By Idrees Ali
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States Air Force is facing a shortage of more than 500 fighter pilots which is expected to widen to more than 800 by 2022, Air Force officials said on Tuesday.
The shortage stems from a reduction in the number of active duty fighter squadrons, according to a statement by several Air Force officials at a U.S. Senate Armed Services subcommittee hearing.
"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 Air Force officials said in the written statement.
The statement said the shortage would affect air operations expertise and lead to a "gradual erosion of fighter pilot experience in test and training."
Speaking with reporters after the hearing, Lieutenant General James Holmes, deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements for the Air Force, said the shortage had been caused by a decrease in the number of squadrons, which produce about four experienced fighter pilots a year.
There are currently 54 squadrons in the Air Force, compared with more than 100 fighter squadrons at the time of the Gulf War in 1990-1991.
"The remaining active component fighter squadrons do not produce enough experienced fighter pilots to meet all of the staff, test and training requirements," the statement added.
Holmes said to deal with the issue, the Air Force would likely put new active duty pilots into guard and reserve squadrons to gain experience.
"But ultimately we're going to have to increase production and we're going to have to increase absorption so we can fix the problem," he said.
Holmes told lawmakers at the hearing that the Air Force would provide a plan next year try to retain as many pilots as possible in the short term.
Lieutenant General John Raymond, deputy chief of staff for operations, said retention was made difficult by airlines hiring thousands of fighter pilots.
According to a 2015 study by the Rand Corporation, the Air Force faced a persistent shortage because there was a gap between the requirements for a fighter pilot and the Air Force’s capacity to train them.
(Editing by Matthew Lewis)