WASHINGTON — The US Air Force is currently about 500 fighter pilots short of the total requirement, a deficit that is expected to grow to more than 800 by 2022, top service officials warned Congress.

Air Force officials blamed the shortage on recent reductions in active duty fighter and fighter training squadrons due to budget cuts, according to a written testimony submitted to the Senate Armed Services subcommittee March 8.

The service was forced to rebalance its fighter force structure in 2012 due to severe fiscal constraints, slashing the force by 100 aircraft, according to the statement. There are currently 54 squadrons in the Air Force, significantly less than the 134 fighter squadrons that existed during the Gulf War in the early 1990s.

The remaining active component fighter squadrons do not produce enough experienced fighter pilots to meet all of the Air Force's requirements, officials wrote in the statement.

"Without these fighter pilots, the Air Force will be very challenged to continue to provide the air supremacy upon which all our other forces depend," the statement reads.

The Air Force is having trouble making up the shortfall because of competition from commercial airlines, Lt. Gen. John Raymond, deputy chief of staff, told the subcommittee during a TuesdayMarch 8 hearing. Airlines are hiring about 3,500 fighter pilots a year, he said.

The Air Force will present lawmakers a concrete plan to bridge the fighter gap next year, Lt. Gen. Mike Holmes, deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, told the subcommittee. The plan will include standing up two additional fighter training units to train students straight out of undergraduate pilot training (UPT), and increasing UPT production, he told lawmakers.

In the short term, the Air Force is focused on retaining the existing fighter pilot force through bonuses and other tools, Holmes told lawmakers. The service is also going to work to absorb pilots who leave active duty into the Reserve or the Guard "so that we hold onto that expertise," he added.

"We think if we do that we can start to address that gap, and next year we'll bring you a plan," Holmes said. "We're going to make it fit into our budget, but there'll be something else that falls out, and we'll bring you a plan next year to address it."

But even with the planned changes to address the shortfall, in the current fiscal environment the Air Force will only be able to slow the decline in fighter pilot numbers, not stop it, officials wrote in the statement. The Air Force will need additional dollars to fully solve the problem, Holmes told reporters after the hearing.

"It's a big problem for our Air Force in general to survive as an Air Force and to be able to continue to do our work, it's a priority problem for us to solve," Holmes said. "I think I know how to solve it, but I've got to get the money to do it. "

Email: lseligman@defensenews.com

Twitter: @laraseligman

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