A Talk With the Personnel Chief

Dec. 1, 1997

The Air Force is not going to have a ‘going out of business’ sale,” said Lt. Gen. Michael D. McGinty, USAF’s deputy chief of staff for personnel. “As far as I can see into the future, we’re going to be a military force. We’re bottoming out on the downsizing. We’re moving … from an air and space force toward a space and air force. It should be pretty exciting.”

That said, McGinty conceded that USAF will continue to shrink through the early years of the new century, that frequent deployments are taking a toll on the troops, and that the Air Force will need new measures—some of them costly—to hold on to members, particularly in critical rated specialties.

In a wide-ranging interview, McGinty frequently invoked the term “quality of life,” long a favorite phrase of service leaders and, more recently, the watchword of the Clinton Administration and many members of Congress.

McGinty also spoke at length about operations tempo and personnel tempo, noting the stresses created by meeting increased requirements with smaller forces. He ticked off a laundry list of improvements the Air Force is making to ease the strain of heavy work schedules and frequent family separations.

McGinty maintained that, while the worst of the drawdown is over, USAF’s end strength will continue to drift downward for another few years.

Under the defense plan in place at the start of this year, explained the general, USAF was programmed to lose, in the period 1998–2003, an additional 29,000 members, both military (Active, Reserve, and Guard) and civilian. That reduction, he said, was to flow from long-anticipated factors such as the retirement of the EF-111 Raven electronic warfare aircraft and most of the C-141 transport fleet.

Now looming, however, is an additional drawdown over the same period of up to 45,900 members (26,900 Active, 700 Reserve and Guard, and 18,300 civilian). The new reduction stems from the outcome of DoD’s Quadrennial Defense Review, made public in May. These cuts would come largely from outsourcing Air Force jobs to contractors.

McGinty said that outsourcing makes economic sense, particularly in support areas. “When I do the budget,” explained the general, “I have to budget $55,000 or so for each enlisted person and $80,000 for an officer—when I factor in all the base operating support, retirement benefits, and all that.

“So, in effect, out of the Air Force budget, we’re paying $55,000 for a billeting clerk or for an airman to hand out towels and schedule racquetball courts in the gym. … We’re looking for those kinds of things that could be done by a contractor and save us some money.”

Mild by Comparison

The Air Force already has weathered the enormous 1990s drawdown of 206,600 Active, Reserve, and Guard military members and 77,400 civilians, representing the elimination of 284,000 spaces. Compared to that, the loss of up to 74,900 more over a six-year period is relatively modest, McGinty said.

However, he conceded that the Air Force already is feeling the effects of carrying a heavier operational load with a reduced force. These effects are showing up as retention problems in some key specialties. The most visible problem concerns pilots.

The Air Force has no trouble recruiting pilots. Officer Training School, Air Force ROTC, and the Air Force Academy have more applicants for flight training than they have slots to fill, the general said. In fact, the Air Force hopes soon to boost its pilot training rate from a low of 500 a year during the drawdown to a robust 1,100 per year after the turn of the century.

The real problem concerns holding on to enough pilots once they are trained and experienced. McGinty said the Air Force lost about 630 pilots in Fiscal 1997 and already has heard from 279 applying for separation in 1998. “It costs about $5.9 million to train and experience a pilot up to the nine-year point,” said McGinty. “Replacing 630 pilots at almost six million bucks a copy costs a lot of money, but it’s also a loss of a lot of combat capability because you’re losing a nine-year captain.”

Such officers are those with enough experience to be a flight leader, a flight commander, or an instructor pilot. They are being replaced with new lieutenants with scant experience in an airplane.

“We’re in a period where the airlines are hiring,” said McGinty. “An airline pilot can only fly until age 60, and they have a lot of people approaching 60 whom they have to replace. That’s going to go on for four or five years. I would put the numbers in the range of 3,000 to 4,000 in the 12 major airlines, and if you add in all the feeder lines as they get more sophisticated, then the number gets bigger.”

According to McGinty, the lure of civilian flying jobs is only one factor. Dissatisfaction with the situation in the force also plays a role. “When you look at any kind of retention problem,” he said, “whether it be pilots or crew chiefs, it’s a push–pull thing. Part of it is that we do things in the service that tend to upset people, that push them out the door.”

