Sizing Up the Air Guard

July 1, 1998

Today’s Air Force–the Total Air Force–is busier than it ever has been in peacetime. As a result, Air National Guardsmen are now being deployed around the world side by side with their active duty counterparts, shouldering an increasing portion of the burden of contingency operations and deployments.

In the 1990s, ANG units have taken part in numerous operations–Northern and Southern Watch over Iraq; Joint Guard, Deny Flight, and Provide Promise in Bosnia; and Coronet Nighthawk and Coronet Oak in Latin America. The most recent example of the Air Guard’s mounting contribution came with the buildup of US forces in the Persian Gulf region in February in response to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s obstruction of UN weapons inspectors. The Air Guard sent four fighter units to the Gulf. In addition, its members were instrumental in helping to execute the rapid strategic airlift of ground forces.

“During the height of that deployment, the commander of Air Mobility Command [Gen. Walter Kross] called just to let me know how proud he was of our Total Air Force,” said Maj. Gen. Paul A. Weaver Jr., ANG’s director, in an interview with Air Force Magazine. “He had expected to fill 25 percent of his extra personnel requirements with Guard and Reserve volunteers, and instead they filled 55 percent of his requirement.”

Weaver added, “While the Air Guard is close to being fully tasked right now, we’re exploring ways we can do even more to relieve the active Air Force’s optempo.”

In stark contrast with the experience of other services, senior Air Force leaders have shown that they won’t hesitate to call on the ANG for operations across the spectrum of missions, from tactical airlift and aerial refueling to combat air patrol and operations involving bombers. What makes the close partnership possible, say service officials, is trust. Over the decades, ANG leaders have been at the table on important Air Force decisions and know they are regarded as members of the first team.

Turning Point

Many believe that the 1991 Persian Gulf War cemented that already strong bond and turned any remaining skeptics into true believers. The Army decided not to activate Army National Guard brigades to “round out” two combat divisions for desert duty; it was a fateful step that has poisoned relations between the Army and its Guard component ever since. In contrast, the Air Guard’s proved its ability to rapidly deploy and fight alongside active duty units, thereby putting to rest any lingering doubts about the actual capabilities of ANG units.

Brig. Gen. Craig R. McKinley, ANG’s deputy director, argues that the desert war was a pivotal event. “I do believe Desert Shield and Desert Storm were a turning point,” said McKinley. “The active duty forces saw firsthand what we could bring to the table. That broke down any myths about us just being ‘weekend warriors,’ and we’ve been helping to reduce the active Air Force’s optempo ever since.”

McKinley is a past national vice president, national director, and state president in the Air Force Association and a former member of its Executive Committee.

Not long ago, Gen. Michael E. Ryan, USAF’s Chief of Staff, stepped off an airplane at Incirlik AB, Turkey, and encountered an unusual scene. What began years earlier as a “temporary” mission to enforce a no-fly zone over northern Iraq had become an open-ended commitment placing major strain on Air Force units. On any given day, more than 2,000 USAF men and women were working at Incirlik, most on temporary duty, and the Air Force has flown more sorties over northern Iraq than it had during the entire Korean War. Yet Ryan’s first sight at Incirlik was an airman who walked up and placed a lei over his head. “It turned out that a Hawaiian Air National Guard unit was on temporary assignment at Incirlik, flying F-15s over northern Iraq,” said Ryan.

The event underscored the beneficial effect of such deployments on badly stretched active duty USAF units. “Right now,” said the Chief of Staff, “the … Guard and Reserve are absorbing roughly 8 to 10 percent of our operational tempo, which relieves the optempo on our active duty forces. That’s pretty good.”

The exhausting pace of Air Force operations, coupled with increased time away from families, is considered the No. 1 cause for a troubling exodus of active duty pilots in recent years. In a survey of pilots leaving service last year, some 19 percent cited optempo as the primary reason, followed by quality-of-life concerns and recruitment by civilian airlines. A major survey of 206,000 Air Force military and civilian personnel released in March also indicated that all troops are feeling the effect of rising optempo.

Rising Indicators

Of those personnel who went on TDY during the 12 months proceeding the survey, for instance, enlisted personnel averaged 60 days away from home while officers reported 56. Pilots were away from home by far the longest, with an average of 83 days. Each of those indicators has risen in recent years.

