Charts to accompany this article can be seen in the PDF version.
How much does an Air Force member’s career depend on his or her being part of a certain year group?
In an ideal world, it would mean little. The Air Force tries to manage its forces less by year groups than by grades and skills so that when a member actually entered service will be less important than how well he or she performs.
In the real world, however, where someone stands in the service’s chronological pecking order can be important. It can be a factor in some promotions, affect separation dates, and, under current retirement laws, make a significant difference in lifetime earnings.
Moreover, major changes in the dynamics of the force can also have a different impact on different year groups and leave a lasting imprint on the service itself.
The recent drawdown of forces represents a dramatic case in point.
Since the late 1980s, Air Force strength has declined by nearly 40 percent. To thin its ranks, the service cut accessions and accelerated losses. Recruiting dropped to a trickle, and the Air Force offered members incentives to separate or retire early. It lowered pilot training rates, delayed pilot candidate entries into flight schools, and "banked" newly graduated pilots in nonrated jobs to await cockpit openings. Promotions, particularly in the officer ranks, were slowed and the career plans of many members were put on hold.
The Air Force has been studying the effects of this disruption for a while and is aware of what can happen when year groups get out of whack. This article was based on interviews with senior officials in the USAF Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel. They included: Lt. Col. John B. Miller, chief, military force structure; Lt. Col. Cheryl L. Dietrick, chief, officer plans; Maj. Vic A. Sowers, chief, enlisted force structure; and Maj. Doug L. Haven, chief, rated force policy, mobility force.
During the recent drawdown, the Air Force tried its best to protect the rated force and, elsewhere, keep involuntary separations to a minimum. Inevitably, however, the actions had serious, sometimes long range impact on the overall force and on members individually.
In the Bathtub
The most telling effect was the creation of shortages in a number of year groups. Known in Air Force jargon as "bathtubs," such shortages continue over the 20-year-long life-span of the year groups involved and have major consequences for the force as a whole.
During the drawdown, for example, the Air Force cut line officer accessions to about 85 percent of the number it normally would bring in to sustain the future force. At the same time, it stimulated heavier-than-normallosses among younger officers by waiving a year or two of their service commitments. The result is today’s line officer bathtub in the 1990 to 1998 year groups. (Fig. 1, p. 38.)
As the cuts eased, USAF moved to reverse the trend. In Fiscal 1997, accessions increased to 100 percent of the sustainment level needed for Fiscal 2003, and few officers were allowed to leave before serving their full commitments. This will raise overall officer manning, but the shortages created earlier continue.
Of all the drawdown’s residual effects, the most troubling at present is the bathtub that has developed in pilot skills. (Fig. 2, this page.) Mainly because of deep cuts in training rates, the Air Force was 648 pilots short of its 13,986 requirements in 1998. Without major changes in present trends, the shortage is expected to grow to almost 2,000 by the year 2002.
All traditional indicators suggest there will be no early improvement in this picture. Pilot retention is down 41 percent and likely to continue at that rate or go even lower. The number of fliers taking Aviator Continuation Pay (the bonuses paid to those who agree to serve longer) has dropped 50 percent and approved separations are up 240 percent, resulting in huge spikes of pilot losses at certain year points. (Fig. 3, p. 40.)
Among navigators, manning is mixed but just as troubling. Here, the Air Force has substantial overages in year groups from 1979 through 1989 but sizable shortages in more junior groups. (Fig. 4, p. 41.) As a result, many older navigators have been returned to the cockpit at a point in their careers when they normally would be moving into staff jobs, serving in joint assignments, or enjoying other career-broadening opportunities.
Many now will have to wait until larger numbers of younger navigators are available.
Drawdown and Delay
Certain other drawdown measures affected the advancement of specific officer year groups, reducing promotion opportunity and both delaying boards and the dates when officers pinned on their new ranks.
In the 1980 year group, for example, promotion boards to major and lieutenant colonel were delayed a year during the drawdown and the officers’ average pin-on phase points were over 12 years to major and 17 to lieutenant colonel. Under the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (the law governing the services’ officer structures) the "window" for major is nine to 11 years and for lieutenant colonel is 15 to 17 years. During the drawdown, promotion opportunities to the field grades also were reduced to DOPMA minimums.
Field grade promotions now are returning to normal. Two years ago, opportunities for major returned to the pre-drawdown rate of 90 percent. In late 1998, the Air Force announced that the 1999 Line Lieutenant Colonels Board, which meets in April, plans to promote at a 75 percent opportunity rate, up from the 70 percent level that has existed since 1991.
Based on force structure projections, the officials also expect pin-on times to improve for all grades. The board schedule for the second half of 1999 includes a colonels board in August instead of December and another lieutenant colonels board in December, besides the one that meets in April.
