By Valerie Insinna
The politically damaging public battles between the Air Force and its reserve components over funding and personnel seem to have subsided after a wave of budget compromises, integration initiatives and a report to Congress.
Even though the dust has settled, it remains to be seen whether the service’s leaders are comfortable handing over more responsibility to the Reserve and Air National Guard.
The Air Force’s efforts show that it is interested in doing more than paying lip service to the reserve components, said Russell Rumbaugh, director of the Stimson Center’s budgeting for foreign affairs and defense program. “But it’s one thing to say it, it’s another thing to do it. The actual doing it requires addressing that basic political balance.”
Tensions exploded when the Air Force’s proposed fiscal year 2013 budget made huge reductions to the Air National Guard, while the active component took only 17 percent of cuts to the force. The service originally proposed slashing end strength by 5,100 for the Guard, 3,900 for active duty and 900 for Reserve. At the end of 2012, Congress accepted a compromise that cut only 1,400 Guardsmen.
In the wake of that decision, Congress and the Air Force each formed initiatives to study how the service should restructure to better fit the current financial situation and future mission requirements.
Congress established the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force, which put forward its 42 recommendations earlier this year. Most of its suggestions center around redirecting more missions and resources to the Reserve and Guard, but the commission has no authority to execute its plan.
The service created the Total Force Task Force to do its own analysis. The task force, led by two-star generals from each component, made recommendations to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh last year. Welsh then organized a new office called the Total Force Continuum to put those proposals into action.
The service’s top leaders were still reeling for some time after the 2012 dispute.
“We are migrating towards a better place, obviously, than we were after the [2013 budget] submission,” Lt. Gen. James Jackson, head of Air Force Reserve Command, said in September 2013. “We do have some tough choices to make, and we’ll continue to make those.”
By July of this year, Jackson’s comments focused on the need to protect all of the force from further cuts. “We need to stop shrinking. When I say ‘we,’ I’m talking total Air Force,” he said in a speech to the Air Force Association. “The Air Force did a lot of good work over the past year and a half looking at manpower,” and the TFC office is making progress on decisions related to force structure and integrating the components, he added.
“This is a codified, enduring process that we won’t stop doing,” he said. “We’re going to do it for the next two years while I’m in the job, and we’re going to do it the next five to 10 years as the chief is trying to get to the future vision … [and] being the high-end, capable Air Force that we need to have.”
The TFC office is led by three one-star generals: Brig. Gen. Thomas Gibson of the active component, Brig. Gen. Randall Ogden of the Reserves and Col. Timothy Cathcart of the Air National Guard.
The TFC generals are analyzing the national commission’s 42 recommendations along with 80 Air Force integration initiatives already underway, Ogden said. It will coordinate a response to the commission, decide which of its recommendations will be implemented and put forward a comprehensive timeline for doing so.
“This is an ongoing cultural process,” Cathcart told National Defense. “This is not something you declare victory on at one point. … I think five or 10 years from now, there will be new things that pop up where people will look at and say, ‘Well, this is something we could work on to reduce barriers.’”
In its written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in April, the commission emphasized that its 42 recommendations were not a random, disassociated wishlist of items, but a “coherent, cohesive, achievable” set of improvements that “if allowed to work in tandem, will lead to an end state of total force integration, better total force management and improved national security.”
“Action on the majority of our recommendations should begin now, capitalizing on work we have been told is already under way,” the testimony said.
Air Force leadership has publicly disagreed with two of the commission’s findings.
The commission’s recommendation to dissolve Air Force Reserve Command is a nonstarter, Welsh told SASC.
“We simply do not have the ability to oversee the individual readiness [and] force management of part time airmen, personnel development and force support issues related to the Air Force Reserve without the structure that the command currently gives us,” Welsh said. “Clearly, as the commission suggests, we should be working toward developing the integrating capabilities that will allow us to at least consider such an initiative at some point in the future.”
Commissioners that testified during the hearing said the disestablishment of Reserve Command was not meant as a current year action. However, if the Air Force put its integration plan into action, the command would no longer be necessary at the end of the process.
The commission also recommended a more equal ratio of active-duty and reserve forces, going from 65/35 to 58/42. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said more analysis needs to be done before accepting that number.
“It might be right, it might not be right,” she told SASC. “We need to do a mission-by-mission approach, and that’s the path we intend to take.”
