Publicity still from "Top Gun: Maverick," starring Tom Cruise and slated for release in 2020.

Publicity still from "Top Gun: Maverick," starring Tom Cruise and slated for release in 2020. PARAMOUNT PICTURES

The US Navy Needs More Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchells

The service must create ways to retain and use…not the reckless flyboy of 1986, but the experienced aviator of 2020.

After more than three decades, how is it that Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is still satiating his need for speed? Under DoD’s “up or out” manpower policy, shouldn’t he have been forced to retire years ago? 

As word arrived of the upcoming Top Gun: Maverick, the Navy Personnel Command noted that Maverick’s continued service is technically possible under current policy, but highly unlikely. From my perspective as an active-duty F/A-18 pilot, leaders should be asking: why does the U.S. military not have a framework that retains highly trained experts in technical fields? 

To be clear – although I love a good tower fly-by as much as the next guy – I am not advocating for the particularly reckless attributes of Maverick’s character or his pursuit of that one admiral’s daughter. Rather, I am highlighting that he is a highly trained expert in a challenging, technical career field. After all, Maverick is “the only man to shoot down three enemy planes in the last 40 years.” DoD should have paths for skilled operators in fields such as aviation who wish to continue to serve but are uninterested in higher rank or career-diversifying positions. 

Modern warfighting disciplines often require years of dedicated and expensive training. A recent RAND study estimated that the initial cost to train a USAF fighter pilot ranges from $5.6 to $10.9 million. The cost to train a naval aviator, who must land on aircraft carriers, is certainly higher. Maintaining that proficiency in a complex aircraft such as the F/A-18 requires at least 100 flight hours per year at a rough cost of $22,000 apiece: $2.2 million per aviator per year. The study clearly demonstrates that it is far more cost-effective to  keep experienced aviators in the military than to train new ones. 

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Under the current naval aviation career model, aviators have only limited opportunities to continue to serve in flying billets. The typical aviator is assigned to a single three-year operational tour during the eight-year service requirement after initial training. Realizing their operational days are numbered, many leave the military in pursuit of greener pastures, taking their expensive training, qualifications, and expertise with them. 

The shape and character of the service has been changing for decades; manpower models have barely evolved to keep up. In a recent article in USNI Proceedings, my CSBA colleague Harrison Schramm, a retired Navy commander, notes two interesting trends over the last 70 years: A sharp increase in pay per service member with a decreasing overall end strength, and an exponential increase in operations and maintenance funding per service member. With more money being spent on a fewer number of highly trained people, leaders within DoD must radically rethink how to retain and use human capital investments.

The argument for personnel reform within the department has persisted for years, yet many viable solutions have failed to gain traction. However, two recent events have catalyzed and empowered service leaders to aggressively pursue meaningful change: the formal acknowledgment of an eroding U.S. military advantage to peer competitors in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, or NDS, with a charge to “cultivate workforce talent,” and the increased personnel management system authorities Congress provided to the services under the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act

The Navy instituted the Professional Flight Instructor, or PFI, program in 2018 to address readiness and retention challenges within naval aviation. Using experienced aviators later in their careers as flight instructors is one small step in the right direction. But broader systemic manpower and personnel changes are needed to sufficiently address the challenges outlined in the NDS. The new authorization act provides increased authorities – including promotion zone deferrals and alternative promotion authority – that give the services tools to enable “up and stay” career track options. Under these authorities, in conjunction with a long-overdue performance evaluation transformation, Navy leaders should expand PFI and other similar programs well beyond the training commands, providing more opportunities for experienced aviators to serve at fleet replacement squadrons, weapons schools, test communities, and operational squadrons. 

The “up or out” system, with its high turnover, is designed to create a vast winnowing pool for future leaders. Its advocates claim it is necessary to weed out poorly performing individuals. Given the time and investment required to develop technical expertise in career fields such as aviation, the argument is insufficient and the financial cost too great. Instead, a more competitive initial selection process, coupled with higher attrition rates throughout early training, could help ensure that the Navy only invests in the right people. 

The need to examine “up or out” goes well beyond naval aviation. Many other specialties, such as information systems and cyber operations, require skill sets and expertise that are difficult to develop and retain under the current model. 

Recognizing that my days in an operational squadron are behind me, I empathize with the great poet Jimmy Buffet when he laments, “The cannons don’t thunder, there’s nothing to plunder, I’m an over-40 victim of fate.” Personal bias aside, the time and mechanism for implementing change has arrived. The current manpower model and promotion system prioritizes military members who pursue a breadth of knowledge and experience over those with depth in a particular warfighting discipline. In 21st-century warfare, both are needed. 

The development of deep tactical expertise is costly and rests with increasingly fewer individuals. Answering the challenges presented by the NDS through the authorities provided in the 2019 recent NDAA, the Navy and other services should hasten the reform of its workforce, finding new ways to retain and use highly trained experts – such as Maverick. 

The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.