Civilians call it “occupational stress,” “the rat race,” or “burnout.” For Air Force members of the 1990s, the term of art is “the optempo problem”–shorthand for the collective stresses and strains afflicting an overworked Air Force. The problem affects not only members sent overseas with air expeditionary forces but also fellow troops who are forced to work longer and harder.
The service has long been aware of the problem, which it views as its top personnel concern. It provides numerous programs to combat the worst symptoms–family stresses, deferred training, lost professional education opportunities, and the like. Even so, the problem has lingered.
As a result, the Air Force is ready to take a more ambitious step and combat the underlying problem–in essence, the fact that too much work is being demanded of too few Air Force people. With this as the target, USAF believes it can score major gains with establishment of standing Air Expeditionary Forces and “robust” air bases.
Top leaders note that the burden of today’s fast-paced operations has tended to fall unevenly on the force, with certain specific groups being asked to pick up a disproportionate share of work. These include E-3 AWACS and RC-135 Rivet Joint crews, A-10 and F-15E pilots, and special operations and security forces, among others. Spreading the work more equitably is the goal.
The Big 10
Step 1 is the creation of the standing AEFs. The idea is to divide all of the service’s operational and support resources into 10 big organizations, each of which would be made available at predictable times for deployments. Constituent units would not be concentrated on a single base but nonetheless would have formal organizational ties.
USAF planners have looked at all the forces at their disposal and tentatively organized them into 10 AEFs. Then, they have cross-linked them so each AEF has units from bases around the country, all in an umbrella organization.
Then, in Step 2, the Air Force would beef up selected support forces at specific, highly active bases so that these bases would always have enough people on hand to meet continuing needs at home even as they provided support personnel for units sent TDY overseas.
Senior Air Force officials announced Aug. 4 that they had adopted the plan and will have it in place by Jan. 1, 2000.
Air Force officials concede that this approach would not eliminate the optempo problem. However, it would do much to help spread its negative effects more evenly and predictably over a broader segment of the force and thus lessen its impact on any single individual or unit.
That is the expectation of Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell Jr., deputy chief of staff for plans and programs and the architect of what is termed the “Expeditionary Aerospace Force.”
Farrell outlined the optempo dilemma this way:
“The problem is that since about 1990, we found ourselves continuing to rotate forces to enforce the protocols from the desert war and for other purposes. We got involved in Northern Watch and Bosnia and, without really realizing it, we found ourselves in a series of ongoing, expeditionary operations.
“These are distinct from remote tours, where you have a permanent installation with permanent support forces. These contingency operations are in places with runways but not much else. So, we slap down some pads and expandable shelters, and the people come TDY from existing bases in the States. What we anticipated would be a temporary situation has turned out to be almost permanent, and two problems have developed.”
Farrell went on, “One [problem] is that because we have been approaching such deployments on what amounts to an ad hoc scheduling basis, they are not controlled in any demonstrable way. There is a high level of optempo in the units deployed. People in units with weapons systems such as U-2s, RC-135s, and A-10s have drawn repeated tours of TDY, and those were just the people associated with the weapons systems.
“The other problem is that, to keep a number of bases running overseas on a more or less permanent basis, [we] required security forces, engineers, cooks, personnel specialists, and other support skills. We found we were pulling these people from bases in the States. So, while we expected the optempo of the people we were deploying to be high, what we didn’t realize was that we were also increasing the optempo of the bases we left behind in the States.”
Recent USAF quality-of-life surveys confirmed that the impact of deployments has been almost as severe on some of the support specialists at domestic bases as on the overseas participants. Moreover, the polls show a close connection between increased optempo and falling retention rates.
Filling the Holes
Farrell said that Gen. Michael E. Ryan, Air Force Chief of Staff, tasked him to conduct a study of the problem. He made a list of bases that were involved with deployments and found that the Air Force was requiring many of them to support deployments without supplying them with the resources they needed.
“Say that I send a 44-man police flight from Base X to the desert and leave a 44-person hole back in the States,” Farrell explained. “The home base still has three gates to guard, flight-line security to maintain, and training to do. So, not only are the guys overseas working 60 or 70 hours a week but the security [forces] back home are working 60 or 70 hours a week as well. The problem had just sort of slipped up on us.”
