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Force cuts, eval changes and more: 15 things you should know for 2014

Dec. 30, 2013 - 06:50PM   |  
An Afghan air force Mi-17 helicopter lands as part of a November air assault training exercise near Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. Some 300 U.S. airmen will advise the Afghan air force through 2014.
An Afghan air force Mi-17 helicopter lands as part of a November air assault training exercise near Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. Some 300 U.S. airmen will advise the Afghan air force through 2014. (Capt. Anastasia Wasem / Air Force)
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In-residence education courses give airmen vital experience before they start their new jobs, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody has said, and that is why the Air Force is adopting a combination of Web-based and brick-and-mortar learning. Shown are March graduates of Joint Base Langley-Eustis Airman Leadership School in Virginia. (Staff Sgt. Jared Denton/Air Force)
Air Force leaders will decide in 2014 whether technical sergeants trying to make master sergeant will have to face a board. (Senior Airman Jessica Lockoski/Air Force)

Budget cuts and events worldwide and close to home mean many changes for airmen in 2014. The force will get smaller through voluntary and involuntary cuts, but those who remain in service will see new opportunities in the Pacific theater, in career fields such as cybersecurity and in revamped military education programs. Look, too, for a focus on preventing and responding to sexual assault, and for leaders’ attention to ensuring a healthy workplace environment.

Here’s what’s on the horizon in 2014:

1. Sequester’s bite, bonus outlook. The Air Force plans to shed thousands of airmen — both voluntarily and involuntarily — to help it cope with the sequester’s deep budget cuts.

And some airmen must act fast to avoid losing hard-earned benefits. On Dec. 17, the Air Force announced that more than 90 enlisted airmen will be separated or retired by the end of May, under the first of two rounds of date-of-separation rollbacks. Ten airmen who are on the rollback list and are eligible to retire must submit their retirement applications by Jan. 31, or they will not receive their retirement benefits.

The rollbacks are among 18 voluntary and involuntary force-reduction measures the Air Force is planning for the biggest drawdown since the end of the Cold War. Some of those measures — such as enlisted retention boards, a quality force review board and a broader selective early retirement board for officers — are being used for the first time in the Air Force in 2014.

“This has pretty much every tool in our toolkit at our disposal,” Brig. Gen. Gina Grosso, director of force management policy, said in December.

The Air Force is urging airmen interested in leaving to take temporary early retirement authority payments — also known as 15-year retirements — or other voluntary measures to lessen the chances other airmen will be forced out.

Grosso advised airmen to talk to their commanders, career assistance advisers and other mentors to find out if they are at risk of being separated under one of the involuntary programs. Airmen also should check their personnel folders to make sure all their records are up to date before separation boards begin reviewing them.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh has repeatedly warned that the Air Force could have to cut 25,000 airmen over the next five years if the sequester continues. A budget deal would lessen the sequester’s effects, but it remains to be seen whether that would allow the Air Force to spare some airmen.

The sequester also will deal a blow to retraining opportunities and re-enlistment bonuses in 2014 as the Air Force trims its ranks. In November, the Air Force announced it has dropped 46 career fields from the list of jobs eligible for selective re-enlistment bonuses in 2014. Ten career fields kept their bonuses.

And retraining opportunities for 710 airmen in 44 specialties have been dropped for 2014. Staff sergeants have lost the most retraining opportunities.

The Air Force also said in November that changes to enlisted and officer promotion rates are in the works but has not released details on those plans.

And commanders likely will crack down on low-level misconduct simply because they can. Those who are fortunate enough to make rank and stay in uniform probably will end up doing more with less. Keep your ear to the ground in February when the Pentagon sends its annual budget request to Congress. That’s when the real extent of the problem is likely to be revealed.

2. Evaluations overhaul. The Air Force expects to announce the first major changes in 20 years to the enlisted evaluation system and enlisted performance report, according to Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody.

