Five Months To Heal a Rift

Sept. 1, 2012

The force structure changes proposed in the Air Force’s Fiscal 2013 budget request this spring were a political disaster—so much so that Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the new Chief of Staff, recently declared USAF’s plan “simply not executable.”

The Air Force proposed cutting 227 aircraft and nearly 10,000 airmen. Politically, there were two problems with this. First, the cuts were concentrated in the well-connected Air National Guard. Second, the proposals caught almost everyone by surprise.

USAF seeks to meet its requirements while saving money by rebalancing force structure. Nearly 250,000 airmen have been cut from the Active Duty force over the past 25 years, making it increasingly difficult to rely on Active airmen for rotational forces. Since the regular Air Force sought to preserve manpower, the Guard and Reserve bore the brunt of the 2013 cuts. But because there was no discussion of the process, many moves seemed arbitrary or even contradictory.

The new Chief himself said he had “no idea” how the process “to turn this into individual organizations’ units and equipment” worked. Welsh was commander of US Air Forces in Europe when the decisions were made.

Governors, lawmakers, and the adjutants general quickly mobilized against USAF’s plan. Part of the angst was reflexive local opposition to the prospect of losing jobs and money, because these decisions are felt acutely at the local level. Consider, as a case study, recent history at Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Michigan. (Full disclosure: My hometown was one city over.)

In 2005, Selfridge’s 127th Wing flew Guard F-16s and C-130s, while the 927th Reserve Wing operated KC-135 tankers. That year’s base realignment process ordered all these aircraft and the Reserve unit away, replacing F-16s with A-10s. The C-130s and tankers were replaced with different KC-135s, this time ANG-operated.

The conversions took years, during which time the wing’s airmen and aircraft deployed repeatedly to Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

The 127th finished converting to the A-10C in June 2011 and deployed to Afghanistan six months earlier than originally scheduled. Its airmen flew 2,000 combat sorties, returned last November, then learned two months later that USAF intended to remove all of the base’s 24 A-10s while adding four KC-135s.

Overall, the proposals for Michigan would cut 673 military positions—a quarter of the state’s 2,728 total—and end Selfridge’s 95-year-old fighter mission. Col. Michael T. Thomas, commander of the 127th Wing, described this sort of recurring rejiggering as a “shell game.” It “strikes me as a colossal waste of money,” he said.

The financial impact would be significant in an area that can ill-afford it. Selfridge is 20 miles north of Detroit, and Michigan is still reeling in the aftermath of the nation’s 2008 economic collapse and the 2009 General Motors and Chrysler bankruptcies.

Michigan has a nine percent unemployment rate, worse than all but nine states. Not that it receives much from DOD today: On a per capita basis, Michigan ranks 43rd among the states in total defense spending and dead last in number of defense employees and DOD payroll.

Selfridge’s advocates say the plan will do nothing to improve Air Force capabilities while actually increasing costs. Every time the aircraft and mission change there are retraining, construction, and other costs.

If Selfridge’s fighter mission ends, the bulk of the 127th’s A-10 airmen will likely leave the military and take their expertise with them. They are locally based Guardsmen, and there are no other fighter units anywhere nearby.

The uncertainty is already bruising morale, base officials say. Unlike the 2005 BRAC adjustments, heavily debated and phased in over years, the 2013 changes were to be sudden. Thomas says Selfridge is actually underutilized and is an ideal location for an active association and more aircraft and airmen, not fewer. “It’s time to bring the Active Duty back to Selfridge,” he said.

The Defense Department is not and cannot function as a jobs program. It is the nation that ultimately loses if USAF cannot manage its structure holistically, as a total force, and is required to protect 54 separate air forces across each of the states and territories.

No state or community wants to lose jobs, of course. The specifics at Selfridge are unique, but the desire to understand the process and save the mission are not.

Buffalo, N.Y., Pittsburgh, and Mansfield, Ohio, are also struggling economically while facing significant Air Force cuts. An Alaskan senator blocked Air Force promotions while trying to learn the rationale behind a plan to move an aggressor squadron out of Fairbanks. And the governor of Montana actually sued the Air Force and Defense Secretaries in an attempt to block USAF’s plan to pull F-15s out of his state.

Never cutting anything, ever, is not a viable defense strategy. But as Col. Philip R. Sheridan, vice commander of the 127th, noted, ” ‘It’s your turn to take cuts’ is not a strategy” either.

“I don’t think there’s anything you can do to avoid being blindsided by a Pentagon proposal,” said Al Lorenzo, assistant county executive for Selfridge’s Macomb County. Locales “pretty much have to react,” he said.

Airmen and communities never saw these changes coming. That is what created today’s toxic environment.

Congress may very well reject all the 2013 moves, and the Fiscal 2014 budget request will be released in February. It too will feature force structure cuts, and they will not feel equitable to those affected. The Air Force has but five months to improve communication and lay a new foundation for cooperation.

Welsh recognizes the need. “We’re in a place we cannot stay,” he said at his July 19 confirmation hearing. “However we move forward, it has to be together,” with better communication among the various Air Force and National Guard components, “so that we never wind up here again.”