The Air Force is in the throes of a force reduction, but its exact magnitude is hard to pin down. In January, USAF officials pegged troop losses—through 2005—at 16,000. By April, the figure had risen to 18,000. By the end of May, it was closer to 24,000.
The Air Force has been over its authorized end strength of about 360,000 airmen since the Global War on Terror began. The expansion was acceptable as a temporary measure under the President’s declaration of a national emergency, but the service now must divest itself of the additional manpower. (See “The New Drawdown,” March, p. 50.) In the process, it must reshape its personnel structure to correct long-standing skill imbalances.
Now, Maj. Gen. Peter U. Sutton, USAF’s director of learning and force development, reports that the number of troops that the service must cut has grown, even in just a few months, because higher than expected numbers of troops are electing to re-enlist in the service.
Despite some predictions that the high pace of operations since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks would start to drive airmen out of the service and hamper recruiting, the opposite appears to be true. Recruiting and retention have improved recently, particularly since 9/11. “We see very strong recruiting and very strong retention,” said Sutton.
He noted that first-term, second-term, and career enlisted airmen retention rates have matched or exceeded Air Force goals. Over the same period, a rise in officer retention, measured by cumulative continuation rates (CCRs), has been equally impressive.
As a result, the service has to scale back recruitment and retain a smaller portion of eligible members in an effort to get down to its authorized end strength. The reduction comes after a decade-long drawdown that already has cost the service 233,000 members, or almost 40 percent of the strength it had in the late 1980s. In this smaller force, any adjustment has a significant impact.
After struggling for a number of years to recruit and retain members, the Air Force now finds itself having to turn away potential recruits and send some career members home early. At the same time, the service remains seriously short of officers and enlisted members in some chronically undermanned career fields.
To some degree, the Air Force’s current problems stem from its own success. Having improved its recruiting and retention rates, it now must refine its approach and concentrate not just on getting and holding people but on getting and holding people who can fill critical shortages.
To do this, the service has embarked on an effort called “force shaping.”
“ We want to ensure that we draw down smartly,” Lt. Gen. Richard E. Brown III, deputy chief of staff for personnel, told lawmakers earlier this year. He said USAF is addressing force shaping in two ways: first, by reducing personnel overages in most skills and, second, by shaping the remaining force to meet mission requirements.
No “Draconian Measures”
The goal in reducing the number of active duty members, said Brown, is to “avoid involuntary draconian measures” such as the reduction in force (RIF) and selective early retirement board (SERB) methods used during the drawdown of the early 1990s and earlier during the post-Vietnam reductions. The Air Force resorted to RIFs to throw people “out before their time and their desire” and SERBs to tell people when “they would retire,” said Brown.
“We want to avoid SERBs and RIFs,” he said, but emphasized that the service has “too many people in some career fields,” while it does not “have enough in others.”
Reducing its number of new recruits is one of the first steps USAF took in its force shaping effort. In its January announcement on the new cuts, the Air Force said that enlisted recruiting quotas would be cut from 37,000 this year to 35,600 in Fiscal 2005 and 34,500 in Fiscal 2006. By June 1, USAF officials had raised next year’s cut by another 11,600, making the new 2005 goal 24,000 recruits. A news release stated that officials expect “enlisted accessions rates to return to normal levels in Fiscal 2006.”
The decision not to make even larger reductions in accessions was a calculated one. “We are not going to draw back our accession numbers dramatically,” Sutton explained. “What happens when you do that is what we call the ‘bathtub effect,’ where all of a sudden we would have a very small entry year that would stay with us all through those people’s careers.”
There is no way to make up for that loss of personnel, said Sutton. “So, we have to be very careful not to mess too much with the front end,” he added.
The Air Force also has restructured its officer accession program. Because of higher numbers of individuals participating in Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps programs at colleges, the service reduced the number of officer candidates it commissions through Officer Training School.
The service uses its OTS program as a flexible commissioning program to offset such increases in the number of commissions from AFROTC and the Air Force Academy. OTS had been producing new officers beyond its peak capacity for several years.
Applications for both AFROTC, traditionally the largest source of new officers, and the academy have been up since 2000. Sutton said that AFROTC had about 7,800 applications in 2000, while this year it has received 16,258. At the academy, applications rose from 9,500 in 2000 to 12,300 for 2004.
