The majority of today’s airmen have spent their entire careers at war—many can’t count their combat tours on one hand—yet Air Force retention is at a 16-year high and active duty end strength remains bloated above congressionally mandated levels.
At the end of Fiscal 2010, there were 334,196 active duty personnel, but officials say they expect to whittle the number down to the authorized 332,800 by the end of Fiscal 2012. In addition, the Air National Guard is projecting it will be at or near its authorized end strength of 106,700 by the end of Fiscal 2011.
To remedy things, Air Force leaders have implemented a series of voluntary and involuntary force-shaping measures, such as convening reduction-in-force boards and encouraging early separations through waivers for active duty service commitments.
"Without these actions in FY10, our overall retention would have exceeded the goal by more than four percent," CMSAF James A. Roy told the Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee in April.
Of the more than 172,000 airmen who filled out the 2010 Air Force Climate Survey, 80 percent said they liked their jobs and 95 percent said they believed their unit was accomplishing its mission. Although many acknowledged stress levels have increased at home as a result of heavier workloads and longer work hours due to deployments, the number of airmen who intend to remain on active duty increased slightly over the results of the previous survey conducted in 2008.
Retention is highest among midcareer airmen (six to 10 years of service) but down for more-senior airmen. In Fiscal 2010, the Air Force reached 100 percent of its retention goal for airmen with 17 months through six years of service, but it exceeded its goal for airmen with six to 10 years of service by nine percent, Roy said. The third retention category, airmen with 10 to 14 years, is struggling, coming in at 93 percent in Fiscal 2010, he said.
Yet, more than 18 percent of the active duty force serves in stressed career fields, with a high rate of deployments and manning shortages in those Air Force specialty codes, according to the service’s Fiscal 2012 budget.
The majority of the 16 enlisted stressed career fields are those in high demand, such as explosive ordnance disposal, crypto linguists, airborne intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance, or geographical intelligence analyst, said Lt. Gen. Darrell D. Jones, deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel, and services. The Global War on Terror has blurred the lines between traditional operational career fields and support roles, so airmen in stressed fields such as contracting and civil engineering also are likely to find themselves on the front lines at some point in their career.
The Air Force ended its voluntary enlisted force-shaping programs this spring, announcing it had reached its Fiscal 2011 end strength goal for enlisted airmen. Last year, the Air Force announced it was cutting 6,000 active duty enlisted and officer personnel, but officials announced in April that USAF will forgo the last two remaining date-of-separation rollback phases for enlisted personnel. Special provisions in the Palace Chase program, which allowed active duty airmen to transition to the ANG or the Air Force Reserve, and other early out waiver programs also were canceled.
The big challenge remains in the officer corps where retention is especially high. At the end of Fiscal 2010, the Air Force was 2,300 officers over its mandated levels. Control and recovery (in combat rescue and special tactics), airfield ops, intelligence, civil engineering, public affairs, and contracting were the most stressed fields for commissioned airmen.
As of June, efforts to slim the active duty force appeared to be on track, and Jones said he was confident the 2012 timeline could be met. But more work remains, as the high retention rates are expected to continue into Fiscal 2013.
"Whenever you have a spike in retention, you have two options. You have to carry the overstrength and pay for it, which is hugely expensive and in fiscally constrained times, not the easiest thing to do, or you have to cut assessions," Jones said in a June interview. "When you cut accessions, you end up living with the effect … for 20 to 30 years in different career fields, so these are not easy decisions to make."
Case in point: Despite the high retention rates, Roy said the Air Force is still working to overcome several skill imbalances resulting from "deliberately under-accessing" end strength in 2005.
Then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley and Secretary Michael W. Wynne decided to cut end strength starting in Fiscal 2006 in an effort to mitigate modernization costs.
But officials didn’t have to contend with a tanking economy the last time the Air Force undertook such large-scale force-shaping measures. In 2005, the unemployment rate hovered at five percent, a significant departure from today’s stubbornly high unemployment rate, which has gone higher than 10 percent.
"As people choose to stay in longer, we have to actively manage that end strength as best we can," Jones said. "We’ve opened up voluntary programs significantly to encourage people to leave the Air Force, waiving active duty service commitments, [and] encouraging the blue to green program, where airmen go in to the Army. ... But ... the Air Force is just on the leading edge of our force-shaping challenges."
The Fiscal 2011 National Defense Authorization Act enabled eligible officers with prior enlisted service to apply for retirement after eight years of active commissioned service, rather than 10, if they have completed 20 years of total active federal military service.
As of mid-April, about 300 officers in non-high-demand specialties chose to take advantage of the service’s voluntary separation program. They must now leave active duty service by Oct. 1.
That means several officer year groups and competitive categories no longer have to face the September reduction-in-force board, said Maj. Gen. Sharon K. G. Dunbar, force management policy director, adding that USAF wants to leverage voluntary separation and retirement programs to the maximum extent possible.
