Stabilizing the Force

Aug. 1, 2002

The war on terrorism has inspired many former Air Force members to return to active service; patriotic fervor has helped recruiting in general. To the surprise of some officials, it also has caused some members who had planned to leave service to change their minds and stay.

Beginning in September 2001, all active and reserve members were barred from separating and retiring, under Stop-Loss rules enacted due to wartime demands. When USAF began removing Stop-Loss restraints, service officials braced for a flood of losses; by April, about a third of members in all skill areas were free to leave.

While there have been some separations, the feared heavy exodus did not occur. Even more encouraging was what happened among members who previously had said they would separate or retire as soon as Stop-Loss was lifted.

“What we have found was … surprisingly positive,” said Lt. Gen. Richard E. Brown III, USAF’s deputy chief of staff for personnel, in a late April interview.

“The current data show that of the officers who had elected to separate or retire before Stop-Loss, 85 percent have left or still plan to. But 15 percent have said, ‘No, I want to pull my papers. I want to stay.'” Normally, only about 2.3 percent of officers who have made the decision to leave have a change of heart later.

“On the enlisted side, the numbers are similar,” Brown continued. About 89 percent said they would retire as planned, but the other 11 percent changed their minds. That rate normally runs about three or four percent. “So, again, the figures are very positive that people are wanting to stay with the Air Force,” he said.

It’s not clear whether the trend will continue. The Air Force released additional skills from Stop-Loss in late June. Restrictions remained for three officer career fields (special operations pilot and navigator and security forces) and eight enlisted fields (flight engineer, airfield management, operations resource management, air traffic control, intelligence applications, pararescue, fuels, and security forces).

Uncertain, too, is what will happen when the service releases the reserve forces mobilized after Sept. 11. Some 38,000 Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command members were called up or volunteered for active duty and most remained aboard.

“We’re attempting to reduce the number of folks that we have mobilized,” said Brown. “Part of that is trying to determine what is the need for the future, what is the next step. As we get clearer guidance on that, we’ll know what kind of people we need to conduct the next operations, and hopefully we can also bring our Guard and Reserve back to the normal state.

“We have to normalize ourselves somewhere in the future to bring those folks back into their hometowns. For example, some of the security forces for the Air Force came out of some local police department, so that police department has one or two or three fewer policemen. Well, that’s tough on small-town America.”

While the service faces the prospect of filling the gaps left by departing active duty and reserve members, it also may face the added task of increasing overall strength.

Cut Too Far

Since the late 1980s, “we drew down the Air Force from what was in the neighborhood of 608,000 active duty blue-suiters to where we are today, just a little over 350,000,” Brown explained. “A lot of people don’t realize that we also drew down our civilian employee force by almost 100,000, from about 250,000 to right around 150,000.”

With increasing contingencies and small wars over the last decade, and now a full-up war on terrorism, “the question today … is, have we gotten too small,” Brown observed.

Despite the post-9/11 show of patriotism, officials concede that getting and holding enough members to meet both present requirements and the proposed increases won’t be easy. In March, Brown and other service leaders testified on recruiting and retention before the Senate Armed Services Committee’s personnel subcommittee. They said then that, patriotic enthusiasm notwithstanding, the military continues to struggle with the basic problem of getting and holding enough people, particularly in some critical specialties.

Enlistment figures released last October are encouraging. The Air Force brought in 35,381 people during Fiscal 2001, against a goal of 34,600–102 percent of the goal.

“We have already met our recruiting goal this year for FY ’02 and it’s only April,” Brown noted. “And our recruiters continue to work. They are actually putting people into the bank for next year. So we’re in great shape, recruiting-wise.”

Not all of the recent success was bringing in brand-new recruits; 1,155 of last year’s total were prior service returning to active duty.

Many signed up before Sept. 11 and a sizable number were prompted to come back after the terrorist attacks. If it had had to rely on new recruits alone, the Air Force would not have met its goal.

