Here’s why the Marine Corps is losing experienced pilots — and what it can do to fix it

If this exodus is not effectively addressed, our ability to fight from the air could be critically compromised in a way that will take decades from which to recover

Editor’s Note: The following op-ed is written by an active-duty Marine aviator. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Task & Purpose.

“Lat moves for to become a MARSOC [Special Operations Officer] are not being approved” at this time, the email from the Monitor said, adding that “[Inter-Service Transfers] for to any branch, to include the USCG, are not being approved .”

The email was just the latest restriction on aviators, and the next round of Headquarters Marine Corps’ (HQMC) ineffective strategy for dealing with a critical shortage of company grade aviators in the Marine Corps.

The Air Force has garnered most of the attention regarding pilot shortages over the past few years, but it’s hardly unique to their service, as the entire military is struggling to keep its aviators in the midst of an airline hiring frenzy and a strong economy. For years, the pilot shortage was attributed to Obama-era sequestration, aging platforms, and a lack of sufficient flight time.

But there is a more significant contributor to this shortage: mismanagement of pilots due to unwritten rules of the aviation promotion system.

Unfortunately for the Corps, company grade aviators catch on to these rules early, and flight school cannot produce enough new pilots to balance the inevitable exodus of captains. If this exodus is not effectively addressed, our ability to fight from the air could be critically compromised in a way that will take decades from which to recover.

So how bad is it really?

As of March 2019, according to the MOS inventory report from HQMC, overall fixed-wing, company grade (O-1 through O-3) aviation strength stood at a staggering 52%. This value encompasses all aviators for the C-130, F-35, F-18, and AV-8B communities.

Rotary Wing and Tiltrotor company grades fair somewhat better at 76% overall with all but one, the AH-1 Cobra Attack Helicopter community, tracking well below the 85% mark of what is considered a “healthy” inventory level, as seen in the table below. The data also shows a worrying trend of over-staffing well above 100% for field grade (O-4 and O-5) in all communities except the struggling MV-22 field.

Table 1. Aviation Inventory Levels (note: UH-1 O-5 data omitted as it sits at 725% due to 4 required billets, but a current inventory of 29 UH-1 O-5s in the Marine Corps.)

At this point one might ask, “If the fixed-wing community is so much worse off, why are you focusing on the rotary and tiltrotor communities so much?” The answer: The extreme focus on the shortage of Fixed Wing aviators has distracted from an equally distressing shortage in the Rotary Wing and Tilt-Rotor communities that HQMC is failing to adequately address.

So what is causing this shortage? This is a very complex problem, and while every aviator has their reasons for staying or leaving — ranging from quality of life to financial opportunity — one systematic constant significantly contributes to the current exodus.

The unwritten rule of Marine Corps aviation

“Every one of you should want to be a WTI,” was the phrase directed at my peer group during my first month in the fleet. It seemed logical. The CO, XO, OPSO, Aviation Maintenance Officer (AMO), and the Director of Safety and Standardization (DOSS) were all Weapons and Tactics Instructors (WTI).

As the top echelon of the five standard instructor qualifications, WTI is the highest and most difficult designation a pilot or crew chief can achieve, and appeared to be the best way to continue with an aviation career in the Marine Corps. What wasn’t told to us back then was that it is the only way to be successful in an HMLA (a composite squadron comprised of both the AH-1 Cobra and UH-1 Huey helicopters).

Something key to know about why it is the only path to success is that there is no official or “standard” career path for an H-1 pilot in any manual or policy. There is no MOS Roadmap on the Marine Corps Training and Information Management System (MCTIMS), the H-1 Training and Readiness Manuals have no guide, and neither Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One (MAWTS-1), nor the Company Grade Rotary Wing Monitor (the individual at HQMC who coordinates and issues all O-1 to O-3 Rotary Wing and Tiltrotor aviators their orders) have any written or official career path for an H-1 pilot.

Instead, there is an understood path that each pilot learns by observation during their fleet tours in the HMLAs. Generically, this path is illustrated in the graphic below:

Graphic 1. Perceived career path of a generic H-1 Aviator from polled input of company Grade Aviators in the H-1 community.