As part of that change, supervisors will have a new feedback form to evaluate airmen. The form will be more detailed than the current document and supervisors will fill it out based on conversations they have with the airmen they supervise, said Master Sgt. Lee Hoover, Cody’s spokesman.

Typically, these conversations happen a minimum of once every six months, when supervisors talk to airmen about how well they are performing their primary duties and related issues, Hoover said.

The Air Force is also taking aim at the EPR, itself, possibly phasing in a new EPR form.

“That’s what we’re working on now,” Cody said in a Dec. 9 email.

Air Force leaders have acknowledged that most airmen get a perfect 5 on their EPRs regardless of how well — or how poorly — they perform. And despite efforts to curb EPR inflation, the percentage of airmen who received 5 on their EPRs dropped only from 85.3 percent in fiscal 2009 to 83 percent in fiscal 2012.

Shortly after taking the job as the Air Force’s senior enlisted leader in February, Cody announced a review of the EPR system to determine whether there is a better way for supervisors to rate the performance of their airmen.

In September, Cody said a “significant adjustment” is coming in how supervisors provide feedback to airmen.

“If you want the [performance] report to be right, you need to get feedback right,” Cody said Sept. 18 at the Air Force Association’s Air and Space Conference. “It has to be real. It has to be meaningful. We want our airmen to understand what the expectations are, and then work toward those expectations and improve on the things they need to improve on, and keep doing the good things they are doing.”

3. Decision on master sergeant promotion boards. The Air Force is studying whether technical sergeants will have to face a promotion board in order to advance to master sergeant.

As of December, the service was still doing data analysis on the issue, Cody told Air Force Times.

“We will make an announcement about the master sergeant board some time next year,” likely in late spring or summer, Cody said in a Dec. 9 interview. “Like any decision, it’s not a decision until it’s a decision.”

If the Air Force decides to hold master sergeant promotion boards, it will likely need a year to get the boards fully in place, Lt. Gen. Darrell Jones, deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, told Air Force Times in September.

“I think we might be looking at promotion boards for master sergeants in the future,” Jones said in a Sept. 4 interview. “It has great promise. I think within the next six months, we’ll have an idea whether we want to press ahead with this or not.”

Currently, only airmen in line for promotion to senior and chief master sergeant face promotion boards.

4. Afghanistan drawdown. One way or another, 2014 will bookend the post-2001 period of U.S. military warfare in the Middle East. The nation’s longest war is slated to formally end next December when the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan expires. And while many Pentagon officials have long insisted that the U.S. military will maintain an enduring presence there, the rocky relationship between the U.S. and Afghan President Hamid Karzai is raising serious questions about whether the U.S. commander in chief might just tell all his troops to pack up and leave, just as they did from Iraq at the end of 2011.

That question will linger for many months into the new year. A betting sort probably would say the good money is on some number of U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan. But the numbers will be small, no more than 10,000. And the mission will be different: The 14-year operation known as Enduring Freedom will get a new name. And most people, in and outside the military, will stop calling it a war.

For the youngest troops who were in the first grade when a passenger jet struck the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, that will be an extraordinary change.

Some 300 U.S. airmen will advise the Afghan air force through 2014. As U.S. troops withdraw, the air advisers’ role is to teach Afghans every aspect of how to run an air force, from how to acquire new airframes to how to maintain and fly aircraft.

Come February, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, commander of the 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force and deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said he will have 3,213 U.S. airmen under his command — 335 of whom will be serving as advisers to the Afghan air force. That will be down from about 400 at the end of 2013.

“It is a lot of stuff for 335 people,” Wilsbach told Air Force Times on Dec. 11. “But that’s just the part of our team.” Contractors and coalition partners will make up the rest of the 700-person air advising mission.

Aircraft promised to the Afghan air force includetwo medium-lift C-130s delivered in September and 58 MI-17s, which are used for casualty evacuations, troop resupply, transport and aerial assault. Twenty A-29s are also in production; Afghans could be training on them by fall.

