This load sharing has allowed the service to meet expanded commitments with a shrinking active force. But, at the same time, it has increased the concerns within the reserve components-the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command-about the future of recruiting and retention.
Like their active duty counterparts, Guard and Reserve leaders see a need for improved personnel compensation, weapons modernization, and greater public support of the military.
Guard and Reserve officials also share the hope of active duty leaders that measures such as reorganizing the service into Air Expeditionary Forces and easing the requirements for inspections, exercises, and noncombat training will reduce optempo and improve morale and readiness.
Historically, USAF's two reserve components were the backup elements for the standing military establishment. Until recently, their units were, in theory, equals of the active duty forces, but in fact they often were inadequately trained and poorly equipped.
As the postCold War drawdown shrank the active force, however, the Guard and Reserve came to enjoy a more equal partnership, acquired first-line equipment, and gained a higher state of readiness. With the end of the Cold War and the advent of new humanitarian, peacekeeping, and contingency missions, ANG and AFRC forces deployed increasingly to overseas locations where they normally would have been sent only in time of war.
This arrangement proved to be cost-effective. As the Air Force trimmed its expensive permanent forces, it turned more and more to the less costly Guard and Reserve units to take up the slack. While the Guard and Reserve also have undergone strength cuts, they have not shrunk as fast as the active forces. ANG still has some 108,000 members and AFRC, about 73,000. The result is that the reserve components now make up about one-third of the Total Force, compared with a quarter 10 years ago and 12 percent in the 1960s.
Today, ANG provides all of USAF's air defense interceptor force, 44 percent of its tactical airlift, and 43 percent of its air refueling tankers. AFRC flies all of the force's weather reconnaissance and aerial spraying, almost 30 percent of its rescue missions, and a fourth of its C-5 and C-141 airlifters. Combined, the reserve components supply almost 40 percent of the service's fighter strength and one-fourth of its bomber capability.
In the future, officials say, the Guard and Reserve will do even more of what has traditionally been the work of the active duty force.
"We have already assumed some new missions," said Brig. Gen. David S. Sibley, assistant vice commander of Air Force Reserve Command. "We are growing in our participation in missions in space, in our associate programs, and in our contribution to Air Education and Training Command."
The AFRC now operates its own 310th Space Group at Schriever AFB, Colo. ANG has activated the 137th Space Warning Squadron, located at Greeley, Colo. The Guard also is working with Air Force Space Command to explore ways to increase its involvement in the space mission area and with Air Combat Command to see where ANG can participate in the unmanned aerial vehicle mission.
Under the associate unit plan, Reserve units share aircraft and equipment with active duty units. "Every place where there is an active duty C-5, C-141, C-17, or C-9 unit," said the general, "there is an Air Force Reserve wing side by side at that location, flying the same planes."
Recently, the associate approach has been applied to the training area as well. As a test, AFRC began supplying flight instructors for the lead-in fighter training programs at Vance AFB, Okla., and Columbus AFB, Miss. "It has become such a successful program," Sibley said, "that AETC wants to expand it to all airplanes in flying training and put AFRC instructor pilots at every flight training base."
"I think we also will see growth in the fighter business," the general said. "We have just begun a test of the associate fighter program at Shaw AFB, S.C., in F-16s where AFRC pilots are flying the same fighters as active duty pilots. We're going to expand that test, probably to include F-15s in the associate business at Langley AFB, Va., and see how that works."
The theory behind the associate approach is that modern airplanes are capable of flying more often than the active force can use them. "As you know," said Sibley, "the next fighter to come on line is the F-22. I think that airplane will have a compatibility to fly day and night in all weather, and we will not be able to afford the crew ratio full time to fly it as it should be flown. So, I see it as a very compatible aircraft for the associate fighter program."
Today's reserve components do far more than relieve active members so they can do the tougher jobs. Both ANG and AFRC now share the burden of deployment and contingency operations.
At any given moment, several thousand Guardsmen and Reservists are deployed overseas with airlift, fighter, and refueling aircraft. They provided a large portion of the forces for the Gulf War and continue to furnish units for deployment to trouble spots in Southwest Asia.
The mix of active, Guard, and Reserve, called "rainbowing," has become virtually seamless. Said Sibley, "You can go overseas to any location where there is an Air Force presence and you can't tell if it is an active duty, Air Force Reserve, or Guard unit doing the mission. Unlike some of our sister services, we have really taken the Total Force concept seriously."
The reserve components have moved into an unprecedented partnership with the active force, but it has not been without its costs. Reserve members now share the stress of optempo with their active duty counterparts and must cope with the problems of frequent deployments and prolonged separations from their families. In addition, they face the unique challenge of meshing their military duties with their civilian careers.