The graphic was developed through firsthand experience and an anonymous poll of company grade officers in three different squadrons. Each was asked if they could describe what a “standard career path” would be if it were in a manual somewhere. The graphic is a composite of the common trends described from a range of individuals ranging from new copilots through WTI captains.

This composited career path is based on one very simple assumption that each aviator sees in their everyday lives in the Fleet. That assumption is: in order to be a Commanding Officer, you must be a WTI. As seen in Table 1, this is not an unfounded assumption (Note: These numbers are conservative as many COs are not correctly listed in MCTFS as 7577 MOS, thus the actual number of non-WTI COs is actually lower than available data presents).

Table 2. HMLA Commanding Officer Comparison by Decade, 1990-2019(Data compiled from a list of all HMLA COs provided by the Marine Corps Historical Division, Historical Reference Branch and a MCTFS roster of all 7577 MOS assigned Marines pulled by the MISSO-6, HQBN MCBH)

Over 30 years, the Marine Corps has ensured Commanding Officers will be WTIs to the point that only 10% of all HMLA COs over the last decade have NOT been WTIs. This trend has made WTI a de-facto requirement for promotion and command with rare exceptions and this has not gone unnoticed by the company grade masses.

Working backward from this unofficial requirement, being a WTI now becomes a requirement to be the XO or a Department Head (OPSO, AMO, DOSS), the traditional stepping stones to command.

Considering only 3% of H-1 WTI graduates are majors (9 out of 359) since 2005, according to the MAWTS-1 “Skid Newsletters,” going to one of the two annual WTI courses during your first fleet tour while you’re still learning your job becomes your best, and perhaps only, shot to achieve this unofficial requirement.

In actuality, this may be exactly the career progression model that works best for providing the most competent staff and commanders to the Fleet. Unfortunately, as previously stated, this is the ONLY career path that is communicated and there is no known alternative career path for non-WTIs to be competitive for promotion to O-4 or O-5, let alone to achieve command.

Assuming the non-WTI officers promote to major, their most common path is to fill random staff billets, potentially never returning to flying units until they reach their 20-year retirement.

But even the incentive of a pension after 20 years is waning in effectiveness with the new Blended Retirement System, which gives every Marine a retirement account when they get out regardless of how long they served.

It’s no surprise then that aviators, who will have 10-12 years’ worth of IRA contributions with government matching funds, would rather market themselves outside the Marine Corps where their income potential is higher and they are potentially able to transfer their IRAs into a company’s 401k.

This appears far more enticing than serving in staff positions for 10 more years with limited income growth potential only to get a smaller pension than their predecessors and start a new career in their forties.

At this point you may be thinking, “there’s no way the Marine Corps would pigeon-hole their whole fleet of aviators into one career path. There must be other options.”

While a logical thought, when asked how a non-WTI’s career path is determined and by who, the Rotary Wing Monitor confirmed in an email that there are no official guides or rules and said that a Monitor uses “judgment and experience.”

So the careers of non-WTIs are at the discretion of a single Marine at HQMC — who is statutorily a WTI — and whatever their “judgment and experience” happen to be for those Marines. The end result of all of this is that the company grade aviators figure out early on that without becoming a WTI their career is a dead end, or at best a crap shoot, and that with the new BRS, there is limited financial incentive to staying in the Corps.

The final nail in the coffin for these non-WTI aviators are the statistics for how many will ever be given the chance to go to a WTI course.

On average, the Fleet Replacement Squadron graduates 77 newly qualified H-1 aviators (combined total of AH-1 and UH-1). Of those 77, only about 26 can be expected to actually graduate a WTI course. Of note, this is not a question of anyone’s qualifications to attend, but rather a statement of the limited throughput capacity of MAWTS-1 to create new WTIs.

Ultimately, 67% of H-1 aviators will never be granted the opportunity to attend a WTI course. When that same 67% recognize this and their lack of a future in the Marine Corps, they will begin to position themselves to leave the Marine Corps with the maximum marketability in the civilian sector.

This dead end career path effect is a constant, major contributor of the company grade exodus and likely does not just affect the H-1 community.

What has HQMC done about the shortage?