Wilsbach said 2013 was an important year for the Afghan air force, as it came into its own. By early December, it had carried out nearly 1,200 casualty evacuations — three times as many as the year before. Cargo movement was up 52 percent.

“We anticipate that 2014 is going to look a lot like 2013 with double- and triple-digit improvements,” Wilsbach said.

“When we come to Afghanistan, we’re committed to the long term, not only for developing the Afghan air force and helping achieve self-sustainability,” he said. “The other part is the U.S. contribution to the coalition. The air power that operates inside of Afghanistan enables a lot of other successes.”

5. Shift to Pacific. The much-hyped pivot of U.S. troops to the Pacific continues in earnest, with more airmen seeing temporary assignments and permanent changes of station to the region, and new airframes heading to new places.

“The Asia-Pacific region is experiencing a period of growth almost unprecedented in modern history, and, as a Pacific nation, the United States has an enduring interest in ensuring this trend continues,” Pacific Air Forces commander Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle told Air Force Times.

Challenges in the region continue to rise. In December, China set up an air defense identification zone, claiming territory for China and demanding that aircraft flying through the area file flight plans with the Chinese government. The U.S. has criticized the zone, and immediately sent two unarmed B-52s through it. Defense Department officials have said that they will continue to operate as normal in the region.

Early in 2014, the Air Force is expected to announce its first operating base in the Pacific for the F-35. The primary choice and alternatives are expected to be announced in February, and Carlisle has said that Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, is the front-runner because of its location and range space.

Fighter units will see more rotations to the Pacific, in addition to the regular assignments of F-22s to Kadena Air Base, Japan, and F-16s to Kunsan Air Base, South Korea, and the permanently stationed aircraft throughout the area.

The Air Force already maintains a permanent rotation of bombers to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, but Carlisle said that, beginning this year, airmen will not just be sent there on temporary duty, but some will PCS to the base.

“Maintaining a continuous bomber presence as well as recurring fighter rotations to support [U.S. Pacific Command’s] capabilities to promote … security and stability in the region will be a constant, high priority for PACAF,” Carlisle said.

The bombers and fighters will also have a new place to stay: Australia. Carlisle said beginning in 2014 and through 2015, U.S. bombers will begin a continuous presence in the country. This presence will start with fighters and tankers at Royal Australian Air Force Base Darwin in the Northern Territory, followed by crews to RAAF Base Tindal. Eventually, bombers will be sent to Australia on a rotation similar to the current system in place at Andersen.

6. New deployments begin. Airmen will stop receiving orders as individuals or small elements and begin deploying with their units in October under the Air Expeditionary Force-Next.

The new system replaces the Air Expeditionary Force and its “tempo bands” that determined dwell-deploy ratios based on an airman’s specialty. Under that system, dwell-deploy ratios varied wildly, from a 1:1 ratio — meaning some airmen spent just as much time deployed as they did at home — to a 1:5 ratio.

Under AEF-Next, all airmen except those in the highest-demand specialties will spend six months deployed followed by 12 months at home.

The new deployment plan, in the works since 2011, will create a more stable schedule for airmen and their home stations, leaders say. Airmen also will deploy alongside airmen and commanders they already know, which leaders believe will boost morale and efficiency.

AEF-Next was expected to roll out in October 2012, but the service needed more time to adjust the policy to satisfy all commands, Col. Stephen Hart, chief of the Air Force’s war planning and policy division, told Air Force Times in October.

7. Changing force structure. The fiscal 2015 budget battle will kick off early this year with a highly anticipated report on the future structure of the Air Force.

The National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force, formed by Congress in the fiscal 2013 defense bill, held dozens of meetings and listened to proposals on money-saving ideas such as combining the National Guard and Reserve, and moving the bulk of the Air Force infrastructure to the reserve component.

The commission’s report is due to President Obama and Congress in February.