"Right now," said Sibley, "our average aircrew is putting in about 110 to 120 days per year in the blue uniform or the green flight suit. People in support functions are averaging about 70 days per year. That's a lot of time for what still is a reserve program."
Sibley went on, "I think we are beginning to see a little problem in this area of working our folks too hard or asking too much of them." We're doing all this with volunteers, so our challenge is to work very hard with employers and families, he said.
So far, the general said, the Reserve has not had major problems in recruiting. Overall, AFRC is close to 97.5 percent total manning. "We bring in about 11,000 new recruits per year on the average and our target is to get about 80 percent from among prior service members. Right now, we are at about 85 percent."
But the general conceded that the future of reserve component manning depends heavily on what happens in the active force. "We are a little concerned about what all this will do if the active duty force continues to draw down," he said. "We think the force mix right now is about right. If we continue to draw down in order to squeeze more dollars out of the defense budget, it will drive up our requirements to go after non-prior-service recruits and this drives costs up. Training costs will increase and experience levels will decrease."
In short, if the pool of experienced active duty veterans shrinks, the Guard and Reserve will have to take in more raw recruits and train them themselves. That would offset some of the reserves' traditional cost effectiveness, which comes mainly from recycling former active duty members rather than going to the expense of "growing their own."
Not that ANG and AFRC are totally dependent on USAF's prior-service members now. For example, up to 20 percent of all new AFRC recruits already come in directly from civilian life. Small numbers, about 60 to 70 per year, even go to flight school with no previous service. But, as Sibley noted, it takes both time and money to bring such recruits up to the experience levels already attained by those coming off active duty.
ANG already uses a more even mix of prior-service members and new recruits. For Fiscal 1998, for example its target was to bring in 4,560 prior-service and 3,444 non-prior-service enlisted recruits. Toward year's end, it had more than met the overall target but was short in the non-prior-service category.
Even if the reserve components decide they must accept the additional costs and training requirements of accepting more non-prior-service enlistees, finding enough may not be easy. ANG officials said that the latest youth attitude study by the services shows that the propensity for today's youth to join the military is at its lowest since the early 1970s.
Retention of Air Force Reserve members also remains fairly high, and ANG says its 91 percent rate is the highest of any reserve component in the armed forces. Again, however, leaders see some problems ahead, particularly in the rated area.
"Historically," Sibley said, "we lose about 15 percent of our aircrew force annually, and this will no doubt increase over the next few years for two reasons. One is that our Vietnamera pilots are reaching retirement age. The other is that the civilian airlines are healthy and any time they are healthy, the military loses pilots to them. We in AFRC have put together a rated officer working group to look at our options and try to retain good percentages so we don't end up having real problems."
Another potential problem is maintaining the support of employers. In the past, Guard and Reserve participation usually meant drilling only one or two weekends a month and spending two weeks per year "at camp." Most employers were willing to allow reservists enough time to meet such obligations.
Civilian Careers Suffer
Now, however, many Guard and Reserve members are away from their jobs for months at a time. Moreover, employment rates in the civilian world are up, and employers are finding it hard to find temporary replacements for reservists who are away on active duty. Federal law, stiffened in 1994, protects reservists from being fired, demoted, or subjected to discrimination as a result of their service. The law also guarantees re-employment rights to those gone for as much as five years. Still, officials admit, frequent and prolonged absences can be hard on civilian careers, particularly if employers are less than supportive. Studies have shown that job worries are a major factor in many members' decisions to give up their reserve participation.
Rather than simply enforce the reservists' job rights, Sibley said, the service must actively seek employer cooperation. "I think the key is the local unit," he said. "I have found that, once you really involve the employers in what that unit does and what their employees are doing, it's amazing the support you can get."
Interestingly, the civilian job problem often is less serious among aircrew members than among other Guard and Reserve members. "We are fortunate," said Sibley, "that the majority of aircrews are airline pilots, and they have the capability of adjusting their schedules a little more than the nine-to-five-type persons, and they generally can build their airline flying schedules to allow blocks of time for their reserve duties."
Overall, however, AFRC leaders say that keeping employers more informed and more supportive is essential and that the proposed AEF structure should help. ANG officials agree and look to the expeditionary force concept to help. "With the AEF," one said, "we will be able to deploy our Guard members with more predictability. They will know well in advance when they will be deployed and know that they will not be redeployed for a minimum of 15 months. This helps the member, his family, and his employer."
Another possible incentive, said the officials, would be for Congress to establish some form of tax credit for those who support the reserve service of their employees.
