The U.S. Air Force is entering turbulent airspace. Despite claims that some in the service are “bored,” the operational tempo for most remains crushing, and now, before the last shots have been fired in the longest war in American history, lawmakers and pundits have begun squabbling over budgetary tablescraps, with uniformed leaders dodging the political fray. In this chaotic moment, the Air Force confronts a problem it knew was coming but it hoped would evaporate: the need to draw itself down to historically low personnel levels to meet legally established budget requirements. According to General Mark Welsh, the Air Force needs to lose 25,000 officers and enlisted members, and seeks to do so as quickly as possible to avoid exposing its members to an extended period of job insecurity.
Cutting 8% of the workforce of one of the world’s busiest and most diverse corporations is no easy task. Job security is a primary rationale upon which military volunteers rely in convincing their partners and families to accompany them on an often punishing professional journey. Airmen sign service commitments when they join, change duty assignments, get promoted, or attend training. They typically take as an article of faith that unless they screw up somehow and get jettisoned from service early, they’ll be expected (and by implication, permitted) to serve out the time to which they’ve committed. This makes it counterintuitive and psychologically difficult when the Air Force decides to vacate commitments early. For those impacted, it’s as if the ground beneath them is shifting, and the more they’ve sacrificed for the mission, the greater the trauma. Understanding this delicate calculus, General Welsh assured airmen recently that this drawdown would be different than other episodes. He assured them transparency, promised maximum notice, and told them voluntary measures would be exhausted before recourse to involuntary separations.
Welsh had good reason to feel an impulse to reassure airmen. The last few rounds of the drawdown process have felt like betrayals to those caught up in them. Opacity, poor communication, muddled guidance, Byzantine staff responses, and outright deception have left many holding a pink slip without understanding how they got there. Onlookers have shuddered, wondering if they’d be next. In 2011, the service shocked 157 majors passed over for promotion by involuntarily separating them rather than offer them early retirement, which it was authorized to extend. This was a “shifting of the goal post” . . . a surprising departure from precedent, under which the service had generally allowed non-selected majors to continue serving out a 20-year career. But the real shock was that this change came without notice, leaving scores of airmen adrift and others nurturing a growing paranoia that their service might turn on them next, without warning.
That concern came true later the same year. The Air Force invited mid-grade officers to apply for early separation, enticing hundreds to “show their cards” in revealing a lack of desire for a long-term career in exchange for a shot at a robust separation package and a soft landing in the private sector. This is always a risky move in terms of organizational politics. Commanders might claim blind indifference to the career motivations of subordinates, but can’t completely escape the bias of knowing someone would rather leave than stay in uniform, especially when forced to decide which officers should be nominated for competitive jobs or educational opportunities. Because of this delicate web of considerations, the service has traditionally been careful not to entice more applications than it can anticipate approving.
But 2011 was different. Hundreds of officers applied and were denied eligibility or approval for separation on the theory that their retention was needed in order to ensure the proper balance of skills to support the mission. This left many isolated within their units but unable to leave. And to boot, it turned out they weren’t needed for the mission after all. Later that year, many of those denied applicants were evaluated by a reduction-in-force (RIF) board and forcibly separated from the Air Force after having been told their retention was essential just months before. This gave them less time to plan, less stability, and the added stigma of having been “kicked out” for reasons of quality control. This sharply reduced their bargaining power in the civilian sector and with reserve Air Force units. Many were deployed in combat and had to be recalled home just to be separated. More than 200 were pilots, separated despite the service’s insistence that it was woefully short of aviators to fulfill its requirements. Some of those separated were exceptional officers who just happened to be in a career family the service claimed was overmanned, though data was never supplied to vindicate that claim. The whole episode felt deeply dishonest to those impacted and to their unit commanders, leaving frontline supervisors with only one reachable conclusion: had the service acted as it did to save money at the margins, and to preserve its bargaining power for subsequent drawdown actions. It was an important moment, because the Air Force had behaved dishonestly, and justified it in utilitarian terms.
But 2014 was going to be different, or so said Mark Welsh. Officers believed him, as they should. General Welsh is an obviously moral and committed leader who has earned the trust and confidence of fellow officers for more than three decades. But what remains to be seen is whether the human resource management processes of the Air Force will make a liar of him in the end. 2014 is shaping up much like 2011. Officers were encouraged to apply for voluntary separation, encouraged by the signaling from Welsh’s headquarters that volunteers were energetically sought and even welcome.