Top “Dissatisfiers”

For enlisted troops no less than pilots, according to the personnel chief, the No. 1 “dissatisfier” was high optempo. Also high on everyone’s list is what is viewed as the persistent undermining of quality of life.

The Air Force already has taken a number of steps to deal with reducing the size and frequency of deployments, the general said. Other improvements deal with giving members more time off after they have been away for prolonged periods.

According to McGinty, “All the commands have implemented a policy—not just for pilots but for everybody—that if they’ve been away from their families for 45 days or more, we’re going to give them a seven-day stand-down period when [they] get home to get reacquainted. They can take leave or the commander can give them up to a four-day pass. If they want to stay home and be present for duty in an emergency, that’s fine, too, but their duty location will be home.”

Moreover, said McGinty, “If they are gone 90 days or more, we’re going to give them two weeks off. That should help this optempo business.”

In past periods of turbulence, the Air Force has worried that frequent separations were raising divorce rates and causing other family difficulties, but McGinty said that the problem appears to be different now—though no less serious.

“I have not seen high increases in divorces or domestic problems,” McGinty said. “I think what’s happening is that people are voting with their feet and separating from the Air Force.”

The Air Force is attacking the problem on a broad front, the general said. In addition to changes in optempo, frequency of inspections, and the provision of down time, USAF is working all the little angles it can in the quality-of-life area for the families back home.

“For example, if you walked into the tent city at Incirlik [AB], Turkey, right now, you’d see a family-support tent there for the troops,” said McGinty. “Inside, there are three computers that are busy almost all day because those troops are sending e-mail back and forth to their families. We’re testing video phone links, too, to see if we can’t hook together a guy in a deployed location and his family back in the States so they can see each other while they talk.”

Pay and benefits, as always, are an important part of the dissatisfaction equation, the general admits. Congress has voted military pay raises in three out of the last six years and that has helped, he said, but some pays have not kept pace.

Pay Erosion

Again, the most glaring example concerns pilots. McGinty cited problems with the pilot bonus as an example of problems in the entire force. In 1989, when the bonus came into existence, young pilots could get seven years of bonus payments of $12,000 a year, or $84,000, said the general. Since then, the service commitment for pilot training has been extended two years, so a pilot today loses two years of bonus—down from $84,000 to $60,000.

The effects of inflation also must be considered. The $84,000 of a decade ago equates to $110,000 in today’s dollars, said the general, but the payments have not been adjusted. McGinty said the Air Force is asking for authority to raise the bonus from $12,000 to $25,000 a year. The general also pointed out that flight pay has not been increased since 1991; the true value of this compensation has eroded by 27 percent.

“What we are paying aviators … has decreased significantly, and that’s the part we’re asking Congress to help us with,” said McGinty. “Nobody joins the Air Force to get rich, but they all expect to get a reasonable wage to live on.”

In other compensation areas, Congress this year moved to reform the Basic Allowance for Subsistence to tie it to a food index, he said. “Everybody would end up getting it after a phase-in period,” according to McGinty. “I think that’s a pretty reasonable approach.”

There also is provision for combining the Variable Housing Allowance and the Basic Allowance for Quarters and indexing them to a housing allowance. That will cause some shift in pay that people get for housing, but it has a save–pay provision so it won’t hurt anybody right away. McGinty called that “a more realistic approach to housing allowances.”

The general maintained that USAF has seen “great progress” with respect to permanent change of station reimbursements.

“Only about six or seven years ago, we were only reimbursing people about 50 cents on the dollar,” said McGinty. “When I came here [Pentagon] four years ago, it was about 65 cents on the dollar, and with the increase in the dislocation allowance in January, it went up to 74 cents.”

While the service is hoping for improvements in several compensation areas, it continues to battle for the status quo in some fringe benefits. Case in point: the commissary benefit.

“Our position on the commissaries has been that we need to preserve the benefits,” McGinty said. “They save the average staff sergeant with two kids more than $200 per month. Every now and then, people talk about doing this or that with the commissaries, changing the pricing scheme and all that, but we feel that it is very important to maintain commissaries as the benefit we’ve all grown up with. In actuality, it’s part of our pay and particularly important to people overseas.”

