By Sandra I. Erwin
The math is still a bit fuzzy on exactly how much money the U.S. Air Force could save if it shifted jobs from the active-duty force to the National Guard and Reserve. But there are, for sure, big savings to be had, insists retired Marine Corps general Dennis M. McCarthy.
McCarthy, chairman of the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force, pressed his case during a meeting with reporters Jan. 31 following the release of the panel’s provocative report, which calls for a significant transfer of responsibilities from the active to the reserve force.
Air Force leaders have wrestled for years over ways to cope with financial pressures, such as the rising cost of airmen compensation and benefits, and the impact that these programs could have on other portions of the service’s budget. They worry that, in the face of flat or declining budgets, the cost of people will eat into big-ticket weapons that the Air Force wants to buy over the coming decades.
The commission is offering the Air Force a relatively straightforward fix: Shift the Air Force component mix from the current 69 percent active and 31 percent Reserve to 58 percent active and 42 percent Reserve. This would affect about 36,600 airmen and yield estimated savings of $2 billion per year in manpower costs with no reduction in total force end strength.
“We are showing them a way to make manpower savings so they free up money for readiness and modernization,” McCarthy said.
The cost of the all-volunteer force — and whether it is financially sustainable as the United States reduces government spending — has been a contentious issue for several years. Although the share of the defense budget allocated to personnel expenses has stayed relatively stable at about one-third, the size of the force has shrunk over the past decade as the cost of each individual service member has risen considerably.
The commission did not weigh in on the larger questions of the affordability of the all-volunteer force, but McCarthy noted that the issue is causing increasing angst at the Defense Department. “There is much greater recognition across the Defense Department of the ‘fully burdened cost of people,’” he said.
In the Air Force, particularly, there is a clear desire to find a reasonable equilibrium between personnel and modernization costs, and the commission’s proposal lays out a roadmap, McCarthy said. Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, who testified before the commission, appeared “not only open but anxious” to embrace these recommendations and “find ways in which the Air Force could make the best use of its talent pool,” said McCarthy. “The opportunity is there,” he said. “We’ve done just about all we can do.”
Plans to reallocate missions and resources more equitably among the components are not new in the Air Force. The concept of “total force” has been embraced strongly by service leaders, McCarthy said, but the commission’s report “puts them in a position to take the next step.”
One perennial obstacle to reform is the military’s hidebound culture, he said. “In the Air Force, the traditional thinking is ‘We’ve got it about right,’” McCarthy added. “That’s not uncommon for any institution. We’re suggesting some nontraditional thinking.”
Military analyst Russell Rumbaugh, who appeared before the commission last year, called the panel’s proposals “very bold.” He said the report takes the integration of active and reserve forces much farther than anyone had expected.
“Are the Reserve and Guard cheaper? This subject has been hotly debated for more than a year,” said Rumbaugh, a senior associate at the Stimson Center. One problem with the commission’s conclusions is that it is hard to make an apples-to-apples analysis of the cost of people in each component. “You can’t get a direct numerical comparison,” Rumbaugh said Jan. 30 at an American Security Project forum.
The assertion that reserve forces can do the job for less is a “particularly important statement from this commission,” he said.
Congress created the panel after the Air Force submitted a controversial fiscal year 2013 budget, in which it dramatically cut the Guard and Reserve while preserving the active force structure.
“This commission is emphatic that the Guard and Reserve are a better deal,” he said. “It’s a very powerful argument.”
The commission’s work has sparked speculation that the other branches of the military will, too, consider changes in their full-time and part-time mix. The Army, particularly, is in the midst of such discussion as it tries to cut personnel costs.
McCarthy stressed that the commission’s findings are not to be extrapolated to other military services, although the spirit of the recommendations would be “worth taking a look at” by the Army. “The principles would be useful to any service,” he said.
Considering that Guard and Reserve members are drawn from the active-duty ranks, there is in each service an “irreducible minimum” of active-duty forces below which they should not go, noted McCarthy, who is a former assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs. “There is a floor in every service, and it is likely to be different for each one.” For the Air Force, his best guess is about 55 percent.
Commission members will be spending the next 90 days briefing Pentagon officials on their recommendations.
Retired Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett, president of the National Guard Association of the United States, said the commission’s proposal answers some of the questions about how the military can keep its readiness with declining budgets. “As one of the commissioners, R.L. Brownlee, a former acting Army secretary, said, ‘If you have the same level of readiness and you’re less expensive, it only makes sense to transition some of the missions [to the Air Guard and Air Force Reserve].’”