Even with job protection and employer cooperation, however, the reservist's lot is not easy. Military pay still lags that in the civilian sector, and some benefits that active duty members enjoy are denied in part or in whole to reservists.
The services have been struggling with the problem internally and pressing Congress for improved benefits, but some initiatives have not worked. One notable failure was the 1996 Ready Reserve Mobilization Income Insurance Program, designed to protect called-up reservists against losing money while they were away from their jobs. The members were required to pay a modest premium for the coverage.
The government's plan was to use the premiums to build a reserve fund to cover future claims. Before that fund could grow, however, thousands of reservists were called up for Bosnia peacekeeping, and some of those who had refused the insurance before they were activated were given another chance to enroll. A flood of claims left the insurance plan in debt by $72 million and the whole program was scrapped.
Military officials said that the insurance idea is unlikely to be resurrected. However, they noted that some other pay and benefits improvements may be in sight. In fact, Congress recently passed legislation to encourage something close to parity between the active and reserve component benefits in some areas. Still to be addressed, Sibley said, are inequities in other areas, such as the current inability of Guard and Reserve members to draw hazardous duty pay during training as well as active duty.
ANG officials said basic pay is adequate, but they would like to see a number of benefits improvements. Specifically, they said, reservists need more parity with active duty members in areas such as enrollment in the Survivor Benefit Plan, qualification for assistance from the Air Force Aid Society, and eligibility for commissary privileges.
Guard officials argue that a number of policies which discriminate against the reserve members were enacted when they held a far less active status in the services. Since then, they say, ANG and AFRC members have taken on greater responsibilities and should be treated more equitably.
Like the active duty force, the Guard and Reserve also are pressing for modernization of their equipment. They no longer struggle with the war-weary surpluses from the active force, but even some first-line equipment is inadequate for today's missions.
"Our capabilities are nearly equal with those of the active force," Sibley said. "However there are special capabilities that the reserve components are lacking, such as precision guided munitions and targeting pods in the fighter business. The standardization of our C-130 fleet also will be very important."
Both ANG and AFRC are pressing for standardization of C-130s so that reserve component and active duty aircraft will have the same capabilities. Programs are under way for an advanced, more versatile J model and for converting several types of H models into one configuration, the C-130X.
ANG also is improving the A-10 with smart weapons, night vision, global positioning, and laser-guided bomb capabilities. Several electronic improvements are being discussed for the F-15. Global positioning and improved targeting systems are planned for the F-16.
Such upgrades are important, Sibley said, as the reserve components move into a still closer partnership with the active forces, and that prospect is even more real as the Air Force moves into its plan for an Expeditionary Aerospace Force.
Under the EAF approach, the Air Force would form a number of large units that could be called on to react to various levels of contingencies. The idea would be to deploy specific units in order as their turns came up.
USAF has said that the reserve components' participation would be a vital part of the EAF approach, the idea being to levy requirements on the Guard and AFRC to be filled at their discretion. Sibley said that AFRC has been dealing with a similar concept for years with fighter units and sometimes with tankers. He said he expects the same approach will be applied to other types of units as the EAF plan becomes a reality.
"We'll put together a package, maybe with six F-16s from one unit and six from another. We'll mix the people and we'll rotate our reservists in and out of there maybe every two or three weeks or so, depending on their availability. And we'll stay there for 90 days and do it."
This approach, said the general, should help relieve some of the optempo pressures of both the active and reserve forces, but the benefit may be even greater for the reservists. The aim is to spread the deployment load more evenly among members and to give them more advanced notice of when they are likely to be called. In the case of reservists, this will allow them to alert their employers as well and, presumably, ease some of the problems of taking time off on short notice.
The Guard and Reserve also are following the active force's lead in another area in their effort to reduce optempo. From a number of surveys, USAF has learned that one of the main irritants to members is undergoing inspections and participating in exercises in addition to meeting real-world contingencies. Both the active and reserve force are trying to reduce these requirements.
As Sibley put it, "We do a lot of things that are good but have nothing to do with the combat readiness of our people. We are making progress in that we are starting to evaluate and inspect more on the unit's participation in real-world requirements and make those count for what used to be exercises. It's a way to make some big reductions in inspections and exercises without losing any combat capability and to give back what I think is the most valuable thing to our people-their time."
While both ANG and Air Reserve leaders emphasize the need to improve the lot of their members, they say they are proud of the job their forces are doing. As Sibley put it, "We don't pay them big dollars to do what they are doing. So, corny as it may sound, you have to get down to the mom and apple pie and patriotism factors. They are doing it because they like what they are doing and they feel good about being front line. That's got to make you optimistic."
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag