The Air Force scored a major victory on Capitol Hill last month when its prized F-22 next-generation fighter jet was spared from the budget axe.
But to secure billions of dollars for the F-22 and other big-ticket aircraft procurements, the Air Force did more than just lobby. It slashed its active-duty ranks by 40,000.
It was purely a financial decision, said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley.
By choosing hardware over people, the Air Force wanted to send a strong message that it can no longer postpone the modernization of the fleet, officials said during last month’s annual gathering of the Air Force Association in Washington, D.C.
At the three-day event — typically dominated by talks on the Air Force’s latest and greatest weapons of war — much of the discussion turned to the “drawdown” and what it all means.
Moseley painted a dire picture of the Air Force finances. Rising fuel prices, soaring health-care and retirement costs, higher-than-expected inflation rates, and the spiraling costs of operating an aging fleet have eroded the service’s buying power, he said. Moseley estimated that the Air Force’s five-year budget is potentially $200 billion shy of what it needs.
A reduction of 40,000 airmen, which still leaves the Air Force with 350,000 members, was the only way to stop draining procurement programs to pay for personnel and operations costs, Moseley said. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost the Air Force about $200 million a day, although much of that money is recovered through emergency war appropriations.
“All my predecessors were forced to take money out of the investment account. So we have the oldest Air Force in the history of the service. So we are taking the 40,000 people to fund the investment account,” said Moseley.
The drawdown also should be viewed in a larger context, he said. It is one piece of a broader plan to “move in an entirely different direction in terms of organizing, training and equipping.”
The change in direction meant the Air Force could part with 40,000 people who primarily were in non-combat jobs. Everyone in the Air Force should be trained and ready to deploy, Moseley said. Currently, about 86 percent of the force meets that requirement. Even after the cutbacks are factored in, 14 percent of the Air Force is not combat ready. “Our challenge is to get at a more sizeable piece of the Air Force that is ready to move out,” he said. “We still have to reach that 14 percent that is not ready to deploy.” Conversely, certain units in the Air Force, particularly the special operations forces, have been on multiple deployments since 2001. Those units will receive additional people and equipment.
The Air Force currently has 263 occupational specialties, which will be reduced significantly, said Moseley. “I believe we can get down to 100,” he said. The problem with having so many specialties is that they carry high-cost overhead in the form of schoolhouses and administrators.
According to Moseley, the next decade will see an Air Force with 10 percent fewer fighters, 5 percent fewer airlift planes, 20 percent more rescue helicopters, 30 percent more long-range strike bombers, 10 percent more tankers, 5 percent more training aircraft, and considerably more surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, including doubling the unmanned aircraft fleet.
The Air Force is seeking to remove 1,094 of its 6,000 aircraft from service during the next five years, but lawmakers — worried about losing jobs in their districts — have barred the service from retiring more than one-third of those airplanes.
Besides the financial woes, Air Force officials also have to contend with what they perceive is a lack of appreciation for the service’s role in current operations, which is possibly one reason why they had to downsize.
“I’m often asked what we do, usually by fairly ignorant people,” said Moseley. Many people don’t realize that the Air Force has 30,000 personnel deployed to Central Command on any given day. “That’s more people than the Marine Corps,” he added.
To help boost its public image, the Air Force intends to court the news media. Moseley soon will host a “strategic communications summit,” where he will invite representatives of media organizations to discuss ways to improve outreach.
“We are doing a lot, and I don’t think we are getting a lot of credit,” said Gen. Ronald E. Keys, head of the Air Combat Command.
The Air Force, for example, entirely restructured the training program for aviators heading to Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of restricting the combat drills to traditional dog-fighting ranges such as those at Nellis, Nev., airmen are training with Army forces at Fort Irwin, Calif., and Fort Polk, La. “We have our people do these as the graduation exercises before they go to Iraq and Afghanistan,” Keys said.
The training of enlisted airmen also is undergoing major changes, said Gen. William R. Looney, who runs the Air Education and Training Command. The goal is for airmen to acquire all-around combat skills so they can engage in ground fights if necessary.
“At least 60 to 70 percent of basic training is combat skills,” Looney said. Basic training, which currently lasts six and a half weeks, will be extended by two weeks. That will include 40 hours of “combat life saving skills,” which traditionally only are taught to battlefield medics.
More importantly, the Air Force is trying to reshape the “mindset” of incoming airmen so they don’t assume they will be out of harm’s way just because they are in the Air Force. On the second day after a trainee arrives at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, he or she receives an M-16 rifle, although the firing pin gets removed, Looney said. “They live and breathe with this M-16. If you are caught without it, there’s a penalty to pay,” he said. “It changes the mindset. They are combatants. We are all now in harm’s way.”
The members of the Air Force who are most heavily engaged in ground combat — the special operations units — are the only ones being spared from the drawdown. In fact, they will see substantial growth, said Lt. Gen. Michael Wooley, leader of the Air Force Special Operations Command.
“We are hiring,” he said. “We are doubling our capability in foreign internal defense.” Foreign internal defense specialists work with allied nations to root out terrorists and rogue groups. AFSOC has 170 job openings for qualified candidates with language, aviation and maintenance skills.
Unmanned aircraft operators also are in high demand. AFSOC plans to increase its fleet of Predator UAVs — which are organized in “orbits” of four aircraft each – from six to 25 or even 30, said Wooley.
Proof of AFSOC’s enhanced clout is the Air Force decision to turn over one of its major training sites — Melrose Range, at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. — to the special operators.
“Melrose will be our range,” said Wooley. “We can do exercises without having to schedule with anyone. That’s huge for us.”
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