Air Force, Guard, Reserve: Can't They All Just Get Along?

By Sandra I. Erwin

The National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force has the tough job of figuring out how to size and organize the Air Force for a future of shrinking budgets.

The panel’s final proposal is due Feb. 1. But there are no guarantees that the work of the commission will help end the bitter budget war between the Air Force and its reserve components.

During the group’s final hearing Jan. 9, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told the commissioners that the next Air Force budget, for fiscal year 2015, will “rely more heavily on the Guard and Reserve.” Her comments should be reassuring to lawmakers who have pushed back on proposed cuts to the Guard. The devil, as always, will be in the details.

The commission — a congressionally mandated body of former government and military officials — will produce detailed recommendations to the president and Congress on how the Air Force and its three components — the active, Reserve, and Guard — should divvy up their missions and resources.

There are currently about 330,000 active-duty airmen and 354,000 in the Guard and Reserves.

James, who was nominated Aug. 1 and sworn in Dec. 20, takes over at a time of extraordinarily tense relationships between the service and members of Congress over budget and policy issues.

Mending fences is said to be high on her agenda. She will also have to keep fighting budget battles that started two years ago when Air Force leaders recommended force-structure cuts that angered lawmakers. James’ predecessor Michael Donley ran into a buzz saw when the service proposed cuts that hit Air National Guard units and weapon programs in members’ home states.

Russell Rumbaugh, defense budget analyst at the Stimson Center, noted that the Air Force submitted a fiscal year 2013 budget in which the active duty force absorbed 17 percent of the unit cuts, even though 67 percent of Air Force personnel are on active duty.

“Congress reacted furiously, forced a compromise, and created a National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force to report back before any further decisions are made,” Rumbaugh wrote in an op-ed article.

Congress established the commission in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2013.

During the Jan. 9 hearing, James talked about plans to bring the components closer together into a “total force.” One initiative, known as “continuum of service” will seek to retain skilled airmen for a longer time of service to make for a smoother transition from active to reserve and Guard status. The Air Force also will create “associations, or associate units” with guardsmen and reservists operating and maintaining equipment with active-duty counterparts.

Over the past year, commission members have dug into the contentious issue of whether it makes financial sense to rely more on part-time reservists and guardsmen because they cost less than full-time airmen. To come up with credible estimates, commissioners enlisted the help of Pentagon accountants. 

Scott Comes, the acting director of the Defense Department’s office of cost assessment and program evaluation testified about methods and metrics used to calculate personnel costs, in war and peacetime.

Any estimates of how to size the force also would have to take into account that the active component has to be large enough to ensure it can supply enough members to the Guard and Reserve.   

The commission conducted hearing across the United States and heard from the leaders of the active Air Force, National Guard and Air Force Reserve, the Air Staff, Pentagon budget officials, the National Governors Association, U.S. congressmen and state legislators, military association leaders, and the Defense Business Board.

The Air Force is under mounting pressure to cut costs, even though the Pentagon was temporarily relieved from sequester cuts in 2014 and 2015. It has to modernize aircraft and equipment as personnel costs continue to grow. One of the problems is that the Air Force has had difficulties measuring the true cost of active, versus reserve, component personnel.

The definition of “deployment” is another hot-button issue in the Air Force. Volunteering for overseas assignments is not the same as official mobilizations, and in some assignments such as natural disaster relief, Reserve and Guard members conduct missions that do not count as deployments. “We need to work on that definition,” said Chief Master Sgt. Cameron B. Kirksey, command chief master sergeant of Air Force Reserve Command.

The eight commissioners include four appointed by the president and four by the chair and ranking members of the Senate and House armed services committees.

Three served in the Air Force: Janine Davidson, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for plans; Raymond E. Johns Jr., recently retired commander of Air Mobility Command, and Harry M. "Bud" Wyatt III, recently retired director of the Air National Guard. The commission's vice chair, Erin Conaton, served as undersecretary of the Air Force. F. Whitten Peters was a secretary of the Air Force during the Clinton administration. Margaret C. Harrell is a senior social scientist at RAND Corp. and R.L. (Les) Brownlee is a retired Army colonel. The chairman, Dennis McCarthy is a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general and former assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs.

The commission will release its report to the public, but much of the sensitive data will be set aside in a classified annex.

The commission expects to brief Congress Jan. 30, said J. Eric Minton, a commission spokesman.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, DOD Leadership

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