Air Force leaders are thus studying reorganization options that might lower operations tempo and spread the strain of deployments across a broader array of units. The Air National Guard features prominently in those studies.

Options under consideration would give the Air Guard more flexibility in filling a mission requirement. One calls for the “rainbowing” of personnel from different units that operate similar equipment and rotating in units and personnel in shorter intervals. The plan would reduce the time Air Guardsmen and -women spend away from their own families and civilian jobs.

“Flexibility is the key,” McKinley said. “If we’re free to schedule and rotate people for two-, four-, or six-week temporary duty assignments, then we can help alleviate the optempo that is troubling the active duty units and still maintain our credibility with our two primary constituents–families and employers.”

McKinley added that, as Guard units become more familiar with various mission assignments, they don’t need as much time for preparation.

“When we first began augmenting operations,” McKinley recalled, “on-site commanders wanted people there for longer periods of time to familiarize them with the area. Now some of these units are going back for the second, third, or even fourth time, and they can adapt to the mission with a shorter work up. The types of flying and missions we’re conducting are also very much in line with the training back home.”

However, with select Air National Guard crews already away from home for more than 100 days annually in some cases, and 6,000 Air Guard personnel presently on deployment, Guard leaders know that they may be approaching the practical limits of a part-time force.

“We’re already well beyond the days when the Air Guard trained one weekend a month plus two weeks a year,” said Weaver. “We are stretching the limits. When people ask me how I manage these competing demands, I joke that when a guy’s wife, employer, and Guard boss are all mad at me equally, I probably have it about right. We all question, however, how much we can stress this crown jewel without damaging it.”

The 111,633 men and women and 1,200 aircraft of the Air National Guard already represent a pillar of the Total Air Force. Except when there has been a federal activation, the Air Guard is under the direction of state governors who rely on them to help maintain public order and safety. In recent years, the Air Guard has conducted relief missions to victims of several major hurricanes, for example.

In its federal role, the Air Guard provides 100 percent of the fighter-interceptor force. Other major contributions include providing 44 percent of the Air Force’s tactical airlift forces; 43 percent of KC-135 air refueling forces; 33 percent of the fighter force; 28 percent of air rescue forces; 27 percent of the aeromedical evacuation force; 10 percent of the bomber force; and 8 percent of strategic airlift.

Air Guard crews likewise fly virtually all of the Air Force’s aircraft, from C-5 and C-141 strategic airlifters and B-1 bombers to F-15, F-16, and A-10 fighter aircraft.

Highest Retention

Despite those responsibilities, and the burden on members of being citizens as well as airmen, the Air Guard boasts by far the best retention figures of any reserve component of any armed service. In 1997, the Air Guard suffered only 10.1 percent total attrition vs. 19 percent for the Air Force Reserve, 17.7 percent for the Army National Guard, 29.8 percent for the US Naval Reserve, and 27.7 percent for the US Marine Corps Reserve.

Ironically, the spate of real-world deployments that are wearing on active duty personnel have been embraced by many Air Guard personnel who may have joined the service to add a little adventure to their workaday lives.

“We’re the busiest of all reserve components, yet our reenlistment rates are the highest,” Weaver pointed out. “I think that’s partly because we’ve come such a long way from the old days of flying around the flag pole at the local base. We’re involved in real-world missions around the globe.”

He went on, “Think about it. We’ve gone from the days of Gen. Curtis LeMay, who never thought a part-time airman could fly the KC-135, to the point today where we [the ANG] have the majority of the Air Force inventory. We also have almost as many F-16 fighters as the active force.”

Many USAF pilots who are leaving active duty service have found a home in the Air Guard. That trend, coupled with a recent doubling of the number of pilots the Air Guard annually sends to flight school, has helped the ANG to avoid personnel shortages that have plagued active duty units in recent years.

McKinley sees other positive features as well. “One of the benefits of having a mix of prior service people and those enticed into service by tuition assistance and other recruiting tools provided by the states is a certain balance,” he said. “Our people tend to have very rich and full lives, balancing family, civilian jobs, and Guard duty. Our retention, recruiting, and quality of life are all in pretty good synch right now, and that keeps morale high.”

