In a recent flight from Kuwait to the Baghdad Airport, a Georgia Air National Guard aircrew banked its C-130 hard into a corkscrew descent that had passengers practically dangling from their webbed constraints. The roar of the aircraft rose in pitch as its four turbine engines strained to maintain lift through the tight maneuver. A continuing threat from man-portable surface-to-air missiles in Iraq dictated the stomach-churning approach. Once the C-130 was on the ground, the crew quickly unloaded their passengers and cargo and took on a new load. Within an hour, the C-130 was trundling back down the runway on the next leg of what amounts to a daily commuter service in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The flights are only a small cog in the massive military machine carrying out ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they illustrate the unprecedented strains the Global War on Terror is put-ting on National Guard and Reserve forces.
The Georgia Air Guard wing responsible for the flights planned for 2,900 flight hours annually in peacetime, yet had flown 13,000 hours in 2003 largely in support of operations in Iraq. The high pace of operations has made it difficult for the unit to meet training requirements such as tactical formation flying, thus lowering its readiness ratings. The Iraq deployment and harsh operating environment in the Gulf region have also taken a toll on the unit’s aging C-130 aircraft, evidenced by the squadron’s need to replace 11 turbine engines and 20 propellers to keep eight aircraft operational in theater.
“The readiness of nondeployed Army and Air National Guard units for wartime missions has declined because of the high pace of operations since Sept. 11 ,” Janet A. St. Laurent, the General Accounting Office’s director of defense capabilities and management, said in testimony before the House Government Reform Committee. “Although the Air Guard is maintained at a higher level of readiness overall than the Army Guard, its readiness has also declined.”
Several Air National Guard units—such as those that conduct combat patrols over US cities, provide airlift capability, or conduct tanker refueling operations—have reported that the pace of operations has led to training shortfalls. Laurent said, “Some state officials we spoke with were concerned about the Guard’s preparedness for homeland security missions as well as state requirements such as natural disaster response because of the large numbers of personnel and equipment that have been alerted or deployed for federal missions.”
Those tensions and strains are the inevitable result of what Lt. Gen. James E. Sherrard III, recently retired chief of Air Force Reserve Command, called “the longest sustained, large-scale mobilization in the history of the Air Force.”
The sheer numbers are certainly impressive.
The Numbers Grow
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks, the Air Force has mobilized nearly 65,000 ANG and AFRC members in some 100 units and “many more” individual reservists, Lt. Gen. Richard E. Brown III, USAF deputy chief of staff for personnel, told lawmakers earlier this year. He said that reservists comprise 20 percent of USAF’s air and space expeditionary force (AEF) packages supporting operations in Southwest Asia and conduct 89 percent of Operation Noble Eagle, maintaining patrols over American cities.
Last year, roughly 10,000 Air Guard members deployed for more than 220 days, and 6,400 Air Guard members have deployed for more than 401 days over the last two years.
“Our contributions over the past two years, and specifically in Operation Iraqi Freedom, have been tremendous,” said Lt. Gen. Daniel James III, ANG director, testifying recently before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee. Since 9/11, ANG aircrews and maintainers have conducted more than 110,000 sorties, accounting for more than 340,000 flying hours. In Iraqi Freedom, he said, that translated into the Air Guard supplying one-third of all aircraft.
ANG flew 86 percent of the Gulf War II tanker sorties, initially manning the tanker task force with volunteers who were ready within 24 hours, said James. The task force comprised 18 units, 15 of which were Air Guard. During Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, ANG conducted 100 percent of the A-10 mission. For Iraqi Freedom, A-10s flew more combat missions than any other aircraft, and the Air Guard supplied 66 percent of those sorties, he said. The Guard also flew 45 percent of the F-16 sorties in Iraq.
Sherrard reported that AFRC, which has only eight percent of the Air Force conventional bomb crews, had flown 42 percent of all the B-52 combat missions for four combat deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. AFRC also supported C-17 sorties in Afghanistan and Iraq, including the massive Army airdrop into northern Iraq. In 2003, he said, AFRC had met “virtually 100 percent” of both aviation and support commitments, deploying more than 23,000 personnel, both mobilized and volunteer.
The Defense Department has estimated that the “steady state” over the next three to five years will likely require the contribution of 100,000 to 150,000 Guardsmen and Reservists, with activations of a year or more being the norm. As of May 26, DOD had nearly 166,000 Guard and Reserve troops—including 11,355 ANG and AFRC members—mobilized.
Recasting the Reserves
Those increased demands, and anticipation that operations tempo will remain high for years as the United States prosecutes the Global War on Terror, have prompted wholesale reorganization and restructuring within the Guard and Reserve.
Much of the work focuses on the Army’s reserve components, which today are still in a strategic reserve mode that was designed for the Cold War. The Air Force began shifting the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve to quicker reacting operational reserve components more than 20 years ago.
