Opportunity Disguised: Budget Turbulence and Air Force Reform

“We’ve got no money, so we’ve got to think.”
– Ernest Rutherford

After months of hand-wringing, feverish planning, and paralyzing uncertainty, the Air Force this week began registering some of the sharpest consequences of budget sequestration.  The service announced on April 9th the grounding of one-third of its fighter fleet through the end of the fiscal year, a measure designed to save more than $500 million in flying hour costs.  On the heels of this dour news came the rollout of President Obama’s 2014 budget, which includes a reduction in service end-strength by 2,640 airmen.  These reductions are hitting home against the backdrop of a punishing operational tempo and frequent deployments, realities underscored by the recent loss of an F-16 and its pilot during a combat patrol in Afghanistan.  Despite the fact that a war continues to rage half a world away, it’s clear that Air Force, along with its sister services, is entering a time of severe resource turbulence.

But in this challenge, there is tremendous opportunity.  The service has spent the past decade struggling to adapt by championing, promoting, honing, and investing in capabilities that many do not believe comprise the core of its future mission, and has been battered by 22 years of standing continuously on war footing.  The pressure and persistent tempo of this period have not permitted the service a chance for a bottom-up review of itself, and signs of wear, bureaucratic calcification, policy drift, and internal conflict have become more prominent.  With sequestration, the nascent preference for reduced federal spending, and the clear trend toward foreign policy retrenchment, there is now a moment when ideas that might otherwise have engendered too much resistance to succeed have an increased chance of taking root.  Minds are more open to change and sacred cows are walking more nervously.  If the institution can muster the collective will to answer to its longstanding preference for aggressive action to “lead turn” its future, it can seize on important reform initiatives that can save money, encourage a culture of conservation that will posture it well for the future, and address a number of stubborn challenges to morale in the process.

Despite being a brilliant institution led and membered overwhelmingly by superior men and women, the Air Force is not immune to the wasteful practices that tend to develop in large, top-heavy bureaucracies.  There are non-value-added activities and wasteful management practices taking place within today’s Air Force; ferreting them out could produce considerable savings that could be re-directed toward sustaining the service’s core competencies and interests through a period of severely constrained spending.  The following ideas are not intended to be all-inclusive, but could provide a partial roadmap to reformers looking for ways to save money while pulling the service into tighter formation.

1. Take a Close Look at Airlift.  Even as the service stands It's going to be a good flightdown fighter squadrons, the airlift community is as busy as ever.  Some of the missions being tasked do not seem necessary.  Crews are sometimes tasked to fly from a cargo staging base to the AOR with only 1/3 or 1/2 of their cargo capacity utilized, for example.  Crews sometimes arrive at a forward base only to have the supposedly desperate recipient of a cargo load appear puzzled as to what is being delivered and why; in fact, cargo reception teams sometimes appear surprised by the very arrival of an airlift mission. This raises obvious questions about mission necessity.  Occasionally, a crew will operate a mission to deliver cargo downrange only to be sent back to retrieve the same cargo in the next day or two.  While aircraft commanders often push back against mission plans that seem dubious, they are nearly always ordered by the Tanker Airlift Control Center to push forward and execute.  Underlying factors impacting mission necessity are not made visible to executing aircrews, obscuring information they might employ in making smarter risk management decisions.  Much of this problem is explained by the lack of a solid cargo visibility system like you’d find at Fedex or UPS.  The absence of such a system gives inefficiency a free hand, degrading the chance for a culture of conservation to develop; aircrews bearing witness to frequent waste have trouble taking seriously the message of conservation persistently relayed by their chain of command.  Some in Air Mobility Command (AMC) have suggested giving aircraft commanders authority to initially refuse missions that under-utilize cargo capacity and are not servicing Troops-In-Contact.  This idea has not gotten a serious audience with senior leaders, but it’s worthy of discussion.  A few simple guidelines, some healthy empowerment, and more decentralized execution could save resources and force the supply chain management process to improve, creating new systemic efficiency critical to the future cost-sustainability of the airlift mission. Those who would resist empowering aircraft commanders are owed a reminder that these are mid-level officers with command authority who might be entrusted with the lives of hundreds of soldiers in another service; they are worthy of greater trust and authority … and they have a strong vantage point to evaluate whether a mission is necessary enough to be a responsible use of resources.