The TFC office is spearheading efforts to determine what missions can be transferred to the Reserve and Air National Guard, Ogden said. Eighty percent of the analysis for each mission area should be finished by the end of the year.
In order to evaluate different force ratios, the TFC has created a model that takes into account variables such as mission, cost and possible “association” constructs — the different ways active, Reserve and Guard personnel and equipment can be mixed and integrated in a squadron, he said.
“We have 12 action officers — four from each component — that work very collaboratively with major commands, with the Guard, with the Reserve, with the headquarters staff,” Ogden said.
The service is already handing over more missions to the Reserves, James said. The Reserves will add three cyber units in fiscal year 2016, and its ownership of Predator and Reaper unmanned aircraft will increase.
Rumbaugh, however, is skeptical that the Air Force will propose a force mix close to the commission’s estimate.
“Although the Air Force has been more conciliatory, at the end of the day, there is a heavy bias toward the active force,” he said. “All of the decision makers belong to the active force.”
The service is moving forward on “continuum of service” initiatives that will make it easier for an airman or guardsman to transfer to a different component without derailing his or her career, Cathcart said. It recently stood up the Total Force Initiative executive committee, a three-star level body comprising the deputy chiefs of staff, the TFC generals and led by Lt. Gen. Stephen L. Hoog, the assistant vice chief of staff.
“What it really tries to get at is those legislative, organizational, policy and educational areas that sometimes have applied limitations or barriers on a real continuum of service,” Cathcart said. “Often there are different stovepipes that are created around the components, and so one of our jobs is to identify those and then try to help find ways to eliminate them as appropriate.”
The committee anticipates having a report delivered to Congress early next year, Ogden said. “The national commission came up with kind of an implementation timeline, so we’re looking at that and how well we match that, and that should solidify.”
Cathcart believes that most of the commission’s continuum of service recommendations will be realized in some way, he said.
The Air Force sees the value of continuum of service at an individual and operational level, Rumbaugh said. “There’s real value to allow people to move back and forth. The problem is that both the Guard and the active Air Force like locking people in their” component.
The service has tried to identify low-hanging fruit where systems or policies can quickly be changed to allow for better communication and less bureaucracy. One example is a two-year effort to merge the components’ separate recruiting systems into one, Cathcart said.
“The Reserve recruiter could have been trying to recruit somebody that really wasn’t wanting to get into the Reserve, they wanted to get into the active component. But the handoff was so much harder,” he said. “Now, they can just share the information within the system in order to move it forward.”
The Air Force also is doing away with stovepiped personnel and pay programs and has contracted for a single system, James said.
Some continuum of service initiatives will need more time to put into action because they require altering Title 10 and Title 32, the federal laws that outline the roles of the Reserve and Guard. Other initiatives necessitate coordination with the other services or Congress to pass legislation, the TFC generals said.
For instance, the Air Force needs congressional approval if it wants to loan aircraft among components, Ogden said. Some active-duty C-5 crews at Travis Air Force Base have been without planes to fly and maintain, because the aircraft is being upgraded to a newer model.
“The Air Force Reserve or the Guard is able to loan them airplanes, but the bureaucracy that is required at this point is very lengthy, time consuming and doesn’t react as agile as we need it to,” he said. “So we’re working legislative issues and policy issues to get that change.”
The TFI committee is also working with Congress to change legislation that restricts the Reserve component from training active-duty airmen, Ogden said. “It’s one of those things where it would be so great if it were easy to flip a switch, but it is a process.”
The national commission called for the wider use of integrated units, especially “active” associations in which active-duty pilots and maintainers jointly operate aircraft with the reserve components, but the Reserve or Guard retains responsibility for the equipment. It also called for integrating active associations’ chains of command, a concept the commission calls the “i-Wing.”
The A3/5 office, which oversees operations, plans and requirements, is studying the i-Wing concept, devising possible ways integrated units could conduct operations and working through chain-of-command issues, Cathcart said. The office is using the F-35’s arrival at Hill Air Force Base in Utah as a sort of “playspace” to map out different constructs.
Integration of active and reserve squadrons can only go so far if the service decides to retain separate chains of command, Rumbaugh said. The Air Force must also ensure that the structure of associated units is beneficial to the Guard.
“It’s great to say you want more associated units,” he said. “If every single associated unit is run by an Air Force colonel, and the Guard parts of it have no career path and no independence, well, you may have a good operational unit, but you’re not solving that basic political problem.”