WASHINGTON, July 22 (UPI) -- The U.S. Defense Department says it is 200 fighter pilots shy of a full complement and is enhancing its salary package to make the job more alluring.
The Air Force says if nothing is done, it fears the shortfall could grow to 700 by 2021, the Los Angles Times reported Monday.
The military branch says it has about 3,000 fighter pilots.
Several factors are behind the exodus of pilots, the Pentagon said, including a surge in demand for commercial pilots, stress of deployments and reassignments to fly combat drones and the advent of remote-controlled technology.
Because of the dip, the Air Force is offering an incentive package under the "Aviator Retention Program," which began in 1989, the Times said. The program now offers a $25,000 signing bonus per year for nine years -- about twice as long as the usual contract.
"Were it not for the program, there would be a greater problem than the one we currently have," Lt. Col. Kurt Konopatzke, who oversees the program, told the Times. "Senior leadership is aware of the problem and is very concerned."
The Air Force said it hopes to get as many of the 200 to 250 eligible fighter pilots to take the deal.
Currently, 65 percent of pilots are deciding to extend their tour past the 11th year, when they choose whether to stay for five more years, compared with 80 percent 10 years ago, military officials said.
Air Force pilots typically earn about $90,000 by the time they complete their 11th year.
The median annual salary of commercial airline pilots, co-pilots and flight engineers is $103,210, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicated.