Stop Loss Debacle Exposes Inverted Air Force Priorities

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Mark A Welsh III. Photo: Department of Defense.
Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Mark A Welsh III. Photo: Department of Defense.

2014 was a rough time for the Air Force’s human resource system, not to mention the airmen subject to it. Senior officials insisted on slashing 19,000 airmen in the space of a single year rather than spreading cuts across five years as authorized by Congress. They reassured airmen that the virtue of a single, large manning reduction would be greater stability. Things would be better when the drawdown was over, so best to deal with it rapidly, they said.

What followed was a now infamous chain of gut-wrenching ineptitude that left many thousands jobless and thousands more wondering whether fighting to stay in uniform had been such a good idea. “Force Management” was riddled from wire to wire with misdirection, shady practices, unexplained delays, botched retirements, broken promises, official excuses, and games of bait-and-switch that alienated airmen and families while injuring trust across the force.

Despite all this, the commander of the Air Force Personnel Center (AFPC) held on to her job without delivering a single public statement on the subject, and neither Secretary of the Air Force (SecAF) Deborah Lee James nor Chief of Staff (CSAF) General Mark A. Welsh took any publicly noticeable actions to enforce accountability for the mess, perhaps understanding that it was much a disaster of their own making as anyone else’s.

But without accountability, there was no reason to expect improvement of personnel practices in 2015, and indeed this year has been just as excruciating for survivors of the drawdown as any in recent service history.

Botched promotions. More botched promotions. An embarrassingly mangled, propagandist rollout of a new evaluation system that failed to address structural careerism concerns and has created such an administrative train wreck that even loyalists are calling for repeal before it can operate across a full reporting cycle. A drastic pilot shortage that was completely foreseeable and yet permitted to occur with no meaningful action to prevent it, and more recently, the development of a crippling shortage of Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) pilots that has been unfolding for years but continues to linger in various stages of indecision despite a stream of smart fix proposals from the field. Despite these chronic shortages, the service trimmed hundreds of pilots from the roster in 2014 only to turn around and offer huge retention bonuses while stripping commanders of the prerogative to shield their key pilots from deployment vulnerability.

Throughout it all, James and Welsh have continued to claim airmen are their top priority. They’ve also touted the importance of honesty and unvarnished feedback while begging airmen to get their information through authorized sources — the same authorized sources whose penchant for scripted opacity created the ongoing communication breakdown in the first place.

And now comes the imposition of Stop Loss authority to keep retirement-eligible airmen in uniform long enough to squeeze one more deployment out of them and their families.

As first reported here last week, AFPC is now relying on statutory authority designed for states of emergency and large-scale hostilities to retain airmen beyond retirement eligibility as a matter of convenience. It’s evident the service cut too many airmen while refusing to audit needlessly bloated deployment rosters. Now, having never created a forecast or yearly plan for deployment requirements in order to give airmen predictability or foster commander-driven stability measures, it is falling back inappropriately on special legal authority intended for sparing use as yet another stop-gap measure, attempting to mask gross personnel mismanagement in the process.

As a result, many airmen who have fulfilled a 20-year commitment to service under the most punishing operational tempo in service history will now be forced into one more involuntary sacrifice before they can get out of the Air Force. Being forced to not only stay but to deploy is an onerous imposition outside the bounds of a national crisis, and nothing less than a backdoor draft for the individuals and families caught up in it.

James and Welsh sanction this provision against a backdrop of constant rhetorical claims that taking care of people, preventing suicide, and adhering to the highest ethical standards are important service goals. This ends up looking like a verbal smokescreen to airmen when they learn that behind the wall of words, policy is being enacted that makes their lives tougher.

Previous iterations of Stop Loss have been openly advertised, with senior officials delivering the bad news. In this case, the authority wasn’t temporarily enacted, but woven into a sweeping and indefinitely effective regulatory update, its implications insidiously obscured by the absence of a summary of changes and the removal of the prior version of the regulation from Air Force websites. This kind of delivery raises insecurity and engenders distrust, which is corrosive to integrity.

The manner of this most recent provision’s emplacement left many wondering whether initial reports that Stop Loss authority was being used were accurate, and many an AFPC apologist sprung into action employing breathless histrionics to the contrary. They claimed it wasn’t Stop Loss, but just a more strict policy to prevent retirement-eligible slackers from shirking out of deployments.

The Air Force offered no such denial. In a statement provided to Air Force Times, spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Karns offered the following:

“[Air Force Instructions] are designed to address a range of possibility and potential circumstances. We operate in a volatile, uncertain and complex global environment and the Air Force is more in demand than ever. The terminology ‘may suspend’ retirement does not constitute a certainty. The AFI looks to responsibly address a range of possibility against the backdrop of an uncertain global dynamic and budget environment.”

In other words, the world situation, and not ineptitude, is to blame for the inability of America’s strategic service to adequately resource itself. But more remarkably, Karns acknowledges the authority for Stop Loss has been put in-place. The only question is whether commanders will exercise it, according to his statement.

But even this is at odds with information from the field, where an email circulating among commanders makes it clear that AFPC will reject deployment exemptions approved by commanders on the basis of a member’s decision to retire. This means the Air Force isn’t actually giving commanders new authority so much as it is issuing them a new obligation. The new default rule is that commanders compel airmen to deploy before they retire, which of course implies the obligation to deliver the bad news on behalf of a faceless bureaucracy. The service is actually removing a tool commanders could previously use to take care of airmen.

What Karns didn’t address in his statement is the impact the new policy is likely to have on a rank-and-file already strained and suffering from chronically sagging morale. According to my sources, the impact of the new policy was never really contemplated and couldn’t have been … because the policy was never coordinated with implementation experts or commanders in the field, many of whom object to it for both principled and practical reasons.

By creating a situation where airmen must have an approved retirement in the system before being selected for deployment in order to resist orders downrange, the new provision threatens to create a “race to the bottom” dynamic, with each side working to pre-empt the other out of self-interest. 

Such a policy, and the spin used to explain it, degrades trust. Strategists will recognize a parallel to the classic security dilemma, when each side in a strategic competition fears a catastrophic blow by the other side and seeks to act first while in in a position of relative strength. What should be a cooperative process devolves into a game to see who can sense a threat and strike first.

Policies that raise insecurity among airmen in this way ruin any chance at a constructive interaction between AFPC and the field. They also raise stress levels, threatening resiliency and deepening the adversarial divide between airmen and a chain of command shackled to AFPC mismanagement. It seems as if none of this was thought through, raising the question what senior officials are focused upon if not an issue of this gravity and potential consequence.

But then again, that’s the real point in all of this: senior officials are not appropriately focused, as is clearly demonstrated in official communications. Visits to NASCAR events, premiers of new performances by the Air Force Band, and the rollout of a new pocket guide to the Airman’s Creed … each of these things received targeted, deliberate, and pervasive coverage. The rollout of this new provision was, in contrast, flown beneath the radar.

When one connects these dots, the picture becomes increasingly clear. The Air Force’s current leadership team has its priorities inverted. Cultivating a service capable of defending the nation’s interests means focusing on people, organizations, and weapons, in that order. The current SecAF and CSAF are focused first on modernizing with the F-35 and second on feeding the bloat resident on powerpoint drunken deployed staffs.

People, to the extent they are genuinely in the cross-check at all, are running a distant third.

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