These improved promotion rates are not entirely due to the end of the drawdown, however. In part, they reflect changes in field grade strength ceilings. In Fiscal 1996 and Fiscal 1997, Congress granted the Air Force temporary grade relief, allowing it more field graders in the inventory to fill requirements and improve management of the officer force. Effective Sept. 1, 1997, the Air Force received permanent grade relief and increased the number of majors by 10 percent and lieutenant colonels by 4 percent.
Currently, the law allows the following approximate field grade percentages (that is, as a percent of the overall officer force): major, 21 percent; lieutenant colonel, 14 percent; and colonel, 5 percent. Without such relief, the impact of the drawdown would have been more lasting.
A more subtle legacy of the drawdown has been a change in members’ attitudes about service careers. On the one hand, many became uncertain about their futures as repeated cuts decimated the ranks. On the other hand, as voluntary separations became more common, members came to expect easy approval of requests to waive their active duty service commitments. Commanders became used to OK’ing the voluntary separations generously.
In 1998, the Air Force shifted its focus from force reduction to force shaping, with emphasis on stability, retention, and full careers. The new approach is necessary to sustain the force, officials say, but changing the mind-set of the drawdown years may be difficult. Convincing members that "easy outs" are a thing of the past may not be too difficult, but convincing them that the Air Force is the best answer when they do have the option of leaving could be another matter.
In this effort, USAF leaders are pinning their hopes on an array of initiatives such as the recently proposed pay raises and retirement improvements. They also hope the new expeditionary force approach will make operations and deployments more predictable, reduce optempo, and give members more stability in their lives. This and measures such as reducing the number of exercises and inspections are expected to ease the stress that has plagued the force in recent years. Other efforts are directed at improving the quality of members’ lives.
Such moves should help overall, but it might take more to cure the shortages in some of the most critical year groups. Again, rebuilding the rated force is a major concern. Recently, the Air Force has increased flight training rates, raised the active service commitment for pilot training to 10 years, extended continuation for twice-deferred majors to 24 years, and invited former pilots to apply for voluntary recall.
To slow the hemorrhage of experienced pilots, Congress has authorized higher Aviator Continuation Pay rates. In 1998, The Air Force raised maximum annual ACP payments from $12,000 to $22,000 and, with Congressional approval, began to offer payments for shorter contracts.
In the enlisted force, the Air Force has suffered from shortages in a number of year groups. (Fig. 5, p. 42.) Not all of them can be laid to the drawdown, however, or cured by a return to normal force management.
Here, retention is the growing problem. Last year, the Air Force’s goal was to retain 75 percent of its eligible second-term airmen—those members with eight to 12 years of service. Actual retention was only 69 percent. The shortfall apparently stemmed from a number of factors, including job pressures in the force and the lure of a healthy civilian economy.
The long-term effect in the enlisted structure will be minimal, officials say, unless the trend continues and there is a growing shortage of mid-career airmen. For some younger members, the short-range impact actually has been favorable because it has created additional vacancies that have spurred promotions. In the last round of staff sergeant hikes, for example, the Air Force had projected an 18 percent selection rate and the actual rate turned out to be 22.5 percent.
The Air Force has moved to increase enlisted accessions and improve retention. To spur recruiting, it recently expanded six-year-enlistment and enlistment bonus payments to unprecedented levels. To strengthen retention, the Air Force broadened the use of the selective re-enlistment bonus from 45 skills just a few years ago to 107 "non-lateral" specialties today. Non-lateral skills are those which an enlisted member can enter without first having to qualify in other skills.
In order to fix problems of skill imbalance, the Air Force has increased retraining in order to move more personnel into the shortage skills. Officials say they plan to use retraining extensively throughout the next few years as Air Force Specialty Code requirements shift with initiatives such as development of expeditionary forces. As in the past, the Air Force will look aggressively for volunteers before turning to involuntary measures.
Another approach that USAF is studying in both officer and enlisted areas is more privatization of non-government-essential functions. In theory, such contracting could ease the demand for uniformed members, but officials warn that it has limitations. One is the problem of maintaining enough military specialists to meet rotation needs. Civilian contractors may be able to meet the service’s stateside needs but not be able to supply employees able to deploy overseas.
In any case, increasing accessions, improving retention, and farming out some jobs will not solve all of the Air Force’s problems. Improving overall manning, by itself, does not fill the shortages in the older, more experienced year groups. These will persist for some time. The best for which the service can hope is to keep from losing more ground by bringing in and retaining members able to fill the gaps.
Again, officer manning is the major concern. The enlisted force is large enough so that many of the imbalances can be handled by retraining, by using enlisted troops temporarily in skill levels above or below the requirements, and by other means. Among officers, however, properly manned year groups are more critical to future planning.
To determine the ideal force structure for a given period, the Air Force uses a model showing how many officers are needed in each grade to sustain field grade levels at a projected end strength, assuming normal promotion phase points, separations, retirements, and other factors.
Among non-rated line officers, the ideal structure in Fiscal 1999 would break out this way:
30 percent, O-1 and O-2, 1–4 years of service.
