In Response to Retention Crisis, Air Force to Overhaul Deployment Rules

According to sources on multiple Air Force staffs, the service is finally getting serious about addressing a prime threat to retention: the constant instability created by extended deployments.

After interacting with dozens of airmen in the field, the service’s Director of Operations, Lt. Gen. Mark C. Nowland, directed his staff to undertake a raft of policy initiatives geared toward mitigating the retention risk posed by yearlong deployments.

At its core, Nowland’s policy push is about restoring the service’s pre-2003 force posture, which  carefully managed the operational tempo faced by airmen and families. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 ignited an explosion of requests from deployed commanders for more manpower at forward operating locations. This led to too many people spending too much time in the desert, often in absurdly underemployed conditions while their home station squadrons and families suffered the resulting hardships.

Some of the several thousand resulting deployed billets established massive, multi-layered staffs, while others were seen as risk reduction and continuity measures. A small number fulfilled actual, legitimate combat purposes. Most accomplished work that could be done from a computer terminal anywhere in the world — a reality that has gnawed at the fabric of morale over the ensuing fourteen years.

A major complaint from airmen in that time is that they’re being taking out of their core specializations too often so they can fill obviously frivolous deployments. This is happening on short notice and with no meaningful dialogue, transparency, or commander involvement. It’s often imposing family-crushing hardship without a sufficient developmental benefit or sense of fulfilment, thereby driving thousands out of the force rather than continue to deal with the looming threat of it.

Until recently, these complaints fell on deaf ears. For four solid years, Gen. Mark Welsh, the service’s previous Chief of Staff, refused to even consider the weight of deployments on the force and basically forbade the subject among his key staff.

But with new leadership has come a new sense of sobriety and commitment to correcting the service’s morale and retention issues. Nowland appears to be leading the charge by taking on this particularly sensitive subject. His approach appears determined and uncompromising, consisting of multiple elements to include:

  • Increased notification time for airmen selected for 365-day remote tours. The service’s personnel center has inexplicably been waiting until six months before a required in-place date for a given deployment to start sourcing actions that take weeks or months. This has left airmen with insufficient time to prepare themselves and their families for 12-18 months of separation.
  • Review of deployed requirements. Since the middle of the last decade, the Air Force has refused to question the necessity of deployed billets once they’ve been established. Even when it hasn’t been able to fill a billet in a given rotation due to manpower shortages, the billet has automatically rolled over to the next rotation and been assumed valid. Nowland wants a bottom-up review to question assumptions and end automatic rollovers. If a billet isn’t filled for a year and the deployed commander still manages to succeed, s/he should carry the burden of proving why that unfilled position is needed in future rotations. This is a key element of the new policy, and something JQP has called for since its inception as a source of Air Force analysis. Anyone in the Air Force for long knows from experience that there are far too many unnecessary deployments whose sole purpose is to glorify deployed commanders. This practice must end for the service to get its airmen back onside.
  • Deletion of deployments that aren’t needed. Related to the previous point, the Air Force will take a fresh look at whether a given position needs an airman to fill it, and if it does, whether that airman needs to be in a specified career field. For a dozen years, rated requirements in particular have ballooned due to standard staff creep. The Air Force’s long-held view that it should only be on the hook for genuinely airpower-centric requirements withered under the bureaucratic pressures of the past years, but appears to be gaining favor once again.
  • Reduction in deployed lengths. The service’s rotation policy, once entrenched at 120 days, is now 179 days. This is the maximum length the service believes a combat rotation should be. Nowland has directed that 365-day requirements be converted back to standard service rotation length, meaning we should stop seeing airmen deployed for a year simply because someone wished for it on a force planning spreadsheet. Year-long requirements will undoubtedly still exist, but only when such a length can be justified. This will normally be true for positions such as deployed command, where continuity matters more. Along with this change, the service will start awarding short-tour credit for any tour greater than 180 days, which should reduce the vulnerability of airmen completing a standard rotation to multiple lengthy family separations.
  • Reconsider rank requirements. The service’s going-in position is that it will retain the flexibility to send one rank lower (or higher) than specified in a given deployed requirement. If a combatant commander is insistent on the stated rank requirement, s/he will need to prove why (e.g. deployed command). This should broaden eligibility pools to give more flexibility in who is selected.
  • End staff overgrowth. Nowland’s push includes an explicit prohibition on excess command padding via things like Commander’s Action Groups, which are nothing more than glorifying coteries and clearinghouses for bureau-pork project work. The new push gets it right: if a deployed commander wants to oversubscribe his front office and pursue powerpoint nirvana, he must take the requirement out of hide rather than force the system to pretend it’s a necessity important enough to crush an Air Force family while leaving a gap in a squadron somewhere else.

This renewed focus on deployments contains much more, but the steps outlined here are the quick wins that can take a lot of pressure off the personnel system while showing the force its leadership is finally listening.

This looks to me like bold leadership to address one of the root issues driving airmen, particularly operators, out of the service. It’s long overdue and warmly welcome. 

What remains to be seen is whether the service will carry through with it, and do so quickly enough to avoid bleeding out.

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