For years, the war in Afghanistan has been “winding down.” Don’t tell that to airmen whose separation dates are being delayed so they can pull another 6 or 12 month deployment to the AOR.
The Air Force recently approved more than 4,000 airmen for early separation under its Voluntary Separation Pay (VSP) initiative. When they applied back in January of this year — before a lengthy and stressful wait to determine their professional futures — airmen were asked to specify the date they’d leave service if approved. This is an important feature of the program, because the chance to leave service early is only as good as the ability to support the decision with planning, and this implies airmen separating under VSP need sufficient notice to set their lives in order. Without enough notice, or with big changes in separation timing, airmen face the daunting prospect of charting a new livelihood without the ability to plan and prepare themselves and their families. This is an invitation to hardship.
Apparently not attuned to these ideas, and once again proving it doesn’t accord itself to the rules of the moral universe or the Air Force core values, AFPC has changed the VSP rules in mid-stream, leaving airmen and families twisting in the wind while they wait for answers and struggle for stability while poised atop shifting sands. When airmen applied for VSP, they and their commanders were briefed that deployment would not stand in the way of an approved separation. Those already in the AOR would be sent home with enough time to separate, and those not yet deployed would have their orders rescinded. While extreme cases might be handled differently, these rules of engagement set the standard bidding for the relationship between deployment and VSP policies. But after approving 3,427 enlisted airmen and 932 officers to separate early and allowing them to act in reliance on this approval for several days, AFPC has told commanders it will change its policy. Those airmen deployed or selected to deploy after having applied for VSP will be sent to the AOR as scheduled and be given a new separation date that falls 30 days after their scheduled return from deployment. In other words, airmen will be deployed past their approved separation dates, in some cases by several months. Whatever plans they made are nullified, and for many, this will mean a lost job opportunity for an airman or a spouse, or both.
This is a classic bait and switch, and not the first use of this unfortunate tactic by AFPC during this drawdown cycle. This instance is peculiar, however, in its potential to create hardship. Now that airmen have made commitments to employers, families, and creditors based on an approved separation plan, changing that plan could ruin many of them. For most, this will be the initial foray into private sector employment of their adult lives. The margin for error is small and the knowledge available to prevent missteps is similarly small. But AFPC doesn’t trouble itself with such trivial details. It’s interested only in the efficient movement of commodities from one spreadsheet column to another. Why deal with the coordination issues attendant to sending the right airman on a deployment when you can simply send someone who is already assigned to the correct spreadsheet column and who has decided to quit the Air Force anyway?
The net effect of AFPC’s latest snake oil campaign is that airmen who were approved by their own Air Force to voluntarily separate are now being told by that same Air Force that can’t separate until it is most convenient for AFPC. In other words, they were not essential, but now they are, but only until after deploying, at which point they will rapidly — almost instantaneously — become non-essential. Some of those who bought this bill of goods have been selected for deployments well into the future, meaning they won’t ultimately separate until 9-12 months after they were originally slated to be let go. The mind boggles to understand how the Air Force can achieve its own internally mandated drawdown projections if it can’t afford to let go of the very people it selected for separation. It’s almost as if the service’s human resource agency has no earthly idea about the needs — nay, the manpower appetites — of its deployed commanders and staffs. And vice versa.
Aye, there indeed lies the rub.
For years, no one has critically examined or questioned deployment requirements, and the ultimate result is a parade of absurdities that has been clanging its cymbals progressively louder and is now ready to make the drawdown even more sadly entertaining than it has been to this point. And that’s saying something.
