WASHINGTON — The first public meeting of a commission on the future structure of the U.S. Air Force picked up right where Congress and state leaders left off last year, with claims that the Air Force has disproportionately targeted the Guard in budget decisions, has not taken the full mission of that component into account and needs to involve state leaders more.
The meeting, held in the Rayburn House office building on Capitol Hill, featured commentary from leaders of the nation’s adjutants general, the National Guard Association of the United States, the Reserve Officers Association and the Air Force Association.
Although held on the Hill, no members of Congress appeared to comment during their allotted time.
Initial statements from the group agreed the commission must adopt a unified solution for the Air Force to continue to be effective, especially in a time of widespread budget cuts.
“Fighting over who retains a 23-year-old F-16 for another year precipitates a terminal glide path for the service as a whole,” Craig McKinley, former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and current president of the Air Force Association, said.
But as the meeting shifted into an open forum, divisions became clear. Commission members and witnesses alike claimed the service’s fiscal 2013 budget proposal that originally targeted the Air National Guard was a leadership failure and the result of biased thinking.
“The decision-makers are guys my age, usually males, usually from the Air Force Academy, and that’s OK,” said Harry “Bud” Wyatt, a retired lieutenant general and the previous director of the Air National Guard. He is one of the eight members of the congressionally mandated commission.
“But when you get so many people of one tribe, of one institution, it becomes very easy to reach a consensus and think you are doing the right thing, and you miss the opportunity to leverage the diversity [of the total Air Force].”
The breakdown of relations with the Guard starts at the top in the Pentagon, where few 2- or 3-stars have a Guard background, according to retired Maj. Gen. Paul Weaver, a former director of the Air Guard who spoke at the hearing as a member of the public.
“If you are a CEO with no knowledge of what 40 percent of your company is doing, you’d be incompetent,” he said. “In the Air Force, you’d be called a general officer.”
“Last year was a tough year for the total force. Much of the relationship between the Air Force and the Air Guard was mired in distrust and miscommunication,” said Pete Duffy, director of legislation, National Guard Association of the United States. And while the establishment of the commission was a step toward healing, Congress still went further than the Guard would have liked.
“Should it find it to be in the best interest of the future structure of the Air Force, [we] respectively ask this commission to recommend to Congress that it equitably reverse, to the fullest extent possible, the ongoing dismantling of Air National Guard and Reserve aircraft,” Duffy said.
Duffy noted that a study by the Reserve Forces Policy Board found that a reserve serviceman costs roughly a third of an active duty member, providing a “cost-effective solution to the budget quagmire our federal government is in.”
Maj. Gen. William Wofford, the president of the Adjutants General Association of the United States and the adjutant general of Arkansas, testified that the National Guard needs to be the first option if there is a request for military capability. As an operational force, the Guard handles 31 percent of the fighter force, 38 percent of airlift operations and 40 percent of tanker missions all for 6 percent of the total Air Force budget, Wofford said. They operate with older aircraft, so the Guard needs to be a priority as new platforms such as the F-35 and KC-46 arrive, he said.
Raymond Johns, the former commander of Air Mobility Command who retired from active duty in January, said that such parochial discussions are what got the Air Force in this budget situation in the first place, and that the total force itself needs to own the aircraft and the mission first.
“To me, that is what we’re trying to move away from. It’s troubling for me to hear that,” Johns said. “[We need] total force integration. No one component will own it. … Can we get over who owns it?”
Looking forward, and to the past
The commission was mandated by the fiscal 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) following a series of bruising battles between an Air Force looking to make equipment and personnel cuts and a Congress aiming to protect local units.
In the fiscal 2013 budget plan, the Air Force proposed cutting 3,900 active-duty, 5,100 Guard and 900 reservists, a move that members of Congress decried as too targeted to the Guard. The Senate Armed Services Committee rejected proposed cuts to the Guard, and instead recommended fully funding the Guard’s equipment and personnel for 2013.
At the time, committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., criticized the Air Force and called for a congressionally mandated national commission to provide recommendations for the Air Force structure. That evolved into the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force, which was included in the NDAA to provide input for the three branches of the service going forward.
Commission members were nominated by President Obama and the leadership of the House and Senate Armed Services committees.
While this was the first public hearing, it was not the first assembly of the group. It previously met May 14 for a closed session at the Pentagon, where Air Force staff briefed them on classified information. That was followed a day later by a meeting with congressional staff.
The group was also assembled June 3 to hear from Secretary Michael Donley; Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh; Lt. Gen. Stanley Clarke, director of Air National Guard; and Lt. Gen. James Jackson, chief of the Air Force Reserves, among other top Air Force officials.
Public meetings will be held June 17 in Greenville, S.C., and June 26 in Arlington, Va. Those will be followed by several visits to USAF bases around the country in the fall.
Commission Executive Director James Blackwell said the group has five staffers, but should meet its goal of 30-40 staff by the end of June. Blackwell, who directed the 2004 Schlesinger Commission on DoD detention operations and the 2008 commission that studied the Pentagon’s management of nuclear weapons, said the staff will be made up of contractors and detailees from the Air Force and other services.
Right now, the commission is “in listen mode,” Blackwell said, noting the eight-person group is still trying to get a handle on the full range of issues.
“How far back do you look? Did these issues start in the Cold War? The founding of the Air Force in 1947?” Blackwell asked. “We want to be more forward looking than just FY15. [The commission] looks both in the rear view mirror and ahead.”
In addition to the commission, USAF assembled the Total Force Task Force, headed by Maj. Gens. Mark Bartman, representing the Guard, Brian Meenan representing the reserve and John Posner on behalf of the active duty.
Regarding the commission, Posner stated during a May 2 interview that “we’ve made ourselves available at their request, to assist them in any way they like.” However, Blackwell said there has been limited contact between the two groups so far.
In the meantime, at least one of the interested parties at the hearing is concerned about what the Task Force’s results may look like.
“It is our honest hope that the TF2 will provide the necessary data to this commission, rather than undercut its findings,“ Duffy said in his remarks.