“How ready are we?” Weaver recently asked a gathering of top ANG leaders. “The highest C-status of any component–active or reserve–in the entire DoD. … Our flying units collectively are near 90 percent C1 or C2 [the two highest categories]. We are the only component of the entire DoD that can boast of that.”

Given the unusually high operations tempo, however, Air Guard leaders are keeping a close eye on readiness and personnel indicators for any signs of strain. For instance, figures showed a recent increase in “cannibalization” rates of aircraft, and the Guard’s “combat capable” rate (C2 or higher on the readiness rating scale), though still high at nearly 90 percent, has dropped from 97 percent in 1996.

No Anxiety-Yet

“That drop does give me some cause for concern, but I don’t hear warning bells yet,” said Weaver. “When your optempo goes up, it’s natural for your readiness to dip down. I would get concerned if I saw that downward trend continue, but I think we’re sort of bottoming out in terms of optempo, which mirrors the active Air Force.”

According to Weaver, ANG leaders are only too aware of problems–engine problems, particularly in the C-130, A-10, and F-16 fleets. Despite US Air Force-wide engine and engine spare parts shortages, readiness hasn’t taken a dramatic hit.

However, he warned, as budget constraints on USAF continue, finding the money for flying hours, maintenance, and spare parts will become a challenge. “This is a Total Force-wide problem,” Weaver said. “You can’t do more with less. Fact is, you can’t do the same with less. I expect our C-status to reflect that.”

Weaver said that modernization of ANG’s fighter force represents his No. 1 short-term concern. However, his longer range concerns focus on the Air Guard’s KC-135 engine modernization and continuation of the C-130J program to provide replacements for an aging C-130 fleet.

He said he also will take steps to make the ANG’s B-1B bombers at McConnell AFB, Kan., and Robins AFB, Ga., more usable in theater combat. “I am confident,” said Weaver, “that the ANG can play a critical part in helping the Air Force find combat employment opportunities for B-1s.”

Given the delicate balance that exists between optempo, readiness, and personnel, however, ANG leaders carefully weigh any proposals calling for it to absorb more active duty missions or force structure. For instance, largely as a result of the success of the Air Guard’s 184th Bomb Wing at McConnell in maintaining and flying the B-1 bomber, the General Accounting Office recently recommended that the Air Force could save money by transitioning more B-1 aircraft to the Guard.

“The GAO basically said that, because the Air Guard has such a stable and mature maintenance workforce and the B-1 is so maintenance intensive, the Air Force should consider the option of moving more B-1s to the Air Guard,” Weaver explained. “We had a similar success in the past with turning around maintenance with the F-4.”

No Cure-All

There is a limit, though. Weaver said, “Where it makes sense and will save the Air Force money to bring force structure into the Guard, we should consider it, but the Air National Guard is not the answer to everything that ails the Air Force.”

As the regular Army and its National Guard component have continued to engage in acrimonious and very public disagreements about missions, resourcing levels, and force structure, a number of experts looked to the Air Force and Air Guard for the secret of their successful partnership.

Army analysts argue that there is a natural transfer of skills for pilots in the civilian and military sectors. There are no civilian equivalents to driving a tank in fast-paced maneuver warfare. The Army also has a greater share of its overall force structure in its reserve component than the Air Force does.

However, disputes between the Army and its Guard component feature a persistent, palpable mistrust that is missing in relations between regular Air Force and Air Guard leaders. It is not that they don’t have disagreements. They do. Rather, it is that their disagreements seem never to be marred by speculation about each other’s ulterior motives.

“You can point to the fact that we [the ANG] are resourced properly, or trained to the same standard [as the regular Air Force], but the most important ingredient to our relationship is the respect shown to the Air National Guard by our mother service,” said Weaver.

He went on, “That’s not to say we don’t have differences with the Air Force. I’m the first to say that we do have our differences. What separates us from some other reserve components is that we always have the opportunity to voice our concerns and give our arguments. And when all is said and done behind closed doors, the Air National Guard and Air Force have agreed to move forward with one voice. That’s the key to our success.”

James Kitfield is the defense correspondent for National Journal in Washington. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Guard Controversies,” appeared in the April 1998 issue.