Panel Recommends Air Force Shift More Duties to Guard, Reserve

By Sandra I. Erwin

The U.S. Air Force must change the way it divvies up resources and duties among its three components: the active-duty force, the Reserve and the Air National Guard,a panel of experts recommended Jan. 30.

The Air Force's financial picture — declining budgets and rising personnel costs — should compel service leaders to redistribute responsibilities from the active-duty force to the less expensive reserve components as soon as possible, said the panel, known as theNational Commission on the Structure of the Air Force. Congress created the commission a year ago to help solve contentious budget issues.

"The Air Force faces many challenges in meeting its national security mission within the resources currently envisioned," said the commission's final report. Reduced budgets, therefore, will not "permit the application of traditional methods of allocating missions, equipment and resources among the Air Force’s three components."

The panel — a congressionally mandated body of former government and military officials — discussed its proposal Jan. 30 with White House and congressional officials. How these recommendations might influence budget decisions remains to be seen. Air Force leaders such as Secretary Deborah Lee James have spoken recently about the service's intention to rely more on the Guard and Reserve, although they have not provided details.

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

The commission said its conclusions were drawn from factual evidence and were not influenced by Beltway politics. "After conducting 19 days of hearings involving 154 witnesses and oral public comments, and listening to currently serving airmen of almost all ranks from the three components at 13 installations throughout the country, the commission is convinced that the Air Force must change the way it organizes, aligns, and employs" its forces, the report said.  

The commission proposed several options for redistributing active and reserve personnel in areas such as space, intelligence, special operations, nuclear deterrence and training. These areas, the panel said, "could readily accommodate shifts because the associated core functions are predominantly manned by the active component." Major combat duties such as precision attack, global mobility, and combat support already are conducted under rotational schemes in which reserve and Guard units play a significant role.

In the field of cybersecurity, the reserve and Guard provide about 11,000 airmen, or about 43 percent of total manpower for this mission. A planned expansion of the Air Force's cybersecurity duties should be met by the reserve components, "which are well situated to recruit and retain from the specialized talent available in the commercial cyber labor market," the panel said.

"Recognizing that some missions must be performed by the active component, the Air Force can, and should, entrust as many missions as possible to its reserve component forces," the report said.

This should ease financial pressures on the Air Force because it will be able to rely on less expensive part-time reservists while reducing the active-duty ranks, the panel said. "This way, all components of the force will remain more ready and mission capable, and the Air Force will retain the capacity to surge its forces when needed." Also, shifting more capability to the reserve components would allow the Air Force to maintain closer links to communities and states, the panel said.

The commission addressed three issues that are considered “third rails” of force structure. One is the unrestrained authority of of overseas combatant commanders to request forces. "To mitigate stress on the force, the commission recommends that combatant commanders not be permitted to take an unconstrained view as they plan for the employment of air power in their theaters," said the report. "There is, and will be, only a finite amount of air, space, and cyber power the Air Force and its people can provide."

The second controversial issue is excess infrastructure, which Air Force leaders have sought to reduce, but their efforts have consistently been blocked by Congress. The commission said the Air Force and Congress should consider ways to reduce infrastructure "giving due consideration to the importance of community presence and the vital role played by the National Guard in carrying out missions for governors."

The other third rail is the Air Force's proposed retirement of aging aircraft fleets such as the A-10 attack warplane and KC-10 refueling tanker, which Congress also has resisted. "If the Air Force determines that the elimination of entire aircraft fleets or other missions is required, the commission recommends the development of a comprehensive plan that specifically addresses the locations and capabilities involved, the plan for future utilization of the airmen affected, and the means by which the mission capabilities that are lost will be replaced."

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, DOD Leadership

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