It’s been a week of contradictions for the USAF. While BBQ competitions and the Tops in Blue roadshow rolled on and the service’s star-struck leading officer rubbed elbows with celebrity A-listers, nearly 10,000 airmen awaited word from the Air Force Personnel Center (AFPC) on whether they’d be approved for voluntary separation under the service’s VSP initiative. The program is a theoretical win/win for the service and its people, allowing those ready to vacate their commitments and move on to civilian life the ability to do so in an orderly way while helping the Air Force meet mandated personnel reductions.
The center has been accepting applications since January, originally assuring airmen they’d get a processing decision with 10 days. This made sense, since those approved would be asked to separate before the end of the fiscal year. Swift decisions would be crucial to the coordination of civilian employment and relocation of potentially thousands of families. After all, volunteering to leave early would only be worth doing if it allowed airmen to have a soft landing on the civilian side of the fence.
Then, policy changes started to happen. Processing wouldn’t happen in 10 days but in monthly batches. Matrices were published changing eligibility rules. Certain specialties were ruled out, others ruled in. Finally, the center told airmen no decisions would be rendered until the application window closed on May 1st.
Some of these policy shifts were unavoidable as a function of their relationships to moving budget targets or because personnel spending was somewhat tethered to fluid fiscal proposals such as the now-defunct push for retirement of the A-10 fleet. Other changes occurred because the service needed additional legal authority at the correct level to allow more airmen to participate.
For the most part, airmen took this in-stride, comforted by General Welsh’s earnest reassurances that the service would deal fairly and honestly with them. He expressed a desire that the use of voluntary programs be maximized and that airmen be given information with as much speed and transparency as possible. In talking with airmen, also indicated that he didn’t want a repeat of what happened in 2011, when the Air Force denied scores of airmen the ability to leave under voluntary programs only to involuntarily and abruptly send them packing through a Reduction-in-Force (RIF) process. Welsh’s edict made sense. If a VSP application fails because a career field is undermanned or a service commitment argues for more return-on-investment, those facts don’t suddenly change a few months later. Consistency across the two processes helps airmen establish baseline certainty about their futures, and it’s based on a clear and fair idea. If airmen apply for VSP, they’ll either get approved and be separated before the end of September, or be denied and have at least a year before the next round of drawdown programs.
But at some point in this sequence, human resource ineptitude was replaced by deceptive practices geared toward shaping the force at whatever moral cost might be required. I previously wrote about this after hearing dozens of distressing stories about delayed notifications, shifting explanations, and AFPC double-talk. The most concerning stories I heard came from commanders who claimed they couldn’t get answers from AFPC and were being told to read the same websites that were confusing their troops. Commanders have felt increasingly marginalized and cut out of the process as it has unfolded. April brought a new debacle, with early retirement offered to a number of airmen only to be revoked after they’d set their new plans in motion. The Air Force righted that mistake, which it claims only impacted a small number of people. Still, the incident raised questions about human resource practices seeming to run roughshod over the concept of basic fairness in a service that champions integrity as its pinnacle value.
Those questions were freshly raised today when AFPC sent an email to commanders once again breaking its own deadline for VSP results, and once again doing so without explanation. The center pushed release of VSP results into at least next week and possibly beyond. While thousands of airmen and families wait for actionable and long-overdue decisions, their lives and future livelihoods are dying on the vine. Uncertainty is skyrocketing. Stress is boiling over in online forums and offline relationships. All the while, Maj. Gen. Margaret Poore, who commands AFPC, stands silent, as she has done throughout the entire drawdown. Airmen are left to manage myriad consequences while AFPC and the Air Force pretend their delays and shifting tactics are consequence free.
Today’s email to commanders, which was vague and didn’t bind AFPC to a new deadline, wasn’t the only controversial message to make the rounds recently. Earlier in the week, airmen began receiving notice of eligibility for RIF later this year. For some, this wasn’t unexpected. It’s been no surprise that the service would not be able to draw itself down using purely voluntary measures. But for others, it was an unwelcome shock, given its variance with General Welsh’s guidance concerning voluntary and involuntary programs. Many of those receiving RIF notices are among those awaiting VSP verdicts, and these individuals are surprised to be RIF eligible because they relied on Welsh’s assurance that by volunteering to separate, they would not be involuntarily separated later in the year.