Farrell said that Ryan concluded that “we aren’t really organized for expeditionary operations” and instructed him to come up with an organizational plan that would properly posture the Air Force for such operations, “so that we can continue to do things like this on a consistent basis without driving the force into the ground.”
Farrell recommended setting up 10 standing AEFs, a step that would not require more forces or moving people or equipment. The concept called for rapidly sending a large part of an AEF to an overseas commander while keeping a substantial piece at home on a 48-hour hook, ready to move forward if needed.
“These AEFs would be large organizations with a lot of firepower, a lot of support, and a mixture of assets,” said the general. “You would have shooter units and support units and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. When we get ready to support a commander in a contingency operation, rather than his saying, ‘Give me 10 F-15Es and 18 F-15Cs, and some A-10s,’ he would ask for an AEF and we would give him one.”
Farrell explained that each AEF would be built around a core unit, “which is kind of the leader of the band” and the central organizing element.
“Say that the core unit for AEF No. 1 comes from Base X, and its responsibility is to provide 18 F-15C air superiority jets,” said Farrell. “Then, in that same AEF, Base Y is responsible for providing 18 F-15E Eagles. And we get F-16s from Base Z and A-10s from a consortium of [Air National] Guard units.”
Farrell noted that the plan leans more heavily on Air Force reserve components than is now possible.
“When you build these virtual units, you align Guard and Reserve forces into one of them from the beginning,” he noted. “Say you need 12 A-10s for a particular AEF and you find that the Guard has a total of 90 in five states. So, you tell the Guard its period of vulnerability, and it says, ‘OK, don’t worry about it. When we get to January of 1999, when it’s our turn to rotate, we’ll provide those 12 A-10s. Don’t tell us they have to come from Michigan or Connecticut.’ “
The theory is that, by structuring the forces into standing units, in peacetime they would train together, plan together, and perhaps go to Red Flag exercises together. Then, when their turn came to go on deployment, they would know a year ahead so they could plan for it.
For A-10s, Big Gains
“What we found was that, because we have been doing this largely on an ad hoc basis, we weren’t taking advantage of the full capabilities of the Guard and Reserve,” said Farrell. “As a result, the optempo of the active duty A-10s was pretty high. When we restructured these 10 theoretical AEFs and did an analysis just on the A-10 optempo, we found that it would reduce that for the active duty units by almost one-half, just by organizing another way and bringing the Guard and Reserve into full participation.”
After working out the AEF issue, said Farrell, the next piece of the problem was: What do you do about the support forces that were left at US bases
“We did an analysis,” said the general, “to find out how many support people were involved, and it showed that we had about 5,000 people we were pulling from bases in the States to stand up all these bases overseas on a more or less permanent basis.” The diversion of personnel forced US-based members into longer workdays just to take care of essential business.
Early this year, Ryan and F. Whitten Peters, acting Secretary of the Air Force, went to Congress seeking yet another round of base closures. They said that consolidating more bases would eliminate large numbers of support-related jobs and thereby free up support people to cover for those on overseas deployments and ease the optempo problem at the home bases. At one point, these officials used the term “superbases” to describe the remaining installations, which were to be “robusted” with more people to meet the added support requirements.
Lawmakers were cool to the idea of another round of Base Realignment and Closure activity, however, and, in recent weeks, USAF has taken pains to say that the AEF idea is not linked to any BRAC authorizations.
Farrell emphasized that point as well, saying of the AEF idea, “There is not going to be a fundamental restructuring of the Air Force, base-wise. We aren’t going to change any major commands or groups or squadrons. It’s more a virtual organization, and it has nothing to do with base closings. It’s an attempt to solve the optempo problem.”
Farrell said he told the Chief of Staff that the Air Force needed 5,000 people to manage TDY bases overseas. Next, said Farrell, he called for selecting certain US bases–primarily those which support overseas deployments–and strengthening them by the numbers needed to provide a complete complement of stay-at-home forces. That way, deployments wouldn’t unduly burden the home bases.
“If you have 25 bases you want to participate, you’re talking about each base getting in the neighborhood of an extra 200 people,” said Farrell. “That’s a far cry from … a superbase, but what it does is solve a big optempo problem at home for the people who are going to have to participate.”
Presumably, that still would require the service to add support personnel to a number of bases by subtracting them from other installations. But, Farrell said, the number of moves involved would be minimal.