Formal cross-flow boards for midgrade officers were held for the first time this year, Jones said. Modeled after the noncommissioned officer retraining program, the idea was to maintain highly skilled airmen and push them, involuntarily if necessary, into in-demand fields where their skills may be useful.
The number of airmen USAF took was very small because a lot of people saw opportunities and volunteered, Jones said. Though he would like to see the Air Force "get in the habit" of convening such boards, he said it’s not yet clear if it will be necessary next year.
Last year, officials also brought back the limited initial skills training board for airmen who failed to pass their initial skills training. The board was tasked with retaining or separating airmen based on the needs of the Air Force, according to Roy’s testimony to the SASC personnel panel. "[When] you are over in end strength, if you have someone that fails their initial skills training [and] if you can’t reclassify them into a shortage career field, why would you keep them?" Jones asked.
The boards face tough decisions, vital to the health and longevity of the force.
The Air Force is hoping Congress will put a few more tools in its force-shaping tool box. The service has requested that Congress reinstate its authority to specifically target overmanned career fields, enabling it to fill much-needed shortages, Jones said.
As of June, the Office of the Secretary of Defense was reviewing the request and seeking input from other services. Jones said military officials have been talking with staff on Capitol Hill, but it’s not clear when the provision will be introduced.
If approved, the selective early retirement boards will be one place where change will be evident. Current SERB rules say USAF can only consider lieutenant colonels two times deferred and colonels with four years’ time in grade.
"You can only have them meet a SERB board once every five years, but you have to address an entire competitive category, meaning all line officers, all biomedical service corps officers, [etc.]," Jones said. Each category is made up of many different career fields, and shortages and overages vary significantly.
Under the current rules, the board does not have power to specifically target shortages, and good officers in high-demand fields can end up getting pushed out. "What we would like to do in the future is get enhanced SERB authority that would allow us to go in and say we need people in this AFSC and these year groups to leave and not everyone," Jones said. Without the additional authorities, it won’t be as clean, he added.
Bonuses are another vital force-shaping tool, and though likely to shrink as the Pentagon enters an age of budget austerity, bonuses probably won’t go away. The Air Force’s Fiscal 2012 budget request contained $30.5 billion in military personnel funding, including a 1.6 percent pay raise and $630 million for bonuses.
These funds are critical to carrying out a range of missions expected of the Air Force. "Selective re-enlistment bonuses are our most effective, responsive, and measurable tool for targeted retention," Roy said. "The FY12 budget for new SRB contracts does change from FY11’s budget of $145.9 million, as we expect to offer SRBs to fewer than 90 enlisted specialties in FY12."
SRB payments have dropped from $156 million in Fiscal 2009 for new bonuses to $129.9 million this year, Roy said. Right now the Air Force is offering retention bonuses ranging from $6,000 a year to $25,000 a year to maintain some of the most highly trained airmen with skills such as cyber warfare and nuclear weapons. Enlistment bonuses range from $1,000 to $17,000 depending on the skill.
Human Capital Strategy
Despite retention levels and fiscal constraints, the Air Force still needs enlisted bonuses, retention bonuses, and SRBs to encourage airmen in stressed career fields such as EOD to re-enlist. The nuclear field remains one of the most difficult to manage with the small number of nuclear bases and a growing number of dual-use career fields (those with both conventional and nuclear capabilities). The human capital strategy is one way to vector the right airmen, with the right skills, into the right career field, Roy stated.
Under the strategy, the service created its first-ever enlisted development team to guide the careers of senior enlisted airmen in the same manner traditional development teams have focused on officers and civilians. The team will look at senior NCOs’ training, education, and experience to see if they are qualified to fill critical nuclear positions. Both the nuclear weapons maintenance and the munitions and missile maintenance fields have developed prioritization lists to ensure USAF assigns the most qualified airmen to positions by order of importance within the nuclear enterprise, Roy said.
As force shaping continues, leaders also are focused on improving the deployment-to-dwell time ratio, the time airmen spend at home versus deployed.
As of March 1, more than 38,000 airmen were deployed, about 5,000 of them supporting joint taskings. As a result of demands from combatant commanders, the Air Force has seen its 179-day tours increase from 12 percent of all deployments in 2004 to 60 percent today. By October 2012, the 179-day tour length should essentially be the norm.
Some 1,800 USAF deployment requirements (seven percent of all deployments) call for airmen to be deployed for 365 days, Roy said, and filling both deployed and home-station missions continues to take a toll on units.
The new 179-day deployment standard will keep airmen on typical deployments for an additional 60 days but will also provide them and their families more time at home, Roy noted.
The deployment-to-dwell time will range from one-to-one to one-to-four, depending on the career field, but with the revised rotational baseline, most airmen will now spend six months on call for deployments followed by 24 months at home. Under the previous 120-day standard, during which most airmen deployed for 179 days anyway, airmen spent four months on call and 16 months at home.
"Obviously, 179s have increased tremendously, but so has the demand," Jones said. "Even though we’ve seen an increase in both areas, the [179-day standard deployment length] has been successful."
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
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