“It can take several weeks to months to prepare an Army National Guard unit to mobilize and deploy—compared to the Air Guard model where units deploy in a matter of hours or days,” Army Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, told lawmakers.
The Air National Guard is “manned, equipped, and trained to be a ready, relevant, reliable, and accessible force,” said Blum.
The Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command began to integrate their activities and training with the active duty Air Force in the 1970s and 1980s. Equipment and training that had lagged behind were improved. By the early 1990s, when USAF launched its AEF concept, ANG and AFRC were full partners in the AEF rotation schedule.
The expeditionary approach has enabled the Air Force to spread the burden of operations evenly across most of its active and reserve forces. However, some active and reserve functions are in greater demand in the post-9/11 environment.
Pentagon leaders have recognized that the military has an unbalanced force consisting of high-demand units that are in short supply and low-demand units that are in abundant supply. The consequences of that imbalance, they say, are already evident. Within the reserves, for instance, fully 92 percent of all military police units in the National Guard have been activated since 9/11. Some of those Army Guard units were tasked to support USAF bases, because the Air Force had to send most of its security forces, including ANG and AFRC troops, overseas.
According to DOD officials, reserve personnel provide the majority of force protection to military personnel and installations worldwide. Within the Air Guard and Air Force Reserve, security forces were among those critical specialties mobilized for more than a single year.
Air National Guard security forces were “the first security forces on the ground in Iraq,” James told lawmakers. He noted that 60 percent of ANG security forces participated in Iraqi Freedom.
Other high-demand fields in the Air Guard include tanker pilots and flight engineers—more than 80 percent of each group has deployed at least once since September 2001. In its review of the Guard, the GAO reported that about 10,000 Air Guard members were deployed for more than 220 days in the past year and about 6,400 of them were deployed for more than 401 days in the last two years.
Within AFRC, there are similar critical specialties. For instance, many E-3 AWACS airborne control, MC-130 Combat Talon, and HC-130 and HH-60 rescue aircrews were activated for a second year.
The Defense Department has concluded that using more than 17 percent of the personnel in a given career field annually indicates an unsustainably high pace of operations in that career field. Yet usage rates for personnel in some reserve career fields have exceeded 50 percent over the last two-and-a-half years.
“Through December 2003, about 37 percent of the Selected Reserve force was mobilized in just over two years,” said Thomas F. Hall, assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, testifying before a House Armed Services subcommittee. “However,” he added, “the usage rate is not consistent across the force.”
Career fields identified as over-stressed include aircrews, military police, civil affairs, intelligence, and force protection. Underutilized career fields include medical administration, legal affairs, and field artillery. Currently, the highest utilization, said Hall, is concentrated in about one-quarter of the career fields.
To address such imbalances, DOD has identified 100,000 billets in the active and reserve forces for possible restructuring by 2009. The plan includes movement within and between the active and reserve forces. The rebalancing strategy has already resulted in about 10,000 changes in military billets between the active and reserve components to relieve stress on overtaxed career fields, and an additional 20,000 more are expected to be completed by the end of this fiscal year. The Fiscal 2005 budget supports about 20,000 additional changes to the career mix.
The Air Force portion of the Fiscal 2005 rebalancing initiative will involve about 4,000 conversions to relieve stress in security forces, aircrews, and maintenance career fields.
“Easing or reducing the stress on the force requires a multifaceted approach by the department—no single solution will resolve the challenges faced by the services,” said Hall. “By employing innovative force management practices, the services can perhaps achieve the greatest degree of flexibility in utilizing the Total Force, while reducing stress on critical career fields and the need for involuntary mobilization.”
New Missions, New Strains
Hall cautioned that rebalancing will “not happen overnight.” He said it would be an “iterative and ongoing” process as demands change.
As part of the transformation process, the National Guard and Reserve have also identified new missions and mission concepts that are good fits for reserve forces. For instance, when a midcourse national missile defense capability is fielded, perhaps within the next year, it will be operated by a Guard unit. The Air Guard is already operating the ground alert sites for domestic combat air patrols under the direction of US Northern Command.
In a novel approach, the Air Force recently stood up a new unit to operate and maintain Predator unmanned aerial vehicles. The unit draws on personnel from the active Air Force, the California and Nevada Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve Command. It is the first time ANG members from one state have been made part of a unit in another state. (See “Aerospace World: ANG Crosses Lines for UAV Unit,” May, p. 18.)
The National Guard, including some ANG troops, also has activated 32 of an anticipated 55 civil support teams to assist in emergency response in the event of an attack using a weapon of mass destruction. That threat and the demands of two wars in as many years also prompted the Air National Guard to reconfigure its medical services into expeditionary medical support teams. This expeditionary medical support system allowed 10 percent of Air Guard medical personnel to deploy for Iraqi Freedom, compared to only three percent during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
The EMS system can “simultaneously” provide expeditionary combat support for AEF missions, homeland defense emergency response capabilities to the states, and support to Air Guard wings, James told lawmakers earlier this year.
