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September 16, 2008—CMSgt. Dick Smith, command chief for the Air National Guard, told attendees Sept. 16 at AFA's Air & Space Conference that the Air Guard has “had a great year.” He said the Air Guard has almost completed all BRAC 2005 actions, and it is taking on new missions with unmanned aerial vehicles and in intelligence and space operations. Smith also noted that for the first time in five years, the Guard is now at end strength, with retention at 92 percent.

Smith was one of five Command Chiefs participating in a forum moderated by CMSAF Rodney McKinley, the Air Force's top enlisted airman.

CMSgt. Steve Sullens of Air Combat Command said that more than $100 million had been authorized for dorms for this next year. Rehabilitating old housing continues to be a top priority for the command, he said, and cited the fact that at Minot, 15 of 17 dorms are in poor shape. “Also, we were given $4.5 million for quality of life, that’s tremendously positive,” he noted.

Sullens also said that ACC received funding for a new fire resistant uniform for airmen who work “outside the wire,” noting that this would further protect airmen executing dangerous security patrols and other missions while deployed.

Air Force CMSgt. Kim McQuiston, command chief for US Transportation Command, said that the unified command’s 152,000 airmen, soldiers, sailors, and marines not only engage in operations in Southwest Asia but aid Operation Deep Freeze in the Antarctic and homeland defense demands such as Hurricanes Gustav, Hanna, and Ike. For instance, McQuiston noted that TRANSCOM had moved close to 1,000 patients out of harm’s way from the hurricane-stricken Gulf.

CMSgt. Todd Small, Air Force Space Command's top enlisted airman, told the crowd that AFSPC is focused on the nuclear enterprise, the global effects of space assets, and the quality of life for our airmen and families. Funding for priorities such as child development facilities and dorms and missile site facilities amounted to $2.4 million. He noted that this year, an overall investment of $12 million would go to AFSPC dorms.

Air Force Academy CMSgt. Arlen Davis said the Academy’s class of 4,400 cadets is “the largest in a while; it also is the most diverse, in terms of gender and race.” Davis said that quality of life remained a key issue, not only for the cadets but also for support personnel.

Among questions the group fielded was one about whether enlisted personnel will get an opportunity to fly the larger unmanned aerial vehicles. ACC's Sullens emphasized the difference in flying in a static orbit and in a combat theater, noting, too, that the Air Force would still require an officer to fire UAV missiles.

However, McKinley said more changes in the UAV arena could be coming this fall.

He also noted that on a recent visit to the Air Force Academy, when he asked the cadets what they wanted to do upon graduation, the answer was always, “I want to fly the F-15, or F-22, or tankers.” The answer was never, “I want to work with UAVs.” McKinley declared that UAV operations “will be the wave of the future,” certainly in the short term.

Another question focused on common battlefield airman training and the decision by USAF leadership to not establish a separate CBAT schoolhouse. McKinley explained that the service had estimated that a distinct CBAT schoolhouse would cost about $200 million and require thousands of airmen to staff it. He said, “We did not feel there was a need to stand up a separate schoolhouse," and added, "The airmen are getting fully trained” in various new programs around the Air Force.

McQuiston declared, too, that “of all the services, the Air Force has been the most responsive when it comes to adjusting fire” and how to better prepare airmen prior to deployment to the war on terror. And, McKinley emphasized that within 24 hours, if something new is going on in the desert, “We then incorporate it into training at [Camp] Bullis and the other combat training locations.”

Questioned about USAF's physical training program, which the chiefs acknowledged had identified some airmen who had been discharged for failing the program. But McKinley contrasted that with the “thousands that are working out at the gyms, jogging, etc.,” and reminded the attendees tat “physical fitness is about combat capability.”

“The best exercise is three push ups a day—away from the dinner table,” said McKinley, adding, though that, in his view, the service still has “a long way to go in the PT program, [because] one time a year is not enough for the PT test." He believes USAF has "a good program that needs more teeth, more accountability.”

McKinley later said, “One thing we should do, that we’re going to do is fix the absolutely horrible gear—by that I mean the [PT] shorts.”