Out of Reserve

Dec. 1, 2011

The Total Force works together and trains to the same standards, so it should come as no surprise that the Air Force Reserve has proved able to seamlessly integrate with its active and Air National Guard combat partners within 72 hours. However, finding a proper balance among the three Air Force components will be key as the Pentagon looks to cut forces and shave billions from its budget in the coming years, said Air Force Reserve Command chief Lt. Gen. Charles E. Stenner Jr.

The thing that worries Stenner the most about today’s budget environment is that AFRC won’t get the answer it needs to rebalance the force so it can continue to actively participate in future operations.

A-10 Warthogs belonging to the 442nd Fighter Wing line up at Whiteman AFB, Mo. (USAF photo by SSgt. Danielle Wolf)

“That discussion is not easy,” he said in an interview with Air Force Magazine. “It gets somewhat emotional at times because everyone is trying to do the right thing for the nation and there just isn’t going to be enough money to do what we’ve been doing, so we’ve got to do the best we can to get it right.”

In the past, the National Guard and Reserve components were easy targets as Congress looked to pare down the defense budget following a major war. But over the last 10 years, AFRC has evolved from an augmentation force, focused solely on training, to a continuously employed reserve critical to its active duty, National Guard, and joint partners.

Experience Counts

After the troops came home from World War II, America faced the need for similar budget cuts. At that time, the strategic reserve was essentially just a surge force, so officials were able to simply “take those organizations off the books and keep the operational force.” But after a decade of fighting alongside their active duty counterparts, things aren’t so easy this time around.

“We are in the Air Force as an operational force and have been for many years. We are trained to the same standards and are ready to go,” he said. “The biggest fear I have right now is that we do use the same methodology, in which case, we [would be] cutting some of the most experienced individuals we’ve got.”

The experience level in the Guard and Reserve is “several years higher than the active force,” because many active duty members choose to stay in the military on a part-time basis, bringing with them invaluable experience, said Stenner.

By the end of 2011, the Air Force Reserve is projected to have an end strength of 71,400 with plans to grow to 72,400 by the end of Fiscal 2014. Recruiters have broken records the previous two years, bringing in just over 10,000 new part-time airmen each year in high-demand mission areas, such as cyber, intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance, and bombers. And though that’s good for today’s missions, it’s not clear if that kind of growth will be able to continue, said Stenner.

“That’s a huge unknown right now based on what we have in Fiscal 2012 and what we are doing with the [budget] in ’13, [which is] still to be determined,” he said.

It is difficult to put a dollar figure on AFRC’s contributions to the Air Force’s overall efficiency effort, but the command has made sweeping strategic changes to its force structure as part of that effort, said Stenner.

Effective Oct. 1, AFRC began downsizing all of its numbered air forces, focusing them solely on readiness. The change is intended to eliminate a layer of bureaucracy by adjusting the command’s management structures so it can better handle the operational tempo and rotate airmen to the fight “in a more nimble and accurate fashion,” said Stenner.

A Marine Corps CH-53D Sea Stallion is offloaded from a C-5B cargo aircraft belonging to AFRC’s 439th Airlift Wing, Westover ARB, Mass., in Djibouti. Under a new force structure, 4th Air Force will oversee Reserve global reach capabilities. (USN photo by Mass Comm. Spec. 2nd Class Timothy Wilson)

Under the new force structure, 4th Air Force, based at March ARB, Calif., will focus specifically on global reach. It will include all of AFRC’s tankers and airlift capabilities, rather than the previous construct which was based on geographic boundaries.

At Dobbins ARB, Ga., 22nd Air Force will oversee AFRC’s tactical airlift, combat support, and training.

Finally, 10th Air Force, at NAS JRB Fort Worth, Tex., will manage AFRC’s strike, ISR, space, cyber, and special operations assets. This constitutes what Stenner called the command’s “power and vigilance” readiness.

The changes involved administratively shifting ownership of four flying wings, one flying group, and seven smaller units by Oct. 1. However, the realignments will not force the units to change their geographic locations, said Col. Greg Vitalis, AFRC headquarters program manager at Robins AFB, Ga.

“The numbered air forces had a layer of bureaucracy in them that the wings would have to go through,” said Stenner. For example, the wings would have to go through the NAF to get to the major command headquarters. They also “were doing more training than they were monitoring readiness, so the initial premise was [to] take those numbered air forces, [and] focus them specifically on the type of readiness they were suited for.”

March Madness

The wings then assumed some of the manpower that was removed from the NAF to “establish exercise and evaluation teams so [they] could prepare for and sustain the readiness, take the inspections, do the kinds of exercises that need to happen,” Stenner said at the Air Force Association’s annual Air & Space Conference in September in National Harbor, Md.

Although it will take awhile for the changes to completely take effect, each NAF ultimately will downsize by about a third, relative to its previous size.

These shifts are the largest changes under a raft of rationalization measures that AFRC officials announced in September.

“If you go after it from an efficiencies perspective, in other words, how do we do this the cheapest, you will not get it right. The cheapest means that we’re going to start going down a slippery slope [with] tiered readiness, and we should never do that,” said Stenner. “We’ve got to be able to do what we need to [do] today, seamlessly integrated,” with the right mission sets, and the right policies aimed at getting Reservists into the fight effectively and efficiently.

