They're the Air Force's steepest force cuts in two decades. And a close look at where the force management programs have shed airmen provides a glimpse into how the Air Force is changing.
As the Air Force attempts to divest aircraft, adjust crew ratios, and focus more intently on generating sorties, the service is reducing thousands of logistics jobs, such as fuels airmen and maintainers. And as the overall size of the force is reducing, so too are thousands more support jobs, such as security forces, personnelists, attorneys and medical positions.
Air Force Times requested and analyzed rank-by-rank and career-field-by-career-field data for all of the force management programs to date.
And in an exclusive interview Nov. 4 at his Pentagon office, Air Force personnel chief Lt. Gen. Sam Cox — the man overseeing the force management effort — explained to Air Force Times why the service cut where it did.
One thing Cox emphasized is that slashing airmen is the last thing the Air Force wanted to do.
"From the very outset, none of us wanted to do any of these reductions," Cox said. "But because of the budgetary issues, that's what we had to do. ... It's what we could afford to have. In the end, we have an operational force that can meet the combatant commander responsibilities."
But the Air Force had little choice in the matter, Cox said. Budget cuts forced the Air Force last December to unveil a slate of 18 voluntary and involuntary programs to reduce its ranks — date-of-separation rollbacks, enlisted retention boards, voluntary separation pay, reductions in force, Temporary Early Retirement Authority, Quality Force Review Board, the selective early retirement board, and the new enhanced SERB. The Air Force also announced some non-monetary voluntary programs, such as active-duty service commitment waivers, time-in-grade waivers, commissioned service date waivers, and an expanded Palace Chase program allowing some airmen to serve out the rest of their active-duty service commitment in the Reserve.
The Air Force began fiscal 2014 with about 330,700 active duty airmen and aims to bring its end strength down to 310,900 by the end of fiscal 2015 — a reduction of 19,800 airmen in less than two years.
- How the cuts were made
- Cuts by rank
- Cuts by rank and force management program
- Cuts by enlisted field
- Cuts by officer field
Besides the force management programs, the Air Force is also bringing in fewer new airmen. The service cut its accessions by 4 percent in 2014 and plans to cut accessions by 14 percent in 2015. That, combined with normal retirements and separations, should get the Air Force to its goal by the end of 2015, Cox said.
As of Nov. 6, the Air Force said it had about 316,500 active duty airmen. That means the Air Force must cut 5,600 airmen between now and Sept. 30.
One strategy that was ruled out right away was achieving the cuts by massively slashing accessions, said Brig. Gen. Brian Kelly, director of force management policy and deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services. Those kind of near-freezes can throw the force out of balance and create a so-called "bathtub effect" that can be felt for decades, Kelly said. Cox said the Air Force cut accessions by 34 percent in 2005 and 2006, which has left those year groups short.
"We're trying to balance how many people we bring in with how many people we need to take out," Kelly said. "Either one can get out of balance easily, so there has to be an even keel on both sides."
So in the midst of last year's budget chaos, the Air Force began poring over its ranks, line-by-line, to figure out where it was overmanned and how it could adjust.
"Last fall, when all this stuff was going down, we were completely out of whack," Cox said. "Lots of fighter squadrons that were grounded, readiness was going down the tank, sequestration, we had civilian furloughs in place. So really tough decisions were being made at that time to be able to figure this out."
And what resulted was a road map for a very different Air Force — the leanest since the 1940s.
Back shop cuts
On the enlisted side, the biggest cuts came in the logistics and support categories. Logistics jobs, which have Air Force Specialty Codes beginning with 2, and support jobs with AFSCs beginning with 3, each accounted for roughly 38 percent of all the enlisted cuts. But last December, when the force management programs were announced, the total number of logistics jobs amounted to 35 percent of the overall enlisted force, and support jobs made up 28 percent of enlisted airmen.
That means that not only were they cut the most numerically, they were cut at a higher proportion than their demographics would suggest.
Cox and Kelly said they focused some of the cuts on back shop areas to preserve the Air Force's sortie capability.
"In order to make the losses happen, we took more risk in some areas — the back shop areas, the fuels, those places we adjusted how we did business in that regard — and left the folks who were on the flightline," Kelly said. "The sortie-generation people who have to turn the aircraft and get the aircraft ready to fly, try to protect them at a higher rate."
Enlisted maintainers, fuels, materiel management, munitions systems and other logistics career fields overall bore a heavy burden, as did security forces, pavements and construction equipment and other support career fields.
The Air Force's planned divestment of aircraft such as the A-10 and MC-12 also helped drive some of its cuts. Some airmen who work on those planes are being moved over to work on other aircraft such as the F-35, Cox said.