One change the commission would likely recommend is to enable airmen to move across the active and reserve components more easily, providing airmen with different career options if they choose to get out of the active duty and go to the Guard. While the report is unlikely to recommend merging the reserve components, it could recommend moving more aircraft and people to the components to save money.

“The report will add to the body of knowledge in terms of what the Air Force might do in the future regarding its mix of active and reserve component forces,” said Mark Gunzinger, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis who has worked with the commission.

The commission is already carrying weight in Congress, with lawmakers pressuring the Air Force to hold off on making force structure changes until its is released.

8. The fleet. The F-35 program is expected to see growth in production and training in 2014, while officials claim the cost of each joint strike fighter will fall.

The first major announcement for the Air Force’s variant is expected in February, when Pacific Air Forces will announce the first base to get a squadron of the jets outside the continental U.S. The base is expected to be Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, which “fares very well” as the choice because of its existing infrastructure and range capacity, Carlisle, commander of Pacific Air Forces, said before the candidate bases were announced.

The service announced in early December that it will base operational squadrons of the F-35A at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, and Burlington International Airport, Vt. Hill is expected to receive the jets as soon as 2015. The Army Corps of Engineers says it has awarded nearly $6 million in contracts for construction work at the base, including the addition of flight simulators and ammunition bunkers for the jet.

In 2014, Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., will begin receiving the first of its 72 F-35As, the first of which came off the production line Dec. 13. The base will be the F-35A training center and home to 144 jets.

Lockheed Martin, the main contractor for the jet, said in December that the F-35’s costs are decreasing, with its total price tag expected to fall to $85 million by 2019 — about $75 million in 2013 dollars, said Lorraine Martin, the head of the company’s F-35 program. If Lockheed can meet this cost goal, it would make the fifth-generation fighter competitively priced with fourth-generation aircraft such as the F-16 and F/A-18.

The much beloved but targeted A-10 will be safe for at least one year as the Air Force moves forward with possible plans to cut it because of sequestration-forced budget cuts, but backers in Congress move to protect it.

Plans to cut the entire fleet of A-10s came to light through comments by Welsh over the summer and an internal Air Combat Command slide, obtained by Air Force Times, showing the fleet cut by 2015. The Air Force has said it plans to save at least $3.5 billion over five years by cutting the fleet.

“Only by divesting entire fleets [vertical cuts] will we achieve savings measured in billions rather than ‘just’ millions of dollars,” the Air Force said in a response to questions from Congress. “Additionally, the savings from an entire fleet divestiture prevents the AF from having to eliminate newer, more capable, multirole aircraft such as the F-16 or F-35.”

The fiscal 2014 National Defense Authorization Act as adopted by Congress, however, blocks cuts to the A-10 fleet in 2014 and vocal supporters in Congress are pushing to keep the jet flying far beyond this year.

9. UCMJ changes. Commanders no longer have authority to set aside court-martial convictions or reduce sentences, one of several changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice adopted as part of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act.

The reforms, sparked by sex crime scandals across the military and by a Defense Department report that found the number of service members experiencing unwanted sexual contact is on the rise, primarily in rape and sex assault cases.

Other changes:

■Good character and the military record of the accused can no longer be used as a reason not to prosecute any alleged offense.

■There is no longer a five-year statute of limitations on rape and sexual assault cases.

■The minimum sentence for any sex-related offense is separation from the service; complaints and results of any administrative action involving a sexual offense will be included in the service member’s record.

■Victims of sex crimes must have a legal representative present during interviews; retaliation against a victim for reporting a crime is illegal.

■Military treatment facilities with 24-hour emergency rooms must have a full-time sexual assault nurse examiner; victims or alleged perpetrators may be transferred to a new unit or location.

The proposed Military Justice Improvement Act, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., would lead to more sweeping changes to the UCMJ, including creation of an independent military justice command to handle all serious crimes unrelated to military duties. The bill, which hasn’t been voted on yet, could be taken up this year.