Sutton called those “pretty significant” increases and said they enable the Air Force to have “better selectivity” in its officer candidates.
Another force shaping measure aims to limit retention of airmen in overpopulated career fields.
During the lean years in recruiting and retention, the Air Force had given “a career job reservation to virtually every enlisted person who wanted to re-enlist,” said Sutton. Now the service plans to be more selective, specifically targeting those Air Force Specialty Codes (AFSCs) that have shortages.
If airmen are not in the 30 or so AFSCs that remain under the career job reservation program, said Sutton, they will have to retrain to remain in the service. “This means finding a place where they can qualify and then retrain, or they won’t be allowed to re-enlist,” he explained.
The service still will offer sizeable bonuses to people who stay longer in critical skills, but Sutton said there will be cutbacks in some programs. “In the latest revision of the bonuses,” he said, “we have actually reduced the number of selective re-enlistment bonuses [SRBs] that are going to various enlisted career fields.”
Sutton emphasized, “We’re still offering a lot of money to people to re-enlist, but the numbers of [eligible] AFSCs are on the downswing.”
Certain career fields have seen their SRB amounts increase. “Some of our greatest needs are for linguists,” said Sutton. “We are looking for air and ground linguists to stay with us, and, certainly, we try to recruit them as well.” Other shortage fields include pararescue, combat control, and air traffic control.
Because of shortages in these and other critical career fields, the service is continuing to accept some prior-service personnel for return to duty. However, the relatively open-door policy of a few years ago is no more. When the service faced recruiting and retention challenges several years ago, it expanded its accession of prior-enlisted members to about 1,000 per year, said Sutton. The Air Force can no longer welcome back as many as previously, he said.
“We don’t have the need to reach out and get as many prior-service people,” explained Sutton, adding that the number for next year probably will be in the “150 to 200 range.”
Among those prior-service personnel the Air Force still wants are those from the special tactics field, whether they had served in USAF or one of the other services. Sutton said that former military personnel with special forces-type experience “who would like to come into the Air Force and be a combat controller or be in a tactical control party” are in demand.
“Overall retention is very solid in an aggregate sense across the force, but we still have specific specialties that we have concerns about,” said Sutton. Just as the service is refocusing its SRBs for specific enlisted specialties, it has used targeted bonuses for certain officer categories, primarily its rated force.
The Air Force, for years, has experienced difficulty in retaining pilots and navigators. Even there, things are changing. “We’re doing much better in rated retention than we have in the past,” said Sutton. “We judge that by the numbers of people who take or elect to take aviation career bonuses. We anticipate that we will continue to do well in the short term.”
Sutton predicted that there would be “a little bit of a dip a few years out, and then, over the longer haul, we will do well again.” He attributed part of that upswing, though, to the 10-year commitment the service now levies on pilot trainees. Previously, the commitment was eight years.
Even the traditional problem of losing pilots to the airlines seems to have eased.
“My understanding is that airline hiring has slowed down pretty dramatically post 9/11,” said Sutton. The airlines had “a lot of pilots who were furloughed, so if they were hiring, they would be taking those furloughed pilots first,” he said, adding, “That certainly helps us, I think.”
However, Sutton also credited the upsurge in patriotism, pay raises, and other benefits.
A Non-Draconian Measure
In announcing the troop cuts, Air Force leaders emphasized that they wanted to try to give every airman who wants to stay in the service the opportunity to do so. One way they intend to honor that commitment is to offer airmen the chance to cross-train into shortage career fields.
The goal is to adjust skill mixes to better meet today’s operations. To remain on active duty, some members will have to retrain to more needed skills.
Theoretically, the program will be voluntary. “It depends on whether or not we get enough volunteers, but, historically, we have not gotten enough,” said Sutton, adding that there is “a certain reluctance” to leave a known type of work and start over. “That is understandable,” he said. “If I came into a career field, and I’ve been trained in that and I feel comfortable with it, generally I want to stay in it.”
The Air Force is prepared to implement an involuntary or mandatory program if necessary. “If we don’t get enough volunteers, we would tap people on the shoulder and say, ‘We’re going to have to ask you to move,’ ” said Sutton.