A huge number of officers — though exactly how many is being withheld by the service’s personnel center — obeyed the signal and tossed their hats into the ring, taking their chances that getting approved would ameliorate the career consequences they’d face in their units for having declared the desire to leave service. Widespread skepticism about the future of the Air Force may have spiked the number of applications, but this swiftly turned to cynicism when the personnel center declared hundreds of officers ineligible hours before the application deadline, after most had filed. Having acted in reliance on the belief they were eligible, many of those denied permission to separate voluntarily are now wondering whether the RIF board scheduled for later this year will repeat the duplicity of 2011 by booting them unfavorably when they would have been happy to leave amicably. The Air Force has been asked whether those declared ineligible for voluntary separation will be considered for RIF, and has declined thus far to answer. They obviously should not be subjected to RIF if their retention was mission essential enough to justify denial of voluntary separation.
It’s important to register the human consequences of treating people like interchangeable commodities. Some officers have been sent back to their units from selective training opportunities simply for applying to be separated. Others have had assignments or lateral moves canceled. Nearly all who have applied can be assured they will not be competitive for future opportunities if their gambit to leave service fails. They’ll be held out of anything requiring commander sponsorship, including promotion, education, and reassignment. There is very little middle ground in the career Air Force, particularly the officer corps. You are either “all in” or you are “out.” This underscores the fundamental moral breach of inducing people to state a desire to leave, only to change the rules in a way that makes their gesture an empty one that can only harm their prospects without any hope of benefit.
With the consequences and the chicanery of the past few years in the background, it’s understandable why the Air Force’s recent decision to delay the RIF board from May to October has unleashed a torrent of bitterness from those impacted. A dozen different theories have sprung up to explain this delay. Some believe the service used separation authority to flush out those more willing to leave so it could separate them at a lower cost and with less impact to those who want to stay. Some believe the sheer volume of separation applicants overwhelmed the system, compelling the service to delay its RIF process in order to first grapple with the use of voluntary separation. Some believe the Air Force is delaying the RIF into the next fiscal year for budgetary reasons, or that it wants to expand the pool of eligible officers by delaying the board until after the 2004 cohort is promoted to major by the end of September. Another theory holds that the Air Force wants to reduce officers who would normally be untouchable by virtue of having accrued 18 or more years of service, but needs more time to acquire the legal authority to do so. This is an exotic theory at the fringe of plausibility, but then again, many things seemed implausible before the events of the past few years. Perhaps the most coherent notion is that the service’s leaders got cold feet when they finally grasped the potential mission impact of cutting so many people so quickly, and prevailed on the Chief of Staff to slow things down. Given that the announcement of a delay in the RIF came on the heels of a meeting among all of the service’s 4-star generals, this theory has considerable merit. But the service’s unwillingness to explain the delay transparently, instead offering abstract explanations with no meaning to those impacted, has supercharged suspicion that another round of bait-and-switch lies in wait.
It’s easy to forget that in discussing cold, rational assessments of people as numbers in a budgetary game, this is all taking place within an organization that was once wedded happily to the bedrock value of integrity. The Air Force fancies itself a beacon of truth and trust . . . a place where integrity matters more than anything. It’s clear such a notion is more fanciful than real, as the service has increasingly abandoned transparency and truth in order to save money and maintain deniability about its core motives. Some commentators have rightly questioned whether deceptive personnel management practices are an ordinary manifestation of organizational behavior — a matter of Welsh’s guidance being shaped-to-fit around the realities of implementation. This is a fair question. Maybe the observable dysfunction of the Air Force drawdown is less about nefariousness and more about ineptitude. But others have been more critical of the noticeably growing say-do gap in Air Force personnel policies, linking them to other moral breaches that have recently plagued the service and concluding that the lack of integrity noticeable atop the service has begun to seep into its everyday conduct. Whether the drawdown indicates a continuing decline of integrity or not is, ultimately, a fallacious question. Integrity doesn’t occur on a sliding scale . . . it is a circumstance of organizational life that is either present or absent. The evidence available indicates that it is no longer present. The fact this question is arguable should alarm Welsh, along with everyone else who cherishes the prevalence of airpower in American defense. With integrity, all else is possible. Without it, nothing is within reach.
Like firefights, drawdowns are tough. In firefights and drawdowns, those under fire pray for top cover. The Air Force is a service devoted to providing top cover, and should be well-suited to giving its own airmen the reassuring presence of an overhead orbit dedicated to safeguarding them within the limitations of budgetary combat. This should mean leveling with them, protecting them from the disfavor of green-eye-shade wearing bean counters, and most of all, a constant commitment to being on the same team, come what may. As a turbulent year unfolds, airmen will be gazing skyward . . . let’s hope they’ll have the top cover they deserve, and that integrity regains primacy in the Air Force as something more than a trite slogan.