President Obama last month also ordered Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to report back to him by Dec. 1 on the military’s progress in preventing and responding to sexual assault crimes, or face potential tougher reforms.

10. Sexual assault prevention and response training. The Air Force will stand down one day in late spring to kick off the “Start by Believing” campaign aimed at getting rid of misconceptions about sex crimes.

Airmen across the service will meet in small groups in what will be a twice yearlyday to focus exclusively on sexual assault in the ranks, said Maj. Gen. Margaret Woodward, who has led the revamped Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office at the Pentagon for the past six months.

The new office stood up in June after the military came under increasing criticism for its handling of sexual assault.

The standdown day is part of a three-pronged approach developed by Woodward’s office of 32: holding perpetrators accountable, educating airmen and creating an environment that makes it hard for perpetrators to act.

“Airmen really want to talk about this. They want to talk openly and honestly. They don’t want their commanders to not feel comfortable. It’s a tough subject, but we need to get around it,” Woodward said.

“The most important thing is understanding this is really what we consider an insurgency. How do we attack an insurgency versus a force-on-force campaign? With this insurgency, how do we take care of this really incredibly small percentage of perpetrators that we feel are much more often repeat offenders? ... How do we hold them accountable and eliminate them from the force? A lot of that, unfortunately, depends upon their survivors, getting them more comfortable in coming forward. That requires everybody in our Air Force,” she said.

The “Start by Believing” campaign will take that on, Woodward said.

The Air Force will also conduct a survey to determine just how often sexual assaults occur — the first such survey since 2010, Woodward said.

“People’s participation is absolutely vital. If we don’t get enough responses, we don’t have an effective survey and we don’t know what we’re dealing with,” she said.

11. Workplace climate survey. Airmen can expect to get a beefed-up, 115-question climate survey on a range of topics, from trust in leadership, job satisfaction, burnout, bullying, hazing and favoritism to demeaning behaviors in the workplace; racial, religious and sex discrimination; sexual harassment, sexist behaviors; and whether they intend to stay in the military.

Called the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute’s Organizational Climate Survey, it replaces a shorter, less frequent survey and for the first time allows contractors to participate.

Commanders must administer the survey within 120 days of assuming command and every year after.

“It’s a comprehensive climate assessment that is broader than equal opportunity,” said Cyrus Salazar, the Air Force’s equal opportunity program manager.

Perhaps most significant is what happens with the survey results. The unit commander’s next in the chain of command is to also receive the results of the survey.

Although the results will not be a part of a commander’s official file or permanent record, commanders must brief the airmen in their unit within 60 days, said James Carlock, director of the Air Force Equal Opportunity Policy Office.

“That has not been a requirement in the past,” he said, and has been airmen’s biggest criticism of the survey.

How they brief their airmen will be up to the commanders. That could come in a commander’s call or an action plan sent out via email, Carlock said.

“We have equal opportunity offices with managers, directors and counselors who are available to help commanders implement plans,” he said.

Since the results will also go to a commander’s superior, “there is enhanced accountability across the board,” Salazar said.

Carlock said it is important airmen understand the purpose of the revamped survey: It will now be standardized across the services.

“Some people might say they’re surveying us to death,” he said. “But you have to look at it from the overall perspective. We want to find out what’s going on and keep it current. We don’t want to wait too long” to address a potential problem.

12. Cyber career jobs. Cybersecurity is a hot opportunity for airmen, now more than ever.

The Defense Department hopes to recruit 6,000 cyber operators for U.S. Cyber Command mission teams by fiscal 2016, including about 1,700 airmen, as part of a joint service task force. Another 500 airmen are needed in support roles.

13. Education opportunities for active duty and vets. Professional military education will continue to evolve into a hybrid of in-residence courses and Web-based learning, Cody said.

“We’ll continue to work that plan that we put into place a year ago to ensure that we’re developing the enlisted force on the things that are important: The institutional competencies and the best methods available to us,” Cody said in the Dec. 9 interview.

