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86% of Air Force pilots are white men. Here's why this needs to change.

Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas
·Contributor
·5-min read
U.S. Air Force pilots inside a hangar alongside a F-15 fighter jet and a T-38 Talon trainer jet during an exercise in 2015. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)
U.S. Air Force pilots inside a hangar alongside an F-15 fighter jet and a T-38 Talon trainer jet during an exercise in 2015. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

The tragic death of George Floyd and recent events have fueled widespread protests and a renewed call for racial equality nationwide. Amid this, our country has been compelled to reflect on issues that are often uncomfortable, and leaders have been driven to examine their organizations in ways like never before. The Air Force, in many ways, is no different. But as a war-fighting organization we cannot afford to squander this moment, because our future — and national security — depends on it.

Pursuing equality means we must be sure that we are attracting the most capable members of our society, from all races and walks of life, as we prepare for the next fight. This fighting force should be highly capable while reflecting the diversity of the country we serve.

Before I even took command of my service’s recruiting efforts this spring, Air Force leadership made it clear to me that improving diversity would be on the top of my to-do list. And recent national events only serve as an accelerant as we take aim and tackle this vexing issue.

Pentagon leaders didn’t need to explain the why, although Gen. David Goldfein, our former chief of staff, did that in calling diversity “a war-fighting imperative.” It’s been clear for some time that our progress in better reflecting the society we serve has been too slow.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., the first African-American to lead any branch of the military, has called on us to accelerate change or risk losing ground to Russia and China, both of which are integrating potential game-changing technologies like artificial intelligence and hypersonic flight. We need both the best technologies and the best people to win. Improving our diversity falls squarely in Brown’s mandate.

U.S. President Donald Trump, second frVice President Mike Pence and President Trump participate in the swearing in of General Charles Q. Brown, as the incoming Chief of Staff of the Air Force in August. (Doug Mills/Bloomberg via Getty Images)om left, and Vice President Mike Pence, left, participate in the swearing in of General Charles Q. Brown, as the incoming Chief of Staff of the Air Force at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. (Doug Mills/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Vice President Mike Pence and President Trump participate in the swearing in of Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. as the chief of staff of the Air Force in August. (Doug Mills/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The competition to attract the best and brightest recruits is getting tougher all the time, and our connection with society grows more fragile every day. Survey data shows that only one-quarter of American youth between the ages of 17 and 24 are qualified for military service for a variety of reasons, which include aptitude, chronic health conditions, obesity or drug use. The pool is ever shrinking: In 1995, 40 percent of Americans ages 16 to 24 had a parent who served in the armed forces. Today that number is 15 percent. The result is that only about 1 in 10 young Americans say they are interested in serving in the military.

We simply can no longer afford for significant segments of our society to be underrepresented in our U.S. Air Force or our newest branch, the U.S. Space Force.

To be clear, the Air and Space Forces are not setting quotas based on race or gender. We will, however, focus intensely and concentrate our efforts in traditionally underserved communities. It wouldn’t be legal or productive to hold recruiters accountable for bringing in a certain number of recruits from various demographic groups. But if we see that we’re not hitting recruiting targets that mirror the qualified population in those categories, we will adjust to concentrate on areas where we can get a more representative balance in our applicant pool. To use a fishing analogy, recruiters must not only cast a wide net but ensure we are spending time in the right fishing holes.

And by measuring those targets, we’ll employ the old management axiom that what gets measured gets done. And we’ll get it done.

While we are meeting or exceeding nearly all demographic targets in our enlisted ranks, inside our cockpits is where we have the greatest disparities and opportunities for improvement. In all, 86 percent of our aviators are white males. Less than 3 percent of our fighter pilots are females. This is why we established a detachment within Air Force recruiting two years ago charged with improving diversity for those who wear flight suits. The mission of Detachment 1 is to bring a singular focus to recruiting qualified women and minorities who have not always felt they belonged.

Air Force pilots and aircraft mechanics of the 325th Fighter Wing secure F-22 Raptor aircraft relocating due to Hurricane Laura in August. (U.S. Air Force/R.J. Oriez/Handout via Reuters)
Air Force pilots and aircraft mechanics of the 325th Fighter Wing secure F-22 Raptor aircraft relocating due to Hurricane Laura in August. (U.S. Air Force/R.J. Oriez/Handout via Reuters)

Our goal is to get in front of every demographic group in America and show them someone who wears a flight suit every day they can look up to and say, “That could be me.”

There is evidence to suggest we can do significantly better in diversifying our aviator ranks. Fifty years ago, just before the advent of the all-volunteer military, there was a paucity of women doctors and lawyers in the U.S. Only 4 percent of attorneys were female. Today that number is 37 percent. The same was true for doctors: In five decades we’ve gone from 8 percent to 36 percent, and last year women outnumbered men in medical schools for the first time. The time is now to make similar progress.

Our research data is clear on something else — the importance of exposure to aircraft and flight. We’ve set up programs like Aim High Outreach and the Aim High Flight Academy to get young people into aircraft. We’ve set up educational programs that allow both youth and their influencers to ask aircrew members and experts how to join the Air Force, how to qualify for a flying position and what it’s like to have a career in military aviation. It is the same kind of dedicated outreach that the legal and medical professions began decades ago.

I am amazed to still hear about young men and women who meet a pilot who, for the first time, looks like them. Too often the teen will say, “I didn’t know you could do that.” Well, they can. And we’re going to make that clear to the next generation of young Americans.

Maj. Gen. Ed Thomas is the commander of Air Force Recruiting Service.

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