Last spring, that capability was put to the test when AFRC got slammed with a sudden influx of requirements during what Air Force leaders have since dubbed “March Madness.”

In mid-March, the command responded to a devastating 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami in northeastern Japan. Almost simultaneously, a civil war broke out in North Africa and Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi began brutally attacking his civilian population. In addition, the command remained heavily involved in operations already under way in Iraq and Afghanistan.

SSgt. Demian Abel, an AFRC pararescueman, scans the horizon for potential threats during a medical evacuation mission over Kandahar province, Afghanistan. (USAF photo by SSgt. Manuel J. Martinez)

When disaster first struck Japan March 11, the Air Force Reserve had 10 airmen on temporary duty assignment, 28 airmen deployed, and 127 personnel assigned to the country in support of normal operations. Within 51 hours, AFRC had 21 aircraft and 51 volunteer crews available to support Air Mobility Command or US Pacific Command with relief efforts, said Col. Gordon H. Elwell Jr., chief of the Operations Division at the command’s new Force Generation Center, which acts as a one-stop shop for Reservists deploying to theater and returning home.

Less than one week after Operation Tomodachi commenced in Japan, the United Nations Security Council approved a resolution authorizing the use of force to protect Libyan civilians from Qaddafi’s merciless regime, including establishing and maintaining a no-fly zone over the northern coastal state.

Within 48 hours, five KC-135 crews volunteered from McConnell AFB, Kan., to support operations in Libya. The call came over the weekend, and the Reserve crews deployed to Moron AB, Spain, on Monday along with their associate active duty wing. Shortly after that, another KC-135 crew that was already in the process of deploying to Europe and US Central Command, was diverted to support what had then become Operation Unified Protector.

Eight Reserve individual mobilization augmentees provided command and control support aboard USS Mount Whitney, which was operating in the Mediterranean Sea. And three more KC-135 aircraft and crews, along with their associate maintainers, were mobilized from March Air Reserve Base, Grissom ARB, Ind., and JB Andrews, Md., said Elwell.

By June, the Air Force Reserve had 11 crews, multiple aircraft, and dozens of maintainers supporting the operation in Libya. The unexpected operational tempo would continue throughout the summer.

Reserve leaders credit the Force Generation Center, headquartered at Robins, with the successful, simultaneous deployment of so many different AFRC crews and assets around the globe.

Dwell Ratios

The center is intended to holistically manage the Reserve force by tracking unit availability and operational tempo, while overseeing Reserve resources. “We started this journey about three years ago, just discussing what do we need to do to understand all 55 functional areas that we manage at that location. Where are the folks, not only in the selected reserve, but [also] in the [individual ready reserve]?” said Stenner in the interview. “How do we get them to and from the fight and how do I, as the commander, make sure that we don’t break any one of those mission sets? … How do I package that up so I can understand it, manage, monitor it, program for it, budget for it, and continue in perpetuity to ride that capability?”

When the FGC stood up in June 2010 there was a lone airman at the helm. It was Brig. Gen. William B. Binger’s job to bring the center from a paper concept to its operational capability. Though a success, that transition happened significantly sooner than expected, thanks to the culmination of events last spring.

A B-52 from AFRC’s 307th Bomb Wing taxis at the Ostrava Arpt., Czech Republic, where it participated in an air show. Air Force Reserve Command members are serving all over the globe. (USAF photo by TSgt. Jeff Walston)

FGC is split into four divisions—operations, support, forces, and security cooperation and exercises—each led by a colonel. By Oct. 1, 2010, all four division chiefs were on board; however, the center was only about 20 percent manned when it took control of the March mobilizations.

Elwell said it was “like driving a car 80 miles per hour while still trying to rebuild the engine in transit.”

Binger, FGC’s first commander, acknowledged it was sometimes challenging, but said he is proud of what the center has accomplished in such a short time.

“We’ve gone from a piece of paper and a concept to actual operational missions now in four different divisions, some of which has never been done in one cohesive place before,” said Binger, who was expected to rotate to his new position as commander of 10th Air Force in November.

The drawdown in Iraq will help ease some of the pressure on the Reserve force and the FGC is supposed to make deployments more predictable for Reservists, their families, and their employers. However, the operational tempo remains high in certain career fields, such as explosive ordnance disposal, security forces, and contracting, and that is not expected to change anytime soon.

The goal is to maintain a one-to-five deployment-to-dwell time ratio, meaning a Reservist will deploy for one period and then remain home for five periods before being called up again. However, there are many stressed career fields in the Reserve that are operating on a one-to-three or one-to-two dwell ratio. That is not good, said Stenner.

“One-to-five is a planning factor. [If we drop] to one-to-four, I lose 10 percent” of Reservists through attrition and other means. If AFRC drops from one-to-four to one-to-three, “I lose about another 10 percent,” Stenner said. “That’s driving to zero and that’s not good. … There are 22 mission sets I’m concerned with right now that we are watching very closely, and we’re making sure we meter the output to meet the need.”

Despite the strain of fighting two simultaneous wars and the stress of looming budget cuts, Stenner said he is optimistic about the future.

“This is not doom and gloom. It’s not easy, but there is an opportunity here to adjust and craft this Air Force to meet today’s realities and be flexible enough to meet tomorrow’s changes,” he said.