Panel to Air Force: Send Airmen to the Reserve

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The U.S. Air Force should shift more personnel and missions from the active-duty force to the Guard and Reserve components to save billions of dollars a year.

That was among the conclusions of a long-awaited report released Thursday by the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force. The panel was mandated by Congress under last year’s defense policy bill and tasked with studying the issue of restructuring the service amid budget reductions.

The eight-member commission, chaired by Dennis McCarthy, former assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, and Erin Conaton, former undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, determined the service could save about $2 billion a year by shifting some 36,600 personnel from the active component to the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve.

"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," the report states.

The Pentagon’s fiscal 2014 budget requested funding for more than half a million men and women to serve in the Air Force across the active and reserve components, including roughly 328,000 on active duty, 105,000 in the Air National Guard and 70,000 in the Reserve.

The commission recommended for the service to change the mix of full-time and part-time personnel in the force, from the current breakdown of 69 percent active-duty airmen and 31 percent reservists, to 58 percent active-duty airmen and 42 percent reservists. The shift would move about 36,600 personnel into the reserve components, including 22,500 into the Air National Guard and 14,100 into the Reserve.

The proposal would "yield savings of perhaps $2 billion per year in manpower costs with no reduction in Total Force end strength," the report states.

The panel also recommended for the service to rebalance missions across the components so Guardsmen and reservists can take a greater role in such areas as cyberspace, space, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, special operations, nuclear-deterrence and training.

For example, a large part of the Air Force’s plans to increase the number of airmen in cyberspace career fields "should be met by the Reserve Components, which are well situated to recruit and retain from the specialized talent available in the commercial cyber labor market," the report states.

In addition, the commission recommended for the service to increase the number of active and reserve units associated with each other and, most significantly, to put them under a single chain of command to form integrated units known as "i-Wings."

The Air Force has 120 so-called associate units that currently exist, or are planned, according to the report. The concept dates to the late 1960s, when a reserve unit was paired with an active-duty counterpart to boost savings by flying and maintaining the same aircraft. Most of these units follow this model, but some work the other way, in which active-duty pilots and maintainers help operate aircraft on an Air National Guard base.

Adopting so-called i-Wings "could conservatively save 5,800 Active Component positions," which amounts to about $560 million a year, or $2.8 billion over a five-year period, according to the report.

Despite its openness to cost-saving ideas, the commission was cool to the Air Force’s plans to scrap its fleets of "single-mission" aircraft such as the A-10 gunship and the KC-10 refueling tankers. Air Force leaders have faced stiff opposition from members of Congress on its plans to scrap these "single mission" aircraft, as well as significant push back from Air Guard leaders.

"Such retirements would likely project substantial cost savings," the report states. "However, the units that operate those aircraft reflect decades of investments in those men and women who fly and maintain them, as well as in the facilities that the Air Force likely will need for emerging missions and new ways of using the Total Force."

It continued: "Because any such divestitures would be subject to Congressional approval, the Commission recommends that the Air Force develop and provide Congress a detailed, complete, and comprehensive plan explaining how the Air Force will achieve missions undertaken by such platforms in the future and how it will retain the highly trained personnel from these fleets."

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Air Force National Guard Brendan McGarry
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