He said ANG is expanding its intelligence collection and production capability to fill a growing Air Force mission. Among several initiatives, the Air Guard is enhancing its F-16 theater airborne reconnaissance system and established a new unit to support reconnaissance aircraft operations at Offutt AFB, Neb.
ANG has converted several units to support space missions, such as missile warning, satellite command and control, and launch range safety.
Air Force Reserve Command is expanding its associate program, in which Reservists share aircraft with active duty airmen. For years, Reservists have helped operate and maintain mobility aircraft. More recently, AFRC has added space operations and flying training to its list of associate programs.
“AFRC provides over 1,100 trained space officer, enlisted, civilian, and contractor personnel at more than 15 locations,” Sherrard told lawmakers. Currently, AFRC has nine space associate units, and, because they “have been highly successful,” he said, they will grow in the future.
Sherrard said the Air Force and AFRC were considering developing associate units for space control, launch operations, ICBM communications, and for Air Force Space Command’s Space Operations School.
With a host of new missions on the plate of the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command, and no end to the global war on terrorism in sight, some experts worry that the reserve components are in danger of overload.
For instance, in its recent review of the National Guard, the GAO found that there has been “a steady decline in the warfighting readiness of nondeployed units.” The Congressional agency did say that the greatest negative impact was on the Army Guard; however, it said, “Air National Guard units have also experienced difficulty in maintaining their warfighting readiness while conducting overseas and homeland defense missions and reported overall declines in readiness.”
In her testimony, Laurent said that USAF and ANG attributed the Air Guard’s readiness decline to “the high pace of operations and problems associated with aging aircraft.”
For example, Laurent reported that the US combat air patrol missions flown by ANG fighter units in New Jersey, Oregon, and Texas reduced the number of aircraft available for training. That meant the few training aircraft were flown for more hours than planned, creating scheduling and maintenance problems.
James also acknowledged that ANG had to leave some equipment overseas to support continuing operations. That has caused a shortage at home for training.
Laurent said GAO found “that the Defense Department, the states, and Congress face significant near- and long-term challenges in readying and resourcing National Guard units for overseas and domestic missions in the global war on terrorism.” She added, “In the longer term, the Guard’s ability to successfully organize for its missions in the new strategic environment will depend on whether adequate resources are identified for these efforts and whether DOD’s readiness and funding policies are consistent with the Army Guard’s expected high utilization for the foreseeable future.”
The New Reality
Many lawmakers are concerned that the Guard and Reserve are being overused in ongoing operations.
“The new reality is that this war demands more from the reserve components than previous conflicts,” said Rep. John M. McHugh (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Armed Services Total Force Subcommittee. He noted that during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, a mobilized reservist served about 156 days, while during today’s operations the average is about 319 days.
“The longer-term planning metric is that each reserve component member can expect to be mobilized at least once every five years, if not more frequently, for periods of up to a year or longer,” said McHugh. “That’s a far cry from one weekend a month.”
Recent surveys have indicated that as many as 25 percent of Guard personnel intended not to re-enlist once their tours were completed. Those surveys correspond with recent data which indicated that active duty service members leaving the military are less likely to sign up for duty in the reserves. Traditionally, the Air Guard and Air Reserve components have gotten about 25 percent of their members from former active duty troops.
Defense leaders told Congress that the Air National Guard has fallen short of its recruiting goal. At a June hearing, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said ANG recruiting was off “about 23 percent.”
However, according to James, the recruiting number is “inversely proportionate” to the Air Guard’s retention number. ANG retention is much higher than officials predicted. The retention estimate was about 88 percent, but more than 95 percent of ANG troops have elected to stay in the force.
“Because we have retained more of our people, our recruiting goals are higher than need be,” said James. “We will retain enough people to make our end strength.”
According to DOD officials, the reserve components across the board have not experienced a significant exodus of personnel.
The question for many lawmakers and defense analysts is: How long will that hold? Blum expressed concern but maintained, “The sky is not falling.” He said, “The potential for higher losses in the future is certainly there, but if we continue to address the concerns we’re hearing, I think the youth of this country will stick with us.”
Blum continued: “You have to understand that this is the first real test of the all-volunteer force in the 30 years of its existence. This is the acid test. We’re being put through the crucible of a war with sustained casualties over an extended period of time. And indications are that the all-volunteer force is reliable and resilient enough to withstand those pressures, which are pretty extraordinary. So far it looks like a success.”
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
AFA is closed on Monday for the President's Day holiday. The next Daily Report will be Tuesday, Feb. 20.
Tweets by @AirForceMag