The Air Force deploys too many airmen to do too little. It’s one of the more wasteful aspects of the entire enterprise, with each deployment racking up a $1M price tag, not counting the baseline logistical cost of moving people around in a needless and perpetual frenzy, much of that expensive and draining commotion adding up to modest or non-existent enhancements to operational results. The service deploys people to babysit contractors, to create superfluous slide presentations, and to drive busses. It sends pilots to lead convoys, logisticians to supervise electrical and water repairs, and engineers to — wait for it — create superfluous slide presentations. It has airmen deployed to answer phones, to fill out locator cards detailing the whereabouts of other airmen, to sit at desks adjacent to leaders so they’ll have someone to order around, and even to create superfluous slide presentations. Most airmen returning from deployment over the last dozen years don’t have nightmares about facing enemy fire or flashbacks about exploding IEDs (though some airmen do have these experiences, and these words are not meant to marginalize their service but to distinguish it). Most airmen wake up in a cold sweat remembering the terminal boredom and mind-numbingly sterile routine of deployed life. Not busy enough to feel important, yet supposedly too important to be sent home, and too often doing a job that could be done from a computer terminal located anywhere in the world. This is a peculiar eventuality, given that the existential underpinning of the Air Force is the notion that physical presence is not required and often not advantageous in achieving decisiveness in warfare. Airmen sense this contradiction, and it leaves them wondering if everything they’ve signed on to is an elaborate intellectual fantasy.
Frivolous deployments come about for a few different reasons. Sometimes, they’re a result of legitimate uncertainty during planning. Early in the unfolding of a war, commanders will “go heavy” on manpower to make certain they can cover down on anticipated requirements while having extra capacity to contend with inevitable fog and friction. This is reasonable, though it’s rare for extra billets to ever go away once they’ve been established because commanders are generally unwilling to declare a part of their organization less relevant or less necessary.
In fact, the opposite is true — commanders will usually grow their mandates and seek to expand their portfolios, and this is the second way deployment rosters grow. Leaders see new potentialities in the operating environment but can’t exploit or explore them until they have more bodies on hand, so they request more people, creating a one-way ratchet of ever-expanding manpower. Often, those additional people deploy only to find that the potential seen by that commander was overstated or illusory, and end up simply marking time, contributing around the margins, or inventing new activity to keep themselves busy rather than doing what was originally envisioned.
The third avenue for deployment growth is through good old-fashioned abuse of power. Generals, Colonels, and Chief Master Sergeants are accustomed to being tended by a coterie of assistants, staffers, and scribes. They tend to seek the same kind of posture in quasi-combat that they enjoy in the corner office back home, and don’t like to deal with a bunch of turnover. After all, these people are busy enforcing strict rules for how to dress, drink, walk, and barbecue in the downrange environment, and a few of them even have operational issues with which to deal. They need good help, and strangely, once a billet has been bureaucratically birthed, good help is quite easy for them to find. So easy that countless executive support billets have sprung up all over the deployed environment in the last decade, many of them catering to senior leaders whose deployments are themselves arguably extraneous. Why doesn’t this practice get reined in? Because it helps the service sustain its relevance by being present in the AOR. Necessity stopped mattering when General Norton Schwartz became Chief of Staff of the Air Force in 2008. Schwartz made clear he thought the Air Force had something to prove to the joint force, Congress, and other external stakeholders, and commanders were instructed to drop any resistance to growth in deployed billets and get on board. And get on board they did.
Years later, there are three principal types of frivolous deployment. The first is the utterly unnecessary billet — a job for which it’s not only unnecessary an airman be deployed, but for which no one at all need be deployed. For example, the Air Mobility Division (AMD) of the Combined Air Operations Center has retained full staffing despite the evaporation of half or more of its operational requirements when the Iraq theater closed. Officers deployed to the AMD routinely return home saying they accomplished little or nothing in the 6-12 months they were away from home, aside from getting in shape and much more proficient at Texas Hold ‘Em..
The second dysfunctional deployment is that which might need someone, but doesn’t need an airman. Standing watch over third country nationals who empty portable toilets or perform groundskeeping is something a contractor should be doing, not a trained airpower zealot with a stack of qualifications and another war waiting around the corner. Many such positions involve the Peter/Paul phenomenon, whereby an operational Air Force squadron with a real airpower mission gives away a needed performer to hold a metaphorical piss bucket in the AOR, then deploys shorthanded to do its actual mission because of this competing requirement. Robbing Peter to pay Paul has undermined the capability of many Air Force units, a condition well-masked by the can-do professionalism of those forced to do more with less.