The Air Force is making a conscious effort to attract more such veterans. In April, it opened a Voluntary Retired Enlisted Airman Extended Active Duty Recall program, which allows enlisted members who have not been out more than three years to return to hard-to-fill skills for 24 months. Earlier, it had made a similar offer to retired officers, and several hundred returned in the six months after Sept. 11, including more than 100 pilots. Most of those went into rated staff positions.

Prior-service recruits are particularly valuable because most already are experienced and can be moved into shortage skills with little or no additional training. This depends, however, on how long they’ve been out of service and whether they’re still proficient in skills the Air Force needs. Most will not stay long enough to warrant additional training.

If the post-9/11 enthusiasm gave a boost to active duty recruiting, it has had a less fortunate side effect for the reserve forces.

The Reserve Impact

Lt. Gen. James E. Sherrard III, chief of the Air Force Reserve, testifying before the personnel subcommittee in February, said, “FY ’01 started out as a very, very good year and continued for us, in terms of recruiting, where we were able to achieve 105 percent of our recruiting accession goals. … Retention was at an all-time high of 89.3 percent.”

Unfortunately, the Air Force’s Stop-Loss restraints halted the exodus of active duty members and reduced the pool of potential recruits for AFRC, which normally draws about 30 percent of its annual accessions from among separated active duty members.

Sherrard said he is also concerned about the effect the heavy mobilization of Reserves will have on future recruiting and retention. He said that after the terrorist attacks, Reservists began volunteering for active duty before they were called. The Reserve then called up thousands more. By February of 2002, the general said, AFRC had mobilized more than 11,600 people, with more than 2,200 of those members deployed overseas.

For the active force, pilot retention also remains a major worry. “Despite the patriotic dividend,” Brown testified, “we ended FY ’01 short 1,239 pilots (nine percent) and project to end FY ’02 short 902 pilots (seven percent).”

Statistics show that the navigator retention rate rose slightly in Fiscal 2001 but that rates among air battle managers and nonrated operations officers dropped. (See chart on p. 72.)

Many officers–particularly pilots–continue to be lured away by attractive civilian job offers. There are similar problems in the scientific and engineering officer skills.

Enlisted losses to the civilian world also remain a concern. Brown told the Senators, “Many of our skilled airmen–scientists, engineers, air traffic controllers, computer [specialists]–are also in high demand by the civilian sector, making retention even more challenging. Thanks to Congress and this committee, we’ve received several bonus authorities that provide us the flexibility to target our critical officer and enlisted skills. However, when we lose program funding, we lose our flexibility and our troops’ trust and confidence.”

Career Re-enlistment Down

Again, re-enlistment statistics show a mixed picture. The Air Force exceeded its goals for first-term re-enlistments in Fiscal 2001 for the first time in three years, but it missed its second-term and career goals for the fourth year in a row. (See chart on p. 70.) About 80 percent of the enlisted force–some 235,000 airmen–will be eligible to make a re-enlistment decision in the next five years. Encouraging more of them to stay longer will be a major priority.

“We are also concerned with our civilian force manning,” Brown told the subcommittee. “In the next five years, more than 40 percent of our career workforce will be eligible for optional or early retirement. While we’re meeting today’s mission needs, without the proper civilian force shaping tools, we put at risk the possibility of not being ready to meet future challenges.”

The Air Force has added some new wrinkles to its retention effort. Last fall, it launched a “re-recruiting” drive to influence officers in critically undermanned skills to stay on. The idea is to have midcareer and senior specialists talk one-on-one with undecided juniors in their fields and try to convince them to remain.

The first focus was on developmental engineers. “I can’t tell you that X number of officers have just overnight changed their minds,” said Brown, “but some did and many more are giving much more positive thought to staying in the Air Force. Many of those are anxious to see if we are really going to come through with a retention bonus.”

Single Biggest Problem

During the hearings, Brown cited another serious problem–the continuing need for members in remote assignments. In recent years, the Air Force has reduced its overall overseas requirements, but it continues to require members to serve unaccompanied in some areas, particularly in South Korea.

Brown told the Senate subcommittee, “The single biggest problem we have in the assignment business is putting those 10,000 folks onto those remote assignments in Korea. … The bulk of the people who go there go without their families. Now, we’ve got folks who continually raise their hand and go, but that is a tougher issue today than it ever was for us in our past.”

