The Air Force needs to use Reserve and Guard members more in order to remain prepared for action during an era of budget cuts, a congressionally-mandated commission says in a much-anticipated report released Thursday.
The 127-page report by the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force calls for the Air Force to add Guard and Reservist slots while making “prudent” cuts in active-duty airmen.
The report makes 42 recommendations, but none are geographic, meaning the direct impact on Ohio’s five Air Force installations — four Air National Guard, one active duty and two Reserve wings — is unclear. But it calls for an Air Force that increasingly uses Guard and Reservists alongside active-duty Air Force personnel.
“We know that will be difficult,” said Commission Chairman Dennis McCarthy, a former assistant secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs. “We know it may be more difficult in some units than others. It’s going to be, we think, a progressive process, not a ‘throw the switch and everything becomes magically integrated.’”
The report also recommended closing or “warm basing” some facilities, but did not point to any specific bases. An assessment of Air Force roles in homeland security and disaster assistance was urged.
The commission visited Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and Springfield Air National Guard Base and had a hearing in Columbus last July on a nationwide tour of 13 military installations. Four of the bases were in Ohio. The report is the result of 19 days of hearings involving 154 witnesses.
In making its recommendations the commission had two objectives: Save money and maintain readiness for future conflicts.
But commissioners argued that their recommendations weren’t just aimed at saving money. They said Guard and Reservists were willing and capable of doing more. “These are things that should be done even if there wasn’t a fiscal requirement to do so,” McCarthy said.
The eight-member commission, comprised primarily of former military leadership, did not make any base-specific recommendations, but the vision they depicted seemed to be of an Air Force where Guard and Reservists increasingly worked side by side with active-duty military and where the Air Force leaned heavily on those part-time military.
“Going forward, there’s no doubt in my mind that our Air Force is going to rely more, not less, on our National Guard and Reserve forces,” Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said in a statement to this newspaper. “This makes sense from not only a mission standpoint, but from an economic standpoint. I think there will be a great deal of symmetry between many of the recommendations from the commission and what the Air Force proposes for its way ahead.”
Michael Gessel, Dayton Development Coalition vice president of federal programs, said the impact of the report’s recommendations could mean good news for the Springfield Air National Guard Base, but how Wright-Patterson is affected isn’t clear.
“The report called for a smaller Air Force and an Air Force that had a broader sharing of authority among the three (reserve) components,” he said. “I think that the report, to a certain extent, endorsed the status quo. It did not call on major changes, though perhaps the recommendation that the Guard and Reserve have a more major role in headquarters operations suggests they would have more influence in Air Force decision-making.”
Russell Rumbaugh, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C., said the report was bold in some of its conclusions. In advocating for an increased reserve force, the report said that would save money initially unless or until those units are deployed. Rumbaugh called the proposal a “repudiation” of the Air Force’s 2012 plan to Congress that favored more cuts in the National Guard and Reserve than in active duty.
“That’s a really big deal compared to the original budget recommendation from the Air Force,” he said.
The report suggested eliminating the Air Force Reserve Command, but keeping its personnel and equipment and to integrate reserve airmen with active forces among a range of duties and units, such as space operations and ICBM operations, Rumbaugh said.
“The conclusions are very much move what you can,” he said.
Cyber defense and piloting unmanned aerial vehicles were key areas reserve forces could make a difference, said Mark Guzinger, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C.
“Those are all things that airmen at their home stations might be able to pick up a greater share of the load without having to deploy abroad,” the former Air Force B-52 pilot said.
Locally, Air Guard and Reserve forces play an active role in real-world missions. The Ohio Air National Guard’s 178th Fighter Wing flies unmanned aerial vehicles overseas and piloted remotely from Springfield, and the Air Force Reserve 445th Airlift Wing at Wright-Patterson flies C-17 troop and cargo missions around the world.
Col. Jeffrey J. McGaillard, 445th Airlift Wing commander, said he was not surprised by the commission urging more capabilities in the Guard and Reserve. He said his unit, which had had a decrease in missions overseas, was ready to handle more when asked.
“There’s a lot of untapped capability in the Guard and Reserve,” he said. “By and large, we are super experienced.”
Congressional lawmakers made no definitive remarks about the report Thursday, but said they would consider its recommendations.
“Certainly, my subcommittee will be looking both to the Air Force and commission while we focus on the future mission of the Air Force,” U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton and chairman of the House Tactical Land Forces subcommittee said in an email.
In a statement, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said he was “encouraged that the commission focused on the strategic importance of the National Guard and Reserve, while also highlighting the important role that research and development programs have in our national defense.”
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said the commission “produced a number of valuable recommendations” that will be considered.
F. Whitten Peters, a commissioner who served as Air Force Secretary from 1999 through 2001, suggested that cutting aircraft at Guard and Reserve bases might endanger a skilled workforce desperately needed.
“We’ve got to make sure we keep talented people,” he said. “To me, the biggest disservice we make to our traditional Guard and Reserve is not telling them what their future is.”