The third, and most frustrating, type of idiotic deployment is the one based on failed communication. An airman receives orders to a billet in the AOR, deploys, has trouble figuring out who s/he is supposed to replace, and finally determines that the billet for which the deployment was tasked no longer exists, having been “turned off” by the commander on the previous rotation. In such a case, the airman is simply turned around and sent home, right? Wrong. In most cases, that airman is held in theater, given busy-work, and retained for a full tour. This happens more than any of us would like to believe, although even one time would be borderline criminal waste in itself.
Proving the existence of needless deployments is problematic, because the data needed to make the case is available only to the institution, which has a vested interest in hiding the fact it is getting this wrong. Only the service knows (if indeed it knows) how many airmen are deployed to which locations doing what (allegedly) and for how long. This information is closely guarded. Even commanders questioning the necessity of a set of deployment orders are not given enough information to litigate. They’re simply told where to deliver an airman, by what date, for how long, and with what equipment. Sometimes, commanders don’t even get that much. When one of my most mission-essential SNCOs was selected for a 365-day deployment, her notification came via a phone call directly from someone at AFPC. As her commander, I wasn’t given the chance to screen the deployment request, validate it, or push back by citing the fact I needed her for our own upcoming deployment. I wasn’t even given the chance to deliver this news to her myself. Instead, I found out about the deployment from her, and couldn’t get any useful information from AFPC at all. It took another week before they officially notified me of her orders, and yet she was expected to be in-place within a few weeks for a year-long tour.
All of this is to say that the service talks amongst itself as if it believes commanders are in charge and running the show when it comes to employing airpower and taking care of airmen. General Welsh recently underlined this idea by releasing a departmental instruction reminding commanders what they must do. But commanders are little more than data re-transmitters in the deployment business, and sometimes not even dignified with that modest role.
When we have people needlessly deployed away from family and at high cost simply to aggrandize a commander’s ego, ease a general’s anxiety that s/he might have to wait for an answer to an administrative request, or inflate a service’s perceptual relevance, we’re not talking about the inescapable character of volunteer military life . . . we’re talking about official misconduct. America gives the US military its sons and daughters, and expects commanders to care for them. Part of caring for them is not abusing their sense of duty by expending their energies cheaply. Part of caring for them is allowing them the promise of developing relationships and leading a fruitful life while they serve. Being made to deploy for half of one’s formative years to live in a rule-driven quasi-prison is a price volunteers are willing to pay only if it is necessary to national defense. They trust service leaders to make these determinations, and have been let down. Directing them to deploy when their presence is not essential is certainly injurious to Air Force core values, and ultimately an assault on the self-worth and dignity of all involved.
But the real cost of wasted manpower is the breach of faith with airmen it represents. Deployments strain relationships. They break families. They leave airmen carrying the guilt of missing the birth of a child, the death of a parent, or unable to tend to the illness of a spouse. Deployments, by their very nature, represent the ultimate dilemma of service. When given a deployment, a servicemember necessarily chooses between taking care of family and fulfilling professional obligations. Doing both is suddenly impossible. In leaving family behind, airmen comfort themselves with the notion that they are doing their duty, and that their deployment is necessary and critical to the war effort. When that later proves untrue, it invalidates the calculus of their volunteerism and renders family sacrifice meaningless. This is traumatic. It means airmen temporarily betrayed their duties as spouses, friends, and parents only to find out that betrayal was empty and unjustified. For those most wedded to honor and integrity, this is not just a practical injury but a moral one, and it severely undercuts the willingness to continue serving. Those most sensitive to such moral violations are the very people the Air Force needs to remain in service, and needless deployments drive them out before all others.
Force Management is a vivid example of this very idea. Thousands of high-caliber airmen raised their hands to leave their careers behind and jump into a flagging economy rather than continue to fly, fight, and win. They didn’t do that because they fell out of love with airpower. They did it because they’ve lost faith that the institution represents the best use of the most important years of their professional and personal lives. Wasteful, dishonest, or otherwise nonsensical deployment practices are part of the reason for such a noticeable decline in morale. If the Air Force is wise, it’ll reverse this latest moral violation and release new VSP guidance allowing approved airmen to separate on schedule. The deployments some of them were identified to fill, if legitimately necessary, can easily be filled by those remaining behind. After all, the Air Force wouldn’t have approved separation for these airmen if it truly needed them.