McCain says Air Force’s headquarters cutbacks are illusory

In 2013, back when he was deputy defense secretary, Ashton Carter penned a memo ordering all DoD components to implement a 20 percent cut to their headquarters spending over five years. The Air Force reacted with what it said was an aggressive response, and stated it would accomplish the 20 percent cut in just one year.

But Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is not impressed. In a letter to Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, he accuses the Air Force of engaging in a “shell game that simply moved money to fund the same positions elsewhere in the service.”

McCain was responding to testimony James delivered in March 18 hearing in which she repeated the assertion that the Air Force had accomplished the 20 percent spending reductions in one year, but under questioning, acknowledged that didn’t mean a 20 percent reduction in headquarters personnel — something the Carter memo also told defense components to strive for.

But as far as his committee can tell, the Air Force’s reductions haven’t done much to reduce either spending or personnel, McCain wrote.

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“The conduct of the Air Force in response to this guidance seems to have produced no actual staff reductions and yielded no actual savings. The Senate Armed Services Committee has received no reprogramming request from the Air Force for savings generated in the headquarters budget,” he wrote. “I strongly urge the Air Force to reexamine the guidance issued on the 20-percent headquarters cuts and take actions to reduce headquarters staff as directed. This is an issue that the Senate Armed Services Committee will continue monitoring closely.”

The reorganization plan the Air Force implemented last year involved the creation of a new Installation and Mission Support Center to centralize the administrative base support functions each of the Air Force’s major commands had been performing on their own, and the transition of the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency from Air Force headquarters to a new subordinate unit of Air Combat Command.

Air Force officials said at the time that the moves would lead to greater efficiency as part of an effort to “eliminate” 3,600 headquarters positions, but McCain sees them as simply a rearranging of the Air Force’s organizational chart.

“Lower priority activities were not eliminated, as directed by Carter,” he wrote. “In reality, the Air Force … stood up an Installation and Mission Support Center (IMSC) subordinate headquarters led by a two-star general and attendant support staff. These actions are directly contrary to Carter’s guidance of not growing subordinate headquarters.”

This post is part of Jared Serbu’s Inside the DoD Reporter’s Notebook feature. Read more from this edition of Jared’s Notebook.