He went on, “The base exchange system draws more and more competition from the discount houses, but it still provides reasonably priced goods on our bases. More importantly, it generates a lot of money in morale, recreation, and welfare funds that can be spent for the good of the community and the good of the troops. So, I would not want to see anything changed on either the BX or the commissary.”

Housing is another area getting lots of USAF attention, McGinty said.

They Want Privacy

“If you talk to the young, single troops on the base,” the general reported, “they will tell you they want to get out of the central latrine dormitories. We’re listening and the last of those dorms will go away in 1999.

“The second thing they want is privacy. They’d like to have a room to themselves instead of sharing. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. So, by the year 2002, most of our enlisted troops will be in single rooms with a shared bathroom.”

The first dorm built from scratch on this “one plus one” formula opened in August at McChord AFB, Wash. It provides a 118–square foot sleeping room per occupant, with a shared bathroom and kitchen. It also features air-conditioning, walk-in closets, 20-inch ranges and ovens, 12–cubic foot refrigerators, microwave ovens, and garbage disposals. Other older dorms are being renovated to the one plus one standard.

Improved family housing also is on the drawing board, but McGinty said the Air Force may have to take some unconventional approaches to make it happen.

“There is always somebody who says, ‘Let’s just get out of that business,’ ” said the general. “Well, we have 41,000 people on the waiting list, so people must want to live in military housing, and I think it’s desirable in many places. We just have a lot of it that’s getting long in the tooth and needs some renovation. There are all kinds of schemes afloat not only for fixing up housing, which we have done over the last couple of years, but for having contractors build housing to lease back to us.”

One showcase project can be seen at Bolling AFB, D.C., where the Air Force has put up the first set of three-story, three-bedroom town houses with different color schemes in each unit and what officials describe as a “Washingtonian, community atmosphere.”

An even more radical departure from the traditional Air Force housing approach is taking shape at Lackland AFB, Texas, where 420 housing units will be leased from a private owner to Air Force members. The Air Force will pay the utilities, and members will pay rents capped at the level of their BAQ and VHA entitlements.

Officials estimate it would take 26 years to bring the Air Force’s existing housing units up to standards, but this type of privatization may accomplish essentially the same purpose in a mere 10 to 15 years.

In the health care area, McGinty acknowledged that the Tricare health care program is experiencing some problems and drawing some criticism. He said, “I think after we get through the growing pains, we’ll know whether Tricare is going to be good for us or not, but the [USAF] Surgeon General will tell you that in Washington and Oregon, where Tricare first came on, nine out of 10 people said they would sign up for Tricare Prime, which is the best of the options. So, I think the jury is still out on Tricare.”

He said that the service needs particularly to keep focused on health care for retirees over age 65, who are not currently eligible to take part in Tricare.

“As we get more into Tricare and [the number of] military medical treatment facilities gets smaller and we have fewer bases, there is going to be less space-available care for people over 65 as they go under Medicare,” said McGinty. “There are various ideas around now about Medicare Subvention, where we can treat them in military facilities and get reimbursed for that.”

Now, Tricare Senior

One such approach, called Tricare Senior, is being tested at several DoD facilities, including Sheppard AFB, Texas. Under this approach, Medicare patients otherwise eligible for care in military facilities can choose to receive the bulk of their health care from the Sheppard hospital. They are not expected to pay any enrollment fee beyond Medicare Part B. The Sheppard hospital is to provide all routine health care and most specialty care and bill Medicare for the costs.

While the Air Force is working a number of problem areas in personnel, McGinty said, the overall outlook is good. Promotion rates, which slowed in some grades during the heaviest part of the drawdown, are picking up. Despite retention problems in some rated and technical specialties, overall airmen retention rates are at or above USAF goals. And in a quality-of-life survey last year, 62 percent of enlisted members, 72 percent of officers, and 84 percent of civilians said they planned to make the Air Force a career.

Knowing what he does of the Air Force’s problems and future prospects, McGinty was asked, would he himself join as he did in 1965? “In a heartbeat,” he said.

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, “Air Force Training on the Move,” appeared in the August 1997 issue.