The first sign came in December, when officials announced force-shaping measures that included the Air Force's first-ever retention boards for senior airmen through senior master sergeants. Commanders were directed to rank their airmen, an action that would seal the fates of some who were borderline performers in overmanned career fields.
Now, the new enlisted performance evaluation system that is rolling out over the next 18 months directs commanders to slot every airman's enlisted performance report into one of five categories — with quotas for the top two — before the airman is considered for promotion.
Top enlisted leaders, gathered here for the annual Sergeants Association conference, said the key to getting the rankings right is in the new feedback form, called the Airman Comprehensive Assessment, unveiled by Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody in May. Supervisors will use the in-depth form for one-on-one conversations about performance, contributions to the Air Force community and personal goals.
"That feedback, which is the ACA, is all about you improving, understanding what your expectations are and having meaningful, purposeful conversations about how to get better," Cody told conference attendees Aug. 19.
The feedback forms and "forced distribution" of airmen into categories will offer airmen a better idea how they measure up, Cody said. And as the Air Force gets smaller, airmen can expect more emphasis on special duties, education, cross-training and responsibilities outside of their functions, he said.
"When you have less of a pool to go to, you need to make sure that the pool that you have has the skill sets you need. That's why this discussion is absolutely necessary," he said. "So if we need to do something with you as a staff sergeant, we need you to do it as a staff sergeant. ...You can't be solely functional. You can't be so connected with your function — you should be connected — but not so connected with your function that when your Air Force tells you to do something else, tells you that they need you to do something else, that you're not the most motivated, dedicated airman to go do that the best you can."
Cody said he witnessed the aftermath of racking and stacking among senior noncommissioned officers, some of whom had 15 or more years of service who were solid performers, but were surprised to learn that they were at the bottom of their group. Some lacked a Community College of the Air Force degree or other accomplishments that would have bolstered their standing.
"This was significant emotional event for these senior NCOs ... they thought they had a career ahead of them," he said. "They'd done everything, they were smart, they got promoted, but they didn't do everything we told them to. They didn't have their CCAF. We've been telling you that's important. Maybe we should have been more direct about it. I thought we'd been pretty direct, but sometimes you've got to sit there and say 'Hey,' and this was the 'Hey.'"
In all, 1,421 of 7,121 airmen considered by retention boards this summer will be forced to leave at the end of this year and early next year. Airmen should expect retention boards in 2015 and possibly beyond, Cody said.
"What's happened this year will happen again in a smaller format next year, and depending on what the demands of our nation are and how they decide to fund the military, it could happen in the future, and our airmen do need to be prepared for that," Cody said.
The feedback forms and the two to three hours expected to complete them concern supervisors in some career fields, such as maintenance, who already squeeze in lunch on the run and find little free time to even check their work email. A shortage of more experienced airmen with journeyman and craftsman skill levels compounds the problem.
Some airmen who supervise eight to 10 people wonder how they will find time to give the feedback that the new system demands when they are spending eight to 12 hours a day on the flightline, one airman told a panel of chief master sergeants at the conference.
The chiefs said a premium must be placed on developing airmen.
"I think the key thing is, we only have enough time to do certain things in a day and we have to prioritize, and try to look for the return on investment," said Chief Master Sgt. Steve McDonald, command chief of Pacific Air Forces at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. "And I think as you look at the Airman Comprehensive Assessment, the return on investment we're going to make into that in developing airmen is going to pay off very large, later in life. We still have to get the mission done, we understand that. I don't have any easy answers for you, because we know the amount of time that people are working out there."
Chief Master Sgt. Terry West, command chief of Global Strike Command, Barksdale, Air Force Base, Louisiana, said he sees the shortage in the advanced-level airmen and the same concerns at his command.
"It just shows the importance of first-line supervisors and importance of our airman leadership schools in giving those folks the tools and the skills that they need to supervise and lead at that level," West said.
Some airmen worry that racking and stacking in some of the most competitive fields, or offices where airmen were hand-selected, will result in the force-outs of some of the most qualified people.
But Chief Master Sgt. Victoria Gamble, command chief at Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, said the stakes are high for everyone.
"For me to say someone on your headquarters staff is far more important than somebody somewhere else, not to them they weren't, [and] not to their supervisors," Gamble said in response to a question. "They struggled just like you did to rack and stack their people, even if they weren't selectively manned. They felt like they were."
The process has been difficult for everyone, Gamble said.
"Are we going to do it again? Probably. If Congress lets us make the force changes that they've given us the budget to execute, we'll probably have to cut a little bit more and go through the same process," she said. "But we can't just say these people are special so they can't be touched because if you did that, there would be 10 of us left. That would be it, because all of us are special." ■