By Welsh’s guidance, every applicant for VSP should either be approved, or be able to rely on another year of service. What AFPC is arranging is a repeat of 2011 on a much, much larger scale. If this policy goes forward, potentially thousands of airmen who were told they were too important to be let go voluntarily in May (assuming AFPC releases the results before the end of this month) will be told just a few months later that they’re an unacceptable surplus and must separate involuntarily. This is patently absurd. Airmen caught in this mess point to the fact that AFPC established RIF quotas before finalizing VSP results as an indication that voluntary programs are being deliberately and rationally constrained rather than maximized as Welsh promised. To the extent Gen. Poore and AFPC refuse to comment or reconcile the relationship between VSP and RIF, airmen are left with zero bargaining power and are drawing the worst possible conclusions about why none of this seems to make sense.
Their conclusions may be founded. There are at least two explanations for the noticeable and growing maw between the themes reinforced by Welsh and the policies employed by AFPC. Neither of these reflects well on the Air Force.
The first possibility is that airmen are caught in the middle of an internal bureaucratic struggle between leaders at Air Force headquarters and human resource managers in the Pentagon and at AFPC. This makes some sense. After all, AFPC’s objective is to shape the force, while Welsh’s job is to lead it. Force shaping (a cowardly euphemism for firing and laying off human beings) is about efficiently moving to a new end strength at the lowest cost and with the least possible coordination by the end of the fiscal year. This means looking at people as commodities, which dehumanizes them for the purpose of dispassionate decision-making. Leadership is an expansive mandate with humanity at its core. It means taking care of people, noticing and respecting the value system they bought into, and conducting business in a way that won’t undermine the ability to attract airmen in the future. These imperatives are naturally at odds, and they help explain why airmen sometimes feel caught in the middle like kids being used as pawns in a custody fight. Rather than doing what’s best for the kids, the alleged adults are failing to communicate effectively or harmonize their actions for the sake of the family. As it tends to do in families, this conflict is destroying the relationship between the parties involved.
But there’s another explanation that perhaps makes more sense. It might be that despite Welsh’s repeated urging that voluntary programs be utilized to the maximum extent possible, there is a real and well-founded fear about what that might do to the Air Force. If the service were to honor every VSP application submitted until it ran out of budgetary authority to do so, the result could be a thundering exodus of high-caliber, high-performing, high-potential officers and airmen. By tightly constraining VSP, the service maintains control over how many of its superior performers are let go, while using the RIF to cull from the herd those it perceives have the lowest potential. This explanation probably represents what’s happening in the drawdown, but the idea underlying it is deeply flawed for two reasons.
First, Air Force performance documents don’t provide enough meaningful information to accurately differentiate performance. This issue is eased as careers grow in length and trends become discernible, but this really only helps pick out the top performers. Distinguishing among the bottom 80% is nearly impossible, which is why RIF results usually turn on whatever the board can easily discern. This means enlisted airmen who didn’t get firewall markings on reports early in their development will be cashiered no matter how much performance has improved, and it means officers who haven’t finished advanced academic degrees will face attrition regardless of their actual duty performance. These are the results RIFs produce, and they take the Air Force further from excellence rather than closer to it.
More importantly, this is the wrong way to retain high performers. If the anxiety is that approving VSP applications will undercut quality, the Air Force is telling itself something very important about how well it thinks it is conducting the people business these days. It’s an intuition worth pursuing. If you want to retain high-potential airmen, cultivate a working environment marked by honor, respect, tradition, mutual support, and tradition. Reward excellence and celebrate airpower at every opportunity. If those things are happening, your highest performers will want to stay, and trapping them with multiple iterations of fundamentally dishonest and contradictory policy shenanigans won’t be necessary. Unfortunately, the corollary also holds true: when the work environment becomes dysfunctional, the highest performers will be the first to leave. The 2014 drawdown stands for this idea, and the Air Force has created quite a short-term pickle for itself by failing to take care of people and cultivate squadron life over the last dozen years.
In the short term, let’s hope for swift answers for those awaiting VSP adjudication. In the longer term, let’s hope for the return of a vibrant and value-driven professional atmosphere that retains talent without having to resort to manipulation or coercion.