The value of distance learning was shown during the government shutdown last fall, when close to 900 airmen were sent home from in-residence PME courses, while an Advanced Joint Professional Military Education Class at the Joint Staff Forces College in Norfolk, Va., was able to proceed because it had switched to online learning.

But Cody has said that in-residence courses give airmen vital experience before they start their new jobs, and that is why the Air Force is adopting a combination of Web-based and brick-and-mortar education known as EPME Next, which will take between four and six years to fully implement.

In 2014, the program will be fully implemented at the Senior Noncommissioned Officer Academy while the Noncommissioned Officer Academy will start transitioning to the blended approach, Cody said.

“The distance learning courses — there’s a lot more fidelity to them; they’re interactive, multimedia instructions; so it’s not just a box of books or a PowerPoint presentation,” Cody said. “What they’ll also learn, as we evolve the in-residence portions of this, we will not be reteaching the things that they learned in distance learning. They will be going into those in-residence opportunities with a course that was built on the fact that they have already completed the distance learning piece, and they will build on that.”

For veterans: Lawmakers in the House and Senate worked on bills to push colleges and universities to automatically offer in-state tuition to all veterans, regardless of whether they are state residents, but they were unable to pass them into law in 2013. The effort will continue in 2014, and it could make a big difference in how much vets have to pay for school and where they can go.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill covers the full cost of in-state tuition at public schools. But any extra costs associated with out-of-state tuition are not covered, which sometimes forces vets to pay the difference themselves. And that’s not a small amount: In the 2012-13 school year, in-state tuition averaged $8,655 while out-of-state tuition averaged $21,706, according to the College Board.

Bills in Congress aim to address the problem, which is common for service members often forced to relocate by Uncle Sam, by requiring public colleges and universities to either offer state residency waivers to veterans or lose all eligibility to accept the Post-9/11 GI Bill. This would likely mean that vets 100 percent eligible for the GI Bill could attend more schools with no out-of-pocket costs. Yet it would also likely shrink the number of schools at which vets can use their Post-9/11 benefit.

14.
BAH rollbacks? As the Pentagon leadership adjusts to the long-term reality of sequestration budget cuts, personnel programs are in the cross hairs. And none is centered more than the Basic Allowance for Housing. The bean counters have their eyes on that $20 billion annual budget that helps about 1 million troops pay their monthly rent. It’s not part of “basic compensation” but for many troops BAH helps pay a big portion of the monthly bills.

Troops could see a return to the 1990s rules, when BAH was intended to cover only about 80 percent of average rental housing costs, with troops expected to cough up the rest out of pocket. Or the entire system might be simplified, scaled back and given a new name. One reason it’s a target is that the Defense Department may not need congressional approval to make such changes (unlike many other big-ticket personnel programs). Details likely will come in February when the Defense Department unveils its annual budget plans.

15.
Retirees back into Prime

Under a plan that the Pentagon has had in the works for several years but only recently unveiled in full, about 171,000 retirees and their family members were pushed out of Tricare Prime when the Defense Department decided to strictly enforce Prime Service Areas as within 40 miles of a current military medical facility or within 40 miles of a closed facility on a base that had shut down under base realignment and closure. For much of the past decade, Prime had a wide reach, with defense officials believing it was more economical. But the savings have not materialized.

So as of Oct. 1, those retirees and families had to switch to Tricare Standard, with its higher out-of-pocket costs. That sparked outrage within the retiree community and its advocates in Washington. And lawmakers swiftly listened: Under a provision of the recently passed 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, the retirees and family members who lost Tricare Prime in October will have the chance to opt back in.

When and how they will be able to do this, however, remains to be seen. Pentagon officials have said they must follow procedural rules and study the issue, publish federal notices and solicit comment from the public before it can act.

Staff writers George Altman, Kristin Davis, Brian Everstine, Patricia Kime, Stephen Losey, Oriana Pawlyk, Jeff Schogol and Andrew Tilghman contributed to this report.

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