US Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. Cathy Miller talks with Dennis McCarthy, chairman of the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force, at Mansfield-Lahm Air National Guard Base, Ohio. (US Air Force Reserve Command)
WASHINGTON — The Air Force should look at moving as much manpower into the Reserve and Air National Guard components as possible, according to a new report from a congressionally mandated panel.
The National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force delivered its long-awaited report Thursday , and as expected, the eight-member committee believes that moving more force structure into the part-time components could save billions of dollars annually that could instead be used for readiness and modernization.
“Recognizing that some missions must be performed by the Active Component, the Air Force can, and should, entrust as many missions as possible to its Reserve Component forces,” the commissioners wrote in their report.
“Transitioning missions from the Active Component to the Reserve Components will allow the Air Force to perform these missions with less expensive part-time Reservists while reducing the Active Component end strength, thus saving money in the military personnel accounts that can be put to use in readiness, modernization, and recapitalization accounts.”
Shifting the component mix from 69-31 active to reserve mix to a 58-42 mix could yield savings of $2 billion per year in manpower costs without any total force reduction, the report found. That could be achieved by moving large amounts of the ISR, cyber, space and ICBM missions into the Reserve. Further savings would come from the integration of headquarters staff, something Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has made a priority across the department.
The commission also suggests greater integration among the three branches of the service, as has been discussed by the service’s own Total Force Task Force. That would include doing away with the tradition of the active component getting first claim to new technologies and instead thinking of platforms as shared assets among the three components.
One of the biggest changes outlined in the report is a call for the abolition of the Air Force Reserve Command and its Numbered Air Forces. That would result in significant cuts to personnel as well as more integration at the staff level, although the positions of chief of the Air Force Reserve and director of the Air National Guard, a set of three-star officers “with direct access to the Chief of Staff and with small but sufficient staffs to allow them to properly advise Air Force leadership,” would remain.
In a conclusion unlikely to go over well on the Hill, the commission urged Congress to allow the service to close installations to generate savings. Service officials have complained that Congress’ refusal to allow base closures prevents the service from generating needed savings, which in turn forces the current budget cuts to come out of readiness and modernization accounts.
Although many of the changes outlined in the report may take on added urgency given the tight fiscal environment, Commission Chairman Dennis McCarthy denied that the conclusions reached were only viable because of funding challenges.
“The things we’ve recommended, we think should be done even if there wasn’t a fiscal requirement to do so,” McCarthy said during a public event on the Hill.
Moving more force structure into the Guard and Reserve lines up with comments made by the secretary of the Air Force one day before the report was released.
“I’d like to make that point here again today that going forward, there is no doubt in my mind that our Air Force is going to rely more, not less, on our National Guard and reserve forces,” Deborah Lee James said at a Jan. 29 event. “Not only does it make sense from a mission standpoint, it also makes sense from an economic standpoint.”
Commissioners stopped short of proposing a merger between the Guard and Reserves, as had been discussed in previous public hearings. However, Commissioner Bud Wyatt said some of the conclusions reached in the final report drew on the ideas from that proposal, developed by five retired Air Force generals.
“We considered it. We just decided there was a value to the United States Air Force of having three components,” Wyatt, the previous director of the Air National Guard, said during the public event. “We did take into consideration some of the elements, in the way the Air Force and Air National Guard does business, and that’s reflected in a lot of the integrated air components.”
The commission also seems to have solved the long-running disagreement about whether active or part-time force structure is cheaper, concluding that the capability delivered by Guard and Reserve forces is cheaper than that of active duty personnel. That had been a major question asked during public hearings, with various cost models being put forward all resulting in different answers. However, commissioners noted that more work is needed in this area.
It’s too early to know what level of buy-in the report will have, either in the Pentagon or the Hill.
Although the commission has not yet briefed the secretary and chief of staff, the organization that supports the commission will remain active for 90 days in order to help facilitate conversations with department leaders and members of Congress.
At least one stakeholder group is happy. A statement sent out by the National Guard Association of the United States praised the “great contribution” of the commission. The statement applauds the commission “not just for their work, but for showing Congress and the Pentagon the value of an independent look at future force structure when the components are at an impasse,” notable as the Army appears headed for a fight between the active and Guard components in the coming year.
To read the full report, click here.