38 percent, O-3, 5–11 years of service.
15 percent, O-4, 12–16 years of service of service.
10 percent, O-5, 17–20 years of service of service.
7 percent, O-5 and O-6, 21 or more years of service.
The model is only one tool for managing the force. Grade authorizations, actual onboard strengths, and other factors come into play as managers work out the best mix of members in a given AFSC. Thus, year groups are not the overriding factor to the force itself.
For individual members, however, year groups have a more direct impact. There are, for example, limitations on the ages of recruits and officers entering service. There also are limits on the length of time members may remain in service in specific grades. This means that the members of an incoming "class" start out at roughly the same age and have certain career experiences at about the same time, particularly in their early years.
Up or Out
The service’s up-or-out policy is one of the direct influences. It is not directed at specific year groups as such but is related to longevity. Members of a given class must earn certain promotions at about the same times as do their peers in their age group or face separation. The purpose, officials say, is to help USAF maintain reasonable promotion opportunities and provide the right balance of youth and experience. However, the effect is to thin the year groups as they mature.
Airmen and officers alike are affected by laws that limit the percentage that can attain the upper echelons of leadership—that is, officer field grades and enlisted grades E-8 and E-9. Department of Defense policy also limits strength in the NCO grades. Again, the purpose is to maintain a balanced force and steady career flow, but, to a point at least, an individual member’s chances of promotion and remaining in service depend on what happens to his or her year group and to preceding groups.
For example, DoD policy on enlisted forces provides that no more than 48.5 percent of enlisted troops can be in the top five grades, staff sergeant through chief master sergeant.
If the policy were applied literally, enlisted troops in younger year groups would be slow to move into the NCO grades, and up-or-out policies would force many out before they made it. In practice, however, the Air Force consistently has exceeded the 48.5 percent ceiling, which was developed before the drawdown was completed, officials say.
USAF now is making a top-to-bottom review of enlisted programs and the requirements of the new Expeditionary Aerospace Force. The officials say that demands for a more experienced NCO force probably will call for increases in some of the top-five authorizations and decreases in others. Plans called for releasing the results in early 1999.
Thus, relief for the enlisted forces, like that for officers, depends at least in part on easing the grade limit that otherwise still would continue to slow careers as it did during the drawdown.
Whatever force structures develop, USAF’s main tool for maintaining them will remain theself-adjusting mechanism of the up-or-out policy. As members reach certain career points, they are allowed to continue only if they are in or selected for specific grades.
The policy has been fairly consistent on the officer side over the last 10 years, but, during the drawdown, the Air Force made some major deviations from it. It used "selective continuation" to prevent needed personnel from being forced out and allowed some officers to stay until retirement even though they were twice passed over for major or lieutenant colonel.
Continuation of twice-deferred captains was applied to officers in specific skills such as pilots, navigators, and air battle managers. Defense Department guidance also called for continuing twice-deferred majors within six years of retirement, but in Fiscal 1994 and Fiscal 1995 the Air Force offered some twice-deferred majors early retirement instead.
Continuation is a tool the Air Force still considers to accomplish force shaping, but it has been used less often since the drawdown has eased.
On the enlisted side, up-or-out programs are based on High Year of Tenure limits, meaning that enlisted troops who have not been picked for promotion at specific points may not re-enlist or, if eligible to retire, must retire. In past years, the Air Force offered continuation to some NCOs in critical skills so they could continue beyond their HYT points. During the drawdown, however, it made fewer such exceptions and lowered the HYT points for some grades to speed losses still more. The members of the year groups involved found their careers shortened.
The current HYT points are:
E-5 and E-6—20 years
These limits have been in effect since 1990, and the Air Force is reviewing them now to see if they still are appropriate. Recent studies have shown that, while the uneven distribution of skills and low retention remain concerns, the enlisted force does not have significant problems in the mix of grade, age, or experience.
As USAF returns to relative stability, officials do not anticipate making any major changes to personnel programs which would place one year group in a more advantageous position than another. They point out that the service takes care to ensure all members can expect equitable treatment and a stable competitive environment.
For example, they say, USAF maintains a stable promotion opportunity by factoring in the size of specific year groups and adjusting promotion phase points accordingly. That way, there is no easy way to identify year groups as being in better or worse positions.
The one area where there is a major difference, however, is that of retirement policy. Service members currently fall under three different retirement programs. Those who joined before Sept. 8, 1980, are eligible to retire at 20 years of service with 50 percent of their final base pay. Those joining on or after that date and through July 31, 1986, will receive 50 percent of the average of their highest three years of base pay. Members who joined on or after Aug. 1, 1986, come under the so-called Redux program and will receive only 40 percent of their average high-three base pay at 20 years.
Air Force and DoD leaders now want Congress to dump the Redux program and restore the 50-percent-at-20-years formula for all year groups. Congress is expected to approve the change in this year’s defense legislation.
Bruce D. Callander, a regular contributor to
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