“Actually,” he explained, “we’re not even talking about shifting many people around. We’re going to source some of them by generating internal efficiencies. These are people we normally would take off the books entirely, but we will reallocate those slots that we save into the skills that we need to beef these bases up a bit.”
The only actual additions to the forces, the general said, would stem from modest increases in the operational area.
“There probably will be some additional resources associated with the management of this thing on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “If we get 10 AEFs and we assign 10 lead organizations, these organizations are going to need some kind of small planning cell to help them manage their participation and leadership of this AEF concept.”
In any case, the general said, the AEFs would be deployed only in conditions short of open war. “In fact,” he said, “if you get into theater war, all bets are off. This contingency concept is not designed to deal with a Major Theater War because we have war plans to do that, and all our people have orders associated with those plans. So, if a Major Theater War kicked off, we would just default to the war plans, and the units involved would go off and do their thing as we always have planned they should.”
Under this plan, AEFs would be highly flexible, designed to take care of any foreseeable scenario.
Said Farrell, “We wanted to design the AEF to be applicable to any situation. We did not want to design a concept that would only serve Southwest Asia or Bosnia, so we tried to make it applicable to any notional situation. … You’ve got to be flexible enough when you get called up for the contingency to take all of the elements assigned to your AEF and tailor them to whatever the requirement is. It could be fewer shooters, more shooters, or no shooters. It could be primarily an airlift package. We’ve got a baseline AEF with flexibility to tailor it.”
For 90 Days
Air Force officials hope the new approach will ease the burden on those members who, so far, have carried an unduly large share of the load. Part of the answer, Farrell said, is to have different AEFs take turns handling the deployments.
“We’ve designed it so AEFs could serve two [Areas of Responsibility] at one time,” he said. “One of the sizing requirements was to have no more than 90 days TDY for any AEF, so we start with 90 days. We could go longer or shorter, but at any one time we could have two AEFs in the field all the time on 90-day rotation. So that means any one unit would not be tasked within a 15-month cycle for more than 90 days.
“Each AEF is quite large when you have all the pieces in it, and we don’t anticipate that we would ever deploy a full AEF. So, we can say, ‘Well, this AEF is on tap and there is no crisis anywhere in the world, but they can still be ready to go, and if any commander shows the need, we could have the whole AEF moving forward in 48 hours if we get the airlift.’
“Or you can make the same argument if the threat is low and you have something you need us for, we can put a very small package in place and put the rest of the AEF on the hook and have them someplace when you need them. A central element in this is that an AEF has not only a lot of firepower but it also has a lot of flexibility, and it’s very quick to get into place if it’s not already in place.”
That flexibility, the general said, should give members more notice of their vulnerability to deploy and more time between deployments.
Said Farrell, “What we would like to do, once we get people organized and assign them rotation elements, is schedule two AEFs to be vulnerable at all times, and once their 90-day period is up, we schedule two more AEFs. So, if a guy didn’t get caught during that 90 days, he would not be vulnerable again for another 15 months.”
Then, if a unit does deploy, it can come home and stand down at a predictable time and get on with regular business.
“They can start repairing airplanes and get back to some of their training programs that they didn’t get to overseas, such as upgrading instructors,” said Farrell. “You leave them alone for a while, so they can take leave and be with their families and do all that kind of stuff. Then, they can get ready for their normal training and do Red Flag exercises and that sort of thing. We might even have the AEF go as a unit to a Red Flag. Then, there is a period later on in the cycle when they start getting ready for their vulnerability period again and it’s kind of spin-up time.”
Well before the Aug. 4 announcement, the EAF idea already had gained solid support in a number of Air Force quarters, Farrell noted. In late June, he briefed top officials at one of USAF’s Corona meetings. There, he found general acceptance but was asked to do some additional work on the plan.
“The emphasis is on stability and predictability,” Farrell concluded, “and by bringing more people and more forces into the equation, you spread the optempo more fairly.”
Bruce D. Callander, a regular contributor to Air Force Magazine, served tours of active duty during World War II and the Korean War. In 1952, he joined Air Force Times, serving as editor from 1972 to 1986. His most recent story for Air Force Magazine, “The Views of the Force,” appeared in the August 1998 issue.