But if the Air Force doesn't have as many airplanes, he said, it won't need as many back shop airmen to do metal repair and other maintenance, fuel up those aircraft, and guard airplanes. That fact helped drive cuts to enlisted career fields such as 3P0X1 security forces, 2F0X1 fuels and 2A7X3 aircraft structural maintenance.
"If we're out there fueling 500 aircraft, and it's reduced to 300, that results in a reduction in fuels airmen," Kelly said.
Lower crew ratios
On the officer side, the cuts fell most heavily — both proportionally and numerically — on 11M mobility pilots. When the force management program began last December, the Air Force had 4,399 mobility pilots in its ranks, which equated to 6.9 percent of the officer force. But the Air Force cut 386 mobility pilots — mostly through voluntary separation pay — which amounted to 14.2 percent of the officer cuts.
Cox said that the Air Force decided it could get its strategic airlift job done by lowering the crew ratio for active duty mobility pilots. For example, Cox said, the Air Force in the past has required each C-17 to have three crews. That crew ratio is being lowered to two crews per aircraft.
At the same time, Kelly said, the Air Force is offering retention bonuses to hold on to the remaining mobility pilots, to make sure it can maintain that field's new, lower force levels.
"We first shape them down to the level that was going to be the new requirement, and then we offered the bonus after that point," Kelly said. "Once we got to the size we wanted, now we want everybody to stay in the aviation career field, given the outside airline hiring."
Cuts to 1A2X1 aircraft loadmaster and 1A1X1 flight engineers were partially driven by the Air Force's plan to transfer C-130s to the reserve component, as well as crew ratio reductions that were behind the cuts to mobility pilots.
The Air Force also cut 121 1U0X1 remotely piloted aircraft sensor ops airmen. But those cuts came because of the planned divestiture of the MC-12 aircraft, which use sensor ops in that career field.
But making force cuts in anticipation of aircraft divestments carries a risk: What if the Air Force isn't allowed to cut those planes? For example, key lawmakers such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., have fought the Air Force's plans to divest the A-10.
If the Air Force isn't allowed to divest and still needs to field those aircraft, Cox said it could turn to civilian employees or contractors to do jobs such as fuels.
"If we can't divest aircraft, then the mission still has to be accomplished," Cox said. "It'll just be accomplished in different ways."
Smaller force, changing needs
In addition to mobility pilots, developmental engineers and personnel officers also bore much of the officer cuts.
"As the total number drops, you can do the mission with less people, mostly in the support areas," Kelly said. "If we have 330,000 airmen and we need so many personnelists to take care of 330,000 airmen, when we drop that number to 310,000, we correspondingly drop the number of people doing personnel, base communication, base civil engineering function, people guarding the bases, because we have fewer people."
Cox said that also means the Air Force needs fewer lawyers and medical airmen, which resulted in the 59 cuts to 51J judge advocates.
But some jobs were never on the table. Pararescuemen and battlefield airmen, for example, were never opened up for voluntary or involuntary programs. And after the scandal involving cheating, drug use and poor morale in the Air Force's nuclear missile enterprise erupted, the service in June removed nuclear jobs from the force management list.
The nuclear scandal also led the Air Force to greatly reduce the number of security forces airmen being cut. The first force management matrix in January identified 3,992 security forces airmen that were overmanned and needed to be cut. In the end, security forces still ended up being cut the most, but the 1,564 cuts that were actually made were less than half what they originally could have been.
"It's not as easy as just saying, 'I'm going to give everybody a 10 percent cut,'" Cox said. "Some are going to get higher cuts, some are going to get lower cuts, some people are already below where we needed them to be, like battlefield airmen [and] pararescue guys."
The force cuts have not hit enlisted airmen or officers more heavily than would be expected. Roughly four out of every five cuts made were to enlisted airmen — proportionally the same amount of the active duty force made up by enlisted.
But some ranks were hit harder than others. For example, about 31 percent of the cuts were made to staff sergeants and 20 percent were technical sergeants. Since staff sergeants make up 21 percent of the active-duty force, and tech sergeants represent less than 13 percent, they bore more of the brunt.
On the officer side, colonels, captains and majors were also cut in a greater proportion than their population would suggest.
When it comes to force cuts during the rest of 2015, a lot is still up in the air. Congress isn't likely to pass a final 2015 budget anytime soon. But Cox said the Air Force needs to know what its funding levels are going to be before it decides what kind of force management programs will be needed this year.
"We're still waiting on some decisions in terms of what's the budget going to look like," Cox said. "Are we still going to be under a [continuing resolution funding the Air Force at 2014 levels]? Or, what's it going to be. So until that's determined, we don't have a final answer."
"If we get [Budget Control Act sequestration spending levels], the end strength is significantly lower than what we've got programmed right now," Cox said. "So that really depends. Until we know what our end strength is, issued by Congress, we can't make a decision at this point."
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.