In July 2016, HQMC attempted to address this shortage of company grade aviators in the inventory.

For the first time, captains who were twice passed over for promotion (when the Corps typically separates a Marine) with less than 15 years of service were included in the Continuation Board process that offers Marines a three year contract extension.

The incentives to continuation were limited to having a guaranteed job for three more years, a larger separations payout at the end of your three years, and getting your choice of orders (provided there are no sudden “needs of the Marine Corps” that the Monitor must fill). There were no bonuses or other financial incentives. Instead, there were early concerns that claimed if you were offered continuation and refused, you were thereby considered a resignation and would no longer be entitled to separations pay.

At the time, the Rotary Wing Monitor kept all company grade officers updated on legal developments to this new inclusion on the Continuation Boards, but it seemed that the Corps was attempting to hold separations pay hostage unless you served three more years. Fortunately, the legal minds at HQMC noticed that sounded a lot like a stop-loss program and corrected it.

Now, if an officer refuses continuation they still receive their normal separations pay. Continuation Boards with these same stipulations continue to this day.

The following year in 2017, HQMC began issuing aviation bonuses of $20,000 per year for two years to entice aviators to stay on active duty.

Although the bonus initially applied only to Fixed Wing and Tiltrotor aviators, in July 2018 it was expanded to all aviators and offered between two to six years at varying dollar amounts per year based on an officer’s time in service.

U.S. Marine MV-22 Ospreys, assigned to the Ridge Runners of Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 163 (VMM-163)(Reinforced), prepare to takeoff from the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD 8) in support of a helo-borne raid during Exercise Alligator Dagger, in the Gulf of Aden, Dec. 21, 2016. (U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Brandon Maldonado)

What HQMC failed to account for with these bonuses is the unusually long aviation contract lengths combined with the “up or out” promotion system. Aviation contracts fluctuate between six to eight years — depending on an individual’s assigned aircraft type — and it begins on the date an officer receives their wings. By the time an aviator’s initial contract is finally complete, it is not uncommon that they are on the promotion board for major that same year.

Under the past two years’ MARADMINs, any aviator who was previously passed for promotion or is on the current year’s promotion board was ineligible to apply for the bonus until they were selected for promotion.

This meant that the bonus exclusively targeted those Marines who were already promoting and filling a bloated inventory of field grade inventory. Therefore the bonus did not target the critical captains that may be on the fence about staying in simply because they were never eligible to apply for the bonus because of career and contract timing.

With MARADMIN 360/19, released on 1 July 2019, HQMC has lifted the ban on captains who are on their first promotion board from applying for a bonus but retained the ban on those who have been previously passed over. While this mitigates the timing issue to some degree, it fails to incentivize those critical company grade pilots who aren’t selected for promotion but could continue to serve.

To make matters worse, per MARADMIN 234/19 and updates from the Monitor, HQMC has decided to change tactics from pushing ineffective bonuses to restricting any alternate avenues of service. All aviators are now barred from inter-service transfer or lateral moves to Marine Corps Special Operations Command to become Special Operations Officers. Inadvertently, this limits the field of qualified candidates who could serve the Corps in other valuable ways and may serve to further drive company grade aviators, already feeling disenfranchised by the system, out of the Corps even faster.

Between first providing no incentives to continued service then ineffective bonuses and career restrictions on an entire field of MOSs, it is clear the HQMC doesn’t know how to entice company grade aviators to stay. Despite this, the system can be fixed and maybe future aviators can be convinced to continue flying for the Corps if HQMC is willing to do so.

What can be done? What should be done?

Ultimately, the Marine Corps finds itself with a majority of company grade aviators who recognize a system built only for WTIs to promote and succeed that doesn’t offer any incentives, only restrictions, to anyone who isn’t promoting.

Now that we’ve identified the problem, we can begin to stem the bleeding of aviators and rebuild our combat capacity. Thankfully, there are a few key items that could accomplish this goal in the near and long term.

First and easiest, HQMC needs to re-examine its aviation bonuses. Do we really need to target aviators who are already promoting and or planning on staying on active duty when we’re staffed well above 100% of the needed inventory? This is a waste of resources in any community that has a surplus of field grade officers.

