personnel in a critical branch want to get out. If people don't want to serve, you are actually harming readiness, not helping it. You're losing highly skilled aviators that took millions of dollars and 5-10 years to train. The increased ADSO only harms this effort further. It further acts as a disincentive to those who would like to do the mission, but are unwilling to sacrifice a decade of their time in the event they don't like the lifestyle.
Final thoughts – the social aspect of the Army has never been worse. My formation barely ever conducts social events. We are always either training or deploying. There is no down time, no time to build family and relationships and the team. People are tired. This is not going to end well until leaders finally understand that there has to be a work/life balance. The increased ADSO shows that senior leaders fundamentally do not understand the issues, and it will do nothing to address the attrition as the years go on. It will harm recruiting and we will continue to bleed talent into the civilian aviation market. Why would you stay in the Army where you barely get to be a normal human, where you could make twice the pay, work half the amount, and actually get to live a somewhat normal life? The answer is clear.
Reading your first paragraph and skimming the rest I couldn't agree more. I transitioned from infantry to aviation and have had off-and-on heartache with it ever since. I have done more CTC rotations and in general "useless bs" since being aviation than I ever did infantry. I'm retiring in two years and it's not even to go to the airlines! I just want to stop leaving my family all the time! Just so we know I'm not a whiny do nothing: seven deployments, six combat for a total of 70 months and 66 months respectively. Yes, that is 11 combat stripes. I see three and four star Generals with less, HOW?! Anyway, I just clocked 20 years, 5 1/2 years of that has been spent in the Middle East and for what? Just to end it and walk away.. victorious..? Not sure. Yes, they will retain aviators when the quality of life increases for aviation, not just grinding us into the ground until a new command comes along every 12-18 months and does it all over again.
I’m a senior NCO with two decades of experience and proven loyalty to the nation and her army. I’m not young, but I’ve aged well and am not ready to resign myself to a desk. I’m in shape, arguably intelligent, and have at least ten good years of service left in me… yet an age waiver will not be considered for aviation for either OCS or WOCS.
I don’t know if there are enough of us to completely change policy, but you need pilots and I’m willing to fly for whatever period is demanded of me – I’m not the only one. Think about approving some ETPs. Look down – many of us are after something a little more challenging than the admin tasks of a 1SG or CSM.
You must understand, the Army has an ace in the hole when filling the Warrant Officer aviation pipeline. The Army is the only service which allow non college graduates in being Officers and pilots as we know. At least 70% are not degree holders and they come from all 5 branches of the military.
There are more than enough fully qualified CAREER ENLISTED personnel from the 5 services, waiting in the wings, so to speak, to apply for the WOFT program. The Army can increase this to 100% with no problem whatsoever if needed. The Army only draws between 300-400 non prior WOFT applcants yearly. They can surely find that amount in the Enlisted ranks if WARRANTED. Although there's a max of 8 years TIS that can be changed in a New York minute.
The increase in the ADSO will have profound affect on USMA/ROTC cadets. More than likely, the aviations slots will be filled by personnel lower on the OML.
Hopefully with the new 10 year ADSO aviation will assess more senior NCOs. We need people with your background, dedication and professionalism in the warrant officer cohort. The best pilots I have served with were prior NCOs. They used their experience to mentor and groom all the other warrants around them including myself.
One can just see all those 2LTs cringing when the folks at the bottom of each class are “forced to take Aviation during the branching ceremony…
Can't be branched aviation. Must be a volunteer just like airborne.
Very true. The ARMY should allow ATP for all prior service men willing and fit to fly. I'm about to retire from the Air Force as an engineer, O-4, mostly dest and staff job. I spend almost 20 years missing opportunities due to family, deployments, school, and fear to change. I'm very healthy and fit, I would like to fly helicopters. We should approach our congressmen to change the re-entry rules to allow ATPs. I don't want to mess with my retirement, but would love a chance to fly for my country. Why not allowing retired personnel to do what they always wanted? If ATPs are granted, I'll be the first one to sign up as a warrant officer.
Can you hear the roar of approval erupting from Army doctors across the globe serving out their decade plus commitments?
After working several years in the corporate sector in various strategic positions, I recently came back on active duty due to the strong desire to serve. It is extremely frustrating to see some officers and senior NCOS make such short sighted decisions to solve complex issues without finding the cause, and not conducting any type of research. Often times these decisions being made do more harm than good, and cause a tremendous amount of work (just look at our administrative packet processes).
We need better leadership courses that foster problem solving, the importance of critical thinking, and using surrounding talent to identify the cause of issues/solutions.
Well, when you have a system that initially punishes critical thinking, then requires it later on down the line, you're creating your own problem that ends up causing its own problems.
I think it would be a great idea to leverage senior NCOs to enter pilot training with a waiver. One problem with pilots is that we don't age well (I'm not a military aviator, just a private pilot) so there would be an issue of reaching a physical condition expiration date at some point. I retired in 1998. Back then the Army had a hard-on for pilots. I remember when they tried to get aviators out of the "sack" flight suit and into Nomex BDUs to make them more soldierly. I think that mindser still exists. Army is trying to get payback for their costs, but that will be increasingly hard to do if airlines are hiring.
You make an excellent point..I'm a twice retired CW4 (did a voluntary retiree recall three years after my first twenty). Age should be lifted…I'm in my mid fifties and still fly helicopters (civilian market) for a living. I'm in better shape today than I was 10 years ago. The US Army is missing the boat by not letting seasoned professionals into flight school.