2. Overhaul Squadron Officer School (SOS).  Currently, every captain isCaptain expected to complete correspondence SOS despite the service’s commitment to send all officers in residence.  This means the Air Force is spending money on building, authoring, fielding, and administering a development program that is wholly superfluous.  The service should shut down correspondence SOS and roll a portion of the savings into expanding capacity to ensure all captains get to attend in residence.  In doing so, it would also be sending an important message that it rejects redundant activity.  Captains abhor doing SOS twice, and their commanders see little enhancement in their performance from having completed the correspondence version of the course.

3. Kill Desert Flight Uniforms.  Many dollars are spent on a rolling basis toDFS outfit deploying aircrew members with desert flight suits, boots, hats, jackets, and alterations.  In the overwhelming majority of cases, this is a waste of resources.  These uniforms — clocking in $162.50 each — are seldom necessary.  They perform no better in arid weather than green flight suits, don’t tend to fit as well, get stained too easily (requiring replacement when they do), and require their own matching velcro, specially-made patches, and name tags — all at unit (and taxpayer) expense. Because the rules require aircrews to deploy with them, commanders are buying these uniforms every deployment cycle … mostly for folks who will live “inside the wire” and therefore have no need to dress like their joint counterparts or blend in with terrain.

4. Reduce General Officer Billets.  The service has added 44 generals since 1 STAR GENERAL2004 while cutting 43,000 airmen, and boasts the highest general-to-troop ratio of the services.  Each of these officers, being the superb, hard-charging leaders they tend to be, will unerringly pursue ways to exert authority and move the mission forward.  They will not serve as caretakers, but as enterprising executives.  They will fire up new initiatives, ask unending questions, task their staffs without repreive, and they will require a steady diet of meetings, updates, and executive support — offices, computers, communications, and transportation.  Having too many of these types breeds micromanagement and often non-value-added activity.  Such activity, once chartered, will persist in a culture that does not promote subordinate officers who resist the agendas of their general officer bosses.  The Air Force has too many generals with spans of control and scopes of authority that are beneath their rank.  A rational observer would say it’s time for some of these billets to be eliminated.  This would cease some wasteful activity and open up new innovation pathways as decisions and authority are pushed back down the rank structure and communication channels open wider.

5. Audit Deployments.  Anecdotally, the Air Force continues to send airmenAOC on deployments where they are underemployed or doing something that does not require them to be forward-based, like building spreadsheets or making slides. This is expensive, but is much more harmful in the toll it takes on people who need a break from a historically high tempo and should only be leaving their teams and families for 6-12 months if absolutely necessary.  Part of the difficulty in reducing deployed weight of effort is that once a billet is established, the supported commander has almost total control over whether the billet will persist or be eliminated as operations change.  It is rare for a deployed commander to electively signal that s/he is leading a less relevant organization that needs fewer airmen, so deployments tend to stay on the books until the entire war effort draws down.  What is needed to break this cycle is an outside audit of every deployment, starting with those to staff organizations where airmen are doing a lot of administrative work that could be done from home station if it is necessary at all.

