The Air Force will not only meet but exceed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel edict to the military services and Defense agencies to cut back their headquarters-level spending by 20 percent over the next five years. And the service will do so more quickly than required.
Top Air Force officials said last week, by going beyond Hagel’s 20 percent directive, the service will reduce internal costs so they can redirect funds to readiness and modernization activities.
The reductions will be spelled out in more detail in the formal rollout of the Defense Department’s 2015 budget proposal Tuesday.
The Air Force will begin to trim military, civilians and contractor staff in headquarters positions — at the major command level and above — fairly soon, and finish the process in as soon as one to two years, said Deborah Lee James, the secretary of the Air Force.
Additionally, she said the Air Force will move to realign its organizational structure, getting rid of as many areas of what it sees as administrative overlap as possible.
“We’re looking to centralize policy and oversight of installation support, so that would be a joining together of things like civil engineering, security forces and contracting, as well as some others,” she said Wednesday at the Bloomberg Government Defense conference in Washington. “We’re also taking a strong look at what we can stop doing. There are all kinds of administrative tasks we currently do, and the only reason we do some of them is because we’ve always done them. We’re re-looking all of that, trying to reduce the tasks that aren’t required by law. In so doing though, we need to make sure we’re not simply foisting more work on fewer people.”
Splitting long-, short-term budget planners
The changes also will include a significant restructuring of the top Air staff at the Pentagon.
The Air Force intends to split up the current organization of its deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and programs — referred to in military staff parlance as the A-3/5 — and merge some of those functions into the office of the existing A-8, the deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and programs.
Eric Fanning, the undersecretary of the Air Force, said the new A-5/8 organization would be tasked with building and maintaining 30-year plans for the service, while the Air Force financial management community would focus on building year-to-year budgets.
“We wanted a team that we could pull out of the constant do-loop of the budget,” he said. “Everything in the Pentagon is built around the schedule of the budget, and that’s at least been a once-a-year exercise in the past. But this madness of the budget cycle over the past few years has taken that loop from a year, to six months, to a quarter, to a month. It was pulling everyone into that mayhem. We want to take a team out of that madness, have them take a breath, and really focus on long-term strategy. We think it will guide us in making decisions and give us some baseline benchmarks in how we’re doing to build the Air Force we think we need.”
The service does not currently think it’s on track to build that force it needs, mostly because it says it has more force structure right now that it can reasonably afford to maintain and keep ready.
As a result, Fanning said, long-range reviews over the past year pushed Air Force decision makers to decide that they needed to sacrifice capacity for capability. In other words, the service will need to get smaller in order to become more modern and adequately trained.
“We were on a path, even if the President’s budget were enacted, to build an Air Force that we couldn’t keep ready,” he said.
Under the current force structure, long-term forecasts the Air Force conducted last year concluded that it would have a laundry list of still-unmet procurement needs beginning five years down the road that would have been pushed off from prior years as the service struggled to keep airmen trained and its equipment inventory in working order.
“That’s not unusual to the Air Force. When you build a five-year defense plan, you fix things in it by moving all your problems to the sixth year,” Fanning said. “But we made a determination that we were a good 20 years into a readiness problem inside the Air Force. By readiness, I don’t just mean flying hours. It’s our maintainers, our ranges, our high-spectrum, high-end integrated training. These are all things that we haven’t been doing well since even before the wars. We decided we can’t continue to manage these problems by building these bow waves and digging into our operating and maintenance accounts, we’ve got to fix readiness inside the Air Force.”
50,000 enlisted on chopping block
Air Force officials already are in the process of downsizing their numbers of uniformed personnel, even without a clear picture of whether sequestration-level budget figures will be in place beyond 2015.
The service has notified 50,000 of its 280,000 enlisted airmen that it’s considering them for involuntary separation. Similar programs are in place for officers. The service will announce its current end strength targets when it unveils its budget proposals later this week.
James said the Air Force is using its “force shaping” measures not just as a downsizing mechanism, but also to reallocate its personnel among work fields.
“At the moment, we have too many people in certain ranks and specialties, and too few in others,” she said. “There will be opportunities for some of our airmen to retrain from one area into another, but some will leave us. When all of this is said and done, we’ll get this period of uncertainty behind us, and I hope that’s going to be over the next year or two instead of the next five.”
The Air Force also has announced plans to cut back its inventory of military equipment and says it will announce more details later this week. Among the decisions announced so far: the wholesale elimination of the fleet of A-10 attack aircraft and U-2 reconnaissance planes.
Officials say if sequestration stays in place in 2016, it also will have to divest its entire fleet of KC-10 refueling tankers.
Fanning said those decisions are, in part, an effort to protect the readiness of the remaining force, but also to make sure it has money to invest in its top three new acquisition priorities: the F-35 fighter, the new KC-46A tanker and a yet- unnamed long-range bomber.
“We have tankers and bombers flying in our fleet today that were built and delivered when Eisenhower was president,” he said. “We need to recapitalize those. The new bomber is particularly important because we’re down to about 20 B-2s now. Those were obvious priorities for us, and we did what we could inside the budget to protect them. We’re taking some risk in modernizing our existing platforms in order to ensure we can stay on track toward building those next generation platforms.”