For pilots, in particular, the Korea syndrome–great operational environment but too long away from family–is spreading. “Right now, they’re more active than they’ve ever been,” he said. “They’re deployed all over the world.” The young man or woman who is out there, whether it’s in Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia or Korea, loves the camaraderie, Brown said. “They love the focus and the fact that they’ve got a mission. … But we’re starting to press to burnout because they’ve been deployed for a long time.”

Brown emphasized, “We need to look at more incentives, more ways to encourage folks to serve in such places because we still have heavy requirements.”

In recent years, the service has taken pains to discover what members want out of their careers and, where possible, to supply it. Much of its attention has focused on quality-of-life issues such as maintaining competitive compensation, balancing operating tempo, providing quality health care, safe and affordable housing, and educational opportunities.

Officials concede that the service has been slow to respond in some areas. In the past decade, for example, it neglected improvements to the workplace environment to concentrate on more pressing readiness and personnel issues. Now, however, the Air Force budget asks for funds to take care of existing facilities and fix deteriorated facilities. This, the officials say, will put USAF infrastructure on a path to recovery.

Better Record

In the pay and benefits area, the record has been better. The Fiscal 2002 pay raise increased basic pay by at least five percent for everybody and by more for midlevel enlisted members, senior NCOs, captains, and majors.

Rated personnel have received substantial increases in their specialty compensation.

In FY99, Aviation Career Incentive Pay for fliers with 14 years of aviation service was raised from $650 to $840 per month.

Air battle managers became rated and eligible for ACIP for the first time, and Career Enlisted Flier Incentive Pay was authorized and implemented for the first time, providing between $150 and $400 per month.

Aviation Continuation Pay eligibility was expanded in FY00 to allow bonus payments through 25 years of aviation service rather than 14 years of commissioned service.

Two additional bonuses programs are pending for officers.

In Fiscal 2002 an officer accession bonus of up to $60,000 was authorized. The Air Force has asked for approval and funding to use it in such critical career areas as engineering.

An even bigger critical skills retention bonus, which could pay up to $200,000, was authorized in Fiscal 2001 for DOD-designated critical skills.

“This is a nonrated officer bonus program that we’re going to target for scientists, [developmental] engineers, and acquisition [managers],” Brown said in the April interview. “We’re looking at what might be the next two or three most critical career manned fields behind those and we’d like to expand those in the future.”

The Air Force is authorized to make such bonuses and has notified Congress it will use them, beginning in Fiscal 2003.

“So on the first of October this year, we plan on offering a retention bonus to the first group of officers,” Brown said.

On the enlisted side, the Air Force has steadily poured more funds into Selective Re-enlistment Bonuses and expanded the number of skills in which they are payable. In Fiscal 1999, it spent $74 million on SRBs for 135 specialties. In Fiscal 2002, it spent $258 million and offered bonuses in 161 skills.

“Close to 85 percent of our enlisted [Air Force Specialty Codes] have some sort of SRB coverage,” observed Brown. “We need clearly to continue the course on that program. It’s a supply and demand world.”

If officials are optimistic about reaching their recruiting and retention goals, they are haunted by past failures and cautious of becoming overconfident.

“Every year is a struggle,” Brown noted. “We missed our recruiting goal in 1999, and we were in shock. The Air Force had never missed a recruiting goal.”

He went on to allow that “it was our own fault. We’d quit paying attention. We let our recruiter force get pretty small, and we just took things for granted. And, of course, we had been in a drawdown for the 10 years prior, so it has been pretty easy to meet goals because we kept lowering the numbers. But our retention also had gotten lower by then, so suddenly we had to recruit more people and we missed goals.”

Since then, Brown said, USAF began paying attention again, with a larger recruiting budget, a doubled recruiting force, and for the first time, prime-time TV ads.

The added emphasis has helped, but “we have to keep paying attention. We cannot sit back and say that everything is wonderful. We have to stay out on the step and keep putting our flag out so it’s seen and people want to join us.”

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, “Another Look at Pilot Retention,” appeared in the June 2002 issue.