Instead, HQMC could lift the bonus prohibition on officers who have been passed over in order to entice captains to stay flying for a few more years. There is already a clause requiring repayment of bonuses if they are unable complete certain years of the bonus contract criteria, so this would prevent any contractual conflict if these officers were to be forced out of the Marine Corps by the “up or out” system.

Another way to adjust the policy is to provide a bonus in conjunction with continuation. This would actually target the exact personnel the Corps needs to retain, while incentivizing continuation rather than depending on an individual’s personal situation to drive each decision to accept the contract extension. Either of these bonus options would correctly target those critical officers that the Corps needs and may be willing to add a few more years of service for incentivized compensation.

A second course of action is to break out the aviation MOSs from the existing officer promotion boards in order to better control the window for promotion, as is already done for the Finance MOS.

Currently, all officers, except Finance Marines, are reviewed by the same promotion board at HQMC, but the window for which officers will be eligible for review is dependent on the overall officer population and often driven by other MOSs that may have priority in adjusting their officer inventory.

For example, while H-1s are overstaffed in the field grade levels and could use a delay for when their captains are looked at for promotion, if the Infantry and Logistics MOSs have an imbalance in their inventory, then the window for eligible captains could open up to more junior officers for ALL MOSs that year.

This means that, due to ground MOS demands, we could potentially be forcing company grade aviators out at a more accelerated rate than if we delayed their review on an aviation-specific promotion board a year or two later. This aviation-specific promotion board could work to balance our overpopulation of field grades by slowing the inflow of new majors, delay forcing company grade aviators out at a rate that requires continuation boards, and also afford these captains a chance to properly apply for aviation bonuses since their contracts would not end the same year they are up for promotion.

A third, and certainly more complicated, option that the Marine Corps could correct without major policy or monetary change is to honestly educate and mentor all aviators — not just the WTI-track aviators — about their options, possible career paths, and the importance of qualifications to their future in the Corps.

Currently, most officers are left to their own devices, fighting for promotion with no clear guidance on what kind of future is even available for them as majors. This uncertainty adds fuel to the exodus for those who don’t have the WTI boost, but could be mitigated by a combination of the development of alternate career paths and their command leadership actually mentoring these pilots in order to make them successful in non-command track billets. What this looks like and how it is executed is a discussion for the aviation community’s leadership, but it is a discussion that should be had nonetheless.

One possible option for such an alternate track could be derived from Army Aviation in how they create a maintenance track and a tactical track for their aviators. Perhaps certain aviators are more apt at maintenance procedures and testing than they are at tactics, and could fill the billets of AMO and Assistant AMO throughout the fleet as subject matter experts.

In this option, qualified captains could meets a basic qualification level and then be slated for a maintenance track and training. These maintenance track captains or majors would still be tactically qualified aircraft commanders, thereby contributing to a squadron’s deployment capabilities, but would otherwise focus on streamlining operations of the Maintenance Department which frees up WTIs more effectively to focus on the squadron’s tactical training.

At the end of the day, these fixes may stem some of the outflow of officers but can’t correct the effect of intrinsic community culture and restrictions.

So perhaps we should raise these questions: Can you be a good CO without being a WTI? If so, is this non-statutory restriction on career progression necessary? Are we comfortable with our pool of future commanders being selected during their first fleet tour? Are we under-valuing Marines who aren’t WTIs but have other valuable experience? Are there promotion tracks to O-4 and O-5 available for these Marines? Whatever the answers may be, without non-WTI paths to success that are visible, promulgated, and cultivated by all levels of Marine Corps aviation, the loss of company grade officers will continue.

Only by asking the hard questions and examining how our system operates, both officially and unofficially, can processes be adjusted to retain the qualified aviators that the Corps has already invested so much time and money in. If this is not corrected soon, the Marine Corps may find the Wing severely crippled and unable to bring its full weight to bear when the next fight comes around.

Capt. Brent “Wheeler” Kreckman is a UH-1Y Huey pilot with over 10 years in the Marine Corps and multiple deployments in the PACOM and CENTCOM regions. The views expressed in the article are his, the result of his research from official sources, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Marine Corps or the Department of Defense.