6. Reduce the Frequency of Officer Assignments.  Every 4 months, theAFPC Air Force Personnel Center (AFPC) plays a pick-up game to establish lateral movement requirements and place officers against them.  It’s a passive-reactive model with little forward look , completely inconsistent with the lead-turning mentality that has always been core to airpower.  Part of what limits improvement of this scheme is under-resourcing at AFPC.  For example, a single O-4 is charged with coordinating assignment actions for all mobility aircrew officers — a huge group numbering approximately 2,000.  This means constant task-saturation, with very little chance at meaningful forecasting.  But beyond AFPC resourcing, the problem is traceable to a trenchant culture that believes in a 2-3 year movement cycle.  This is too short, and leads to massive churn for individuals, units, and families.  It also spends far more money than necessary.  A few years ago, the service talked about going to a 4-year assignment model.  That did not materialize, but should be re-entertained as part of a “whole system look” at how assignments work (and don’t) to support the mission, develop airmen, and shepherd families.

7.  Reform Officer Tuition Assistance (TA).  Tons of wasted money, time,College and energy are getting poured into low-value (and often exclusively online) masters degrees because the Air Force has arranged an incentive structure that results in a huge competitive disadvantage and mortal career risk for those who don’t “check the square.”  Officers should not be eligible for TA until they graduate from residence SOS, and they shouldn’t be allowed to show an advanced degree in their record until after their Major promotion board (with exceptions for selective resident programs for Captains).  This would end the competitive spiral that has created a hugely wasteful pattern of behavior, and would help ensure those using TA money are earnestly developing themselves and not just demonstrating commitment to the personnel system.  This could save tens of millions of dollars per year, which could be rolled into making TA more broadly sustainable for enlisted members.

8.  Cut Back DV Airlift.  Park half the fleet and let the chips fall where they may.  The service would save considerable dollars with little-to-no operational impact.  This would also free up a bunch of aircrews and support personnel who are needed elsewhere.

9. Fix Joint Basing.   Where the Air Force has implemented joint basing by creating multiple wings on one base, it has run afoul of the timeless immutability of unity of command.  Charleston Air Force Base provides a salient example.  Before joint basing, the 437th Airlift Wing was a unified organization of 4 groups and roughly 20 squadrons commanded by a single colonel answering to a general officer at a higher headquarters.  One base, one wing, one mission, one boss.  Everyone had the same vision, self-concept, and common notion of mutual support.  This kept internal conflict and coordination to a minimum, creating an efficient model for operations.  Squadron commanders attended the same meetings, marched on the same marching orders, and answered to the same commander, who watched carefully to ensure everyone worked well together.  The new, “improved” Joint Base Charleston has two wings, the 437th Airlift Wing and the 628th Airbase Wing.  Each has two groups and is commanded by its own colonel.  These colonels are not in the same chain of command.  One answers to a 3-star commander in Illinois while the other answers to a 2-star commander in New Jersey.  The wings have different missions, visions, self-concepts, and notions of mutual support.  They do not attend the same meetings and do not communicate on established, regular channels.  But although these organizations rely on one another for success, their flight paths are in many ways divergent, which is unsurprising given their differing mission statements (incredibly, the mission statement of the 628th Airbase Wing does not explicitly include support of the C-17 airlift mission core to the airbase’s existence).  This divergence creates a constant competition over priorities, constant internal conflict, and constant attempts to solve that conflict by inventing new processes, instructions, and rules.  This type of arrangement is an engine for waste.  Worse, it’s not saving the money expected.  It’s time for the service to reconsider its approach and return to the objective wing concept.  This would instantly save a number of O-6 billets across the force and might even allow for the consolidation of a higher headquarters staff.

It’s difficult to estimate how much money could be conserved by acting on these and other reform suggestions.  What’s less mysterious is that unless the Air Force acts now to save wherever and however possible, it may not have the institutional credibility to argue for budget priorities in the future.  It may also miss a chance to create a culture of conservation within the ranks by showing the willingness to do things that make sense, even when it means frustrating a narrow or self-concerned agenda or constituency.

As the Air Force enters turbulent airspace, there are storm clouds everywhere.  It’s up to the service whether the glimmer it sees in the windscreen turns out to be a bolt of catastrophic lightning … or a silver lining of smart reform.

Posted by Tony Carr on April 10th, 2013.

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