Currently, the mandatory retraining program focuses on the three mid-noncommissioned officer ranks: staff, technical, and master sergeant. The Air Force has targeted about 1,300 of these midlevel NCOs. USAF said that many NCOs had elected to volunteer for retraining or to separate from the service. However, on May 7, the service announced it had notified 88 of the “most vulnerable” airmen to select a new career field or it would select one for them.
“What happens is that people might not volunteer under a purely volunteer program,” said Sutton, “but, when you have a mandatory program staring you in the face, all of a sudden you become a volunteer, because if you don’t volunteer, you might get forced to a place that you don’t want to go.”
There are certain shortage career fields that take nothing but volunteers.
Included in that category are enlisted aircrew skills. “We don’t put a nonvolunteer into the air,” stated Sutton. He added, “It wouldn’t serve us very well to force people to go.” The same can be said for special tactics skills. “Can you imagine forcing a person to be a pararescueman, where you have to swim and jump out of airplanes and all that?” he asked.
Sutton conceded that getting volunteers to cross-train can be “difficult,” but, he said, “all in all, I would say we are meeting the numbers we need pretty much in our retraining program.”
As part of its force shaping effort, the Air Force also has opened the door wider for both officer and enlisted airmen to voluntarily transfer into one of its two air reserve components—the Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve Command. “We’ve opened up the opportunities to really almost anybody to apply,” said Sutton.
The Air Force is controlling this migration, though, based on the “health” of individual career fields, explained Sutton. If an airman wants to transfer, but the service turns down the request because of active duty needs, the transfer request will be held. “We’ll keep those applications on file,” said Sutton, “so if we can’t let a person go right now, depending on how well we are doing as … we look at our end strength situation, we can go back … and say, ‘Well, we couldn’t let you out six months ago, but now things have changed slightly and would you still be interested in going?’ ”
The reserve option also will be offered to some future officers before they come on active duty. Some officer candidates can ask to be commissioned directly into the reserves. Again, said Sutton, this option will be “limited to certain career fields or career types.” For instance, he said, because the Air Force needs scientists and engineers, the program probably would not be open to them.
Stress Not a Deterrent
As the Air Force readjusts its end strength, Brown said, the service is “working deliberately to measure stress and make informed reallocation decisions within the existing force.”
Many lawmakers have expressed concern that the seeming steady state of high operations would lead to recruiting and retention problems. They question whether the current end strength is enough to meet future needs.
Air Force leaders acknowledge that the force is stressed, but they say it is stressed unevenly. The force shaping measures they have introduced will “relieve the stress” and “transform that force so that it can more effectively meet the demands of the Global War on Terror,” Michael L. Dominguez, USAF’s assistant secretary for manpower and reserve affairs, told Senators in March.
“The Air Force is under stress, but it is not in crisis,” asserted Dominguez. He added, “We have a plan, and we are executing to our plan.”
Air Force officials point to the service’s current recruiting and retention record to bolster their position that the ongoing demands of overseas deployments and the tempo of operations has not led to a wholesale flight from active duty.
“The effects of the strain would show up to some degree in retention rates, and we haven’t seen a downturn in retention,” said Sutton, adding, “In the last couple of years, we have had almost unbelievable retention. So, you have to look at that by peeling back the onion and saying, ‘There must be a lot of different factors involved.’ ”
One of those factors could be activation of Stop-Loss, which the service imposed twice since 9/11. The first one initially was servicewide for almost a year, while the second, during Operation Iraqi Freedom, was more limited and of much shorter duration. Service leaders agree that, during Stop-Loss, they could not accurately measure retention.
Now, Brown told lawmakers, the numbers are “pretty accurate” and “we’re feeling pretty solid about retention.”
Other largely unmeasurable factors could play a role. Sutton said, “I think a certain number of people re-evaluated what was important to them.” They concluded, he said, that “they are serving in a time when the nation really had a need.”
Having said that, he did not discount the effect a “jolt” to the economy can have on career intentions. He emphasized, “But, I do believe that some people who were in Stop-Loss who intended to leave changed their minds and decided it was worth staying.”
Bruce D. Callander is a contributing editor of Air Force Magazine. He served tours of active duty during World War II and the Korean War and was editor of Air Force Times from 1972 to 1986. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Big Fella,” appeared in the February issue.