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Air Force reserves contend with high op tempo, old planes

The Air Force Reserve components are ready to serve the nation, but need to retain their identity as a part-time force to allow airmen to fulfill their requirements to civilian jobs and family, Reserve leaders said.

"A lot of our drill status guardsmen have to balance the life of the Guard versus their civilian employment versus what they do with their families — not counting having any personal time for themselves," said Lt. Gen. Stanley Clarke, Air National Guard director.

"We just have to be careful to balance that we don't break faith with employers and families by the level of commitment we do," he said. "My job is to make sure that we don't overcommit and to make sure that we're harnessing the resources necessary to fulfill the obligations that we signed up for."

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Clarke said he doesn't want to lose the Guard's identity as a volunteer part-time force.

"I'm a little hesitant to say, 'Give us more, we'll do more,'" he said. "In times of combat, there's no question: You need to mobilize, you mobilize as many Guardsmen as you want, to do something on behalf of the nation. But in phases of operations where it's more like theater security cooperation, you can dial that back a little bit and still do it effectively."

But with the Air Force engaged against the Islamic State group, Clarke is concerned about the high pace of operations.

"Every time we turn around and ask the commanders out there to produce more, they tend to pull it together and make it happen," Clarke said. "They're doing it on the backs of the airmen, but the airmen I think are happy that they're able to do that level of support. Can we sustain it over the long term? That's a great question. That's going to be a hard one to answer. ... The threats that we see out there across the world, the burden of sequestration, are going to continue to keep us engaged in a heavy way."

Lt. Gen. James Jackson, head of Air Force Reserve Command, said Reserve components present unique challenges and advantages for the Pentagon.

"Over 50 percent of our folks don't live near the base that they're assigned to, so we've got to be able to reach out and into communities to make sure they feel connected," Jackson said, adding that the Internet and apps help that communication.

And while Reserve members are always ready to serve, Jackson said, the fact that they are part-time can free up resources for the Air Force.

When reservists and guardsmen aren't on active assignment, "you're not paying for retirement, you're not paying for retirement annuity, you're not paying for medical care, you're not paying for a lot of things that a full-time member has to have paid for them," Jackson said. "That's where it's a huge benefit to our Air Force to have a part time component or two like we have now. ... You can use that to your advantage: Use it when you need it, and then don't use it when you don't need it."

But Jackson is also concerned about the aging aircraft fleet used by the Reserve and Guard.

"All of our HC-130s in support of combat search and rescue, they're all grounded right now," he said. "We've got six of them at Patrick Air Force Base, they're all grounded due to corrosion that we've found. For this particular mission set, we have no aircraft right now. They have to go into depot. It's going to be six to eight months to fix if we can repair them. That's just an indicator of how an old fleet is actually more expensive than buying new C-130Js."

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