The upper age limit to enter flight training is established in law and requires Congressional action. Ironically, the reason why Congress established a limit on entry into flight training is because the Army in the late 60's and early 70's started to funnel relatively large numbers of maneuver General Officers through flight school. While the goal of the CSA's program was a well intentioned effort to make up for a dearth of aviation experience at senior ranks, it wasn't well received and Congress bit back. It didn't help that the CSA took advantage of his own program by taking private military flight lessons and was awarded his pilots wings while a 4 star. Like many personnel issues though, the age limit is probably ripe for a re-look given that people now live healthier, more active, and longer lives.
The institution of the new ADSO stands in testimony to a DOD organization entrenched in process and procedure at the expense of adjustment to any current reality. COVID has taken care of the airline hiring problem for the next three to five years, making the issueance of an increased ADSO redundant.
As several others have said, this policy fails to address the root problems – high OPTEMPO, poor quality of life, irrelevant mandatory training, etc. I am a former Aviation Officer and when I got out after my ADSO was complete I was surprised that no one questioned why or tried to get me to stay. I at least expected a survey or something from the Aviation branch to ask why I was leaving, but again, nothing. There's definitely a balance issue, and I suppose the grass is always greener on the other side. I got out because I wanted to fly, but kept getting stuck in staff positions where I either couldn't fly, or had limited opportunities to fly. In my first year and a half after flight school I flew over 500 hours. In my next 6 years I flew a total of 50 hours…And it's not for lack of trying, I was just in assignments (that I didn't ask for and tried to get out of) where there were no aviation units around. I don't know how common my situation is, but I'm sure there are plenty of people like me who barely flew, while there are others flying until they drop.
Before trying to add more pilots, or change quality of life (which I don't think they're trying to do), they should look at leveling the demands on pilots within the ranks.
Another anecdote, when I was deployed there was a desire to have experienced cockpits on higher risk/higher visibility missions – usually two pilots with 1000+ total hours. Even during a deployment when demand for flight hours was high, the more senior Warrant Officers were flying double that of the more junior pilots. That was the last straw for several senior pilots in my battalion and the majority of them retired after/because of that deployment when they had intended to stay in for at least a few more years. Within the company we tried to level out flight time to give the senior guys some rest, but the battalion/brigade leadership was too risk averse and pushed back. Sometimes that's necessary, but there's got to be some balance.
I would have stayed in for another 10+ years if I had the opportunity to revert to Warrant Officer and fly more, but that opportunity doesn't exist. I don't know if there are enough Officers getting out that would be willing to revert to WO to solve the pilot shortage, but maybe it would help. At the same time it could drive a shortage of Aviation Officers, but if they're going to leave the Army anyway….
Actually, the option to revert to Warrant Officer does exist.
I have a high schooler who is applying to engineering programs for school and is interested in an ROTC path that might include aviation. This 10 year commitment will definitely dissuade him from the Army. That seems like a lifetime to an 18 year old.
There’s a two word solution to this, age waiver.
That's my issue (age waiver). I'd sign a 15 year ADSO if they gave me an age waiver (I'm only 35 – not 65!)
What I would like to add is almost the opposite of some of these comments. While I completely understand the desire of people to fly, there is more to it than that. I feel that part of the problem is that the Army assessed too many senior NCOs into flight school, which helped get them into this box that they are in. In congressional testimony it was stated that at that time (2019) around 40% of the pilot population was within 3 years of being retirement eligible. That is not a good thing.
What I would propose is to change the flight school is conducted to make it cheaper and make it easier to increase throughput. The UH-72 costs twice as much to operate as a TH-67. The Army says it needs the UH-72 for training because it teaches the use of glass cockpit and other advanced technology. Meanwhile students don't do touchdown autorotations and other traditional flight maneuvers. Change flight school where primary flight training is done by civilian contractors via fixed wing. Fly them that way through the instrument phase, and then conduct a rotary wing transition. Fixed wing is cheaper. It will give you a recruiting advantage because a person out of high school or a year of college could position themselves for later on in life. I would also say if the Army wants to recruit more street to seat, I would require those people to attend Basic Training at FT Benning and intensify the military training for non-prior service WOCs. Finally, the thing not being said about sending senior NCOs to flight school is the socialization at the company level piece. I don't know too many that would care to be told to mop the floor of the pilot's office, fill the refrigerator, go help wash the aircraft the things that junior warrants typically do when they are new to a unit out of flight school. Just like privates do certain tasks, junior warrant officers perform certain work as well, and I've personally seen a few folks not being able to deal with that change. It's not about harassments, it how things get done. I know there are exceptions to the rule, and I know some people haze junior warrant officers. That's not what I am talking about.
I honestly don't believe that the way out of this is getting more people to fly that have less time available left in their military careers. It only increases your overall training costs because typically you have less time available to retain these people. Full disclosure, I was a street to seat Warrant that served for 24 years.
Do that and fix quality of life issues. That's my 2 cents.
I'd love to see credit for the photo. Especially since TN he Chinooks are B Co 2-104 from CTARNG and I was the CDR and PC sitting in the left of the Chinook in the foreground on the left.
im hopeful the army can fix this problem ASAP.
I know this is an old article but as a graduating senior this policy is stupid. I ended up not joining because they increased the ADSO. 6 years is a masters degree, 10 years is 2 years longer than a PH. D.