Audit:Air Force making limited progress in expanding role for reserves

Recommendations would mean sending 36,600 active duty jobs to reserve components of the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve, saving a projected $2B a year.

Nearly three years since a federal commission toured Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, a federal watchdog agency says the Air Force has made “limited progress” to put in place dozens of recommendations the panel urged the military service to undertake, many of which focused on an expanded role for reserve forces.

In the Government Accountability Office audit completed last week, the federal agency said the Air Force needed performance measures to better put in place 36 of 42 recommendations.

The National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force toured Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and Springfield, Mansfield and Rickenbacker Air National Guard Bases in Ohio in a nationwide review of 13 installations across the United States in 2013. The federal commission interviewed hundreds of airmen and toured dozens of sites to reach its findings on the right balance between active and reserve forces.

‘Not surprised’

Dennis M. McCarthy, former commission chairman, said Tuesday he wasn’t surprised by the GAO audit and what he described as mid-level bureaucratic resistance to institutional change.

Filled with former high-ranking Air Force leaders, the eight-member commission made a strong case to decrease the size of the active force and increase the size of the reserve forces, said McCarthy, a retired Marine Corps Reserve lieutenant general and a Columbus lawyer.

“I think we put together a set of recommendations that could be implemented if the Air Force wanted to do it, but like any other institution the Air Force can find ways to kick the can down the road if they wish to do so and if Congress lets them,” said McCarthy, adding he was speaking for himself and not the commission, which disbanded after its findings were released.

The Air Force says it has made “enormous progress” to integrate active-duty airmen with the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve since the commission released the report in 2014 and tasked specific Air Force leaders to study and actively put 41 of the 42 recommendations in place, officials said. The Air Force reports to Congress yearly through 2019 on the status of each recommendation.

One well-known defense analyst questioned the need for the commission’s findings.

“There is a widespread suspicion in Washington that creating commissions to address supposed military problems just complicates the problems,” Loren B. Thompson, a senior defense analyst with the Virginia-based Lexington Institute and a defense industry consultant, wrote in an email. “That applies to commissions set up to restructure the Air Force and Army, and commissions aimed at realigning bases. They often end up making questionable recommendations.”

The Air Force rejected a NCSAF recommendation to abolish the Air Force Reserve headquarters.

But five others were closed or put into place, such as an end to non-disclosure corporate agreements and a renewed plea to Congress to close excess bases. Pentagon estimates claim up to one out of three Air Force bases aren’t needed based on future 2019 force levels. Congress, however, ruled out base closures in the 2017 defense bill.

Active duty to reserve?

The commission’s recommendations would mean sending 36,600 active duty jobs to reserve components of the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve, saving a projected $2 billion a year, according to GAO.

While the Air Force continues to integrate active duty and reserve forces, its own analysis showed it may be more costly to move some active duty roles to reserve jobs, Maj. Allison N. Kojak, an Air Force spokeswoman, said in an interview Tuesday.

“Even though the NCSAF report identified possible cost savings associated with moving approximately 36,000 active Airmen into the reserve component and related savings of roughly $2 billion, Air Force analysis does not support this concept,” she wrote in an email.

The Air Force has estimated its 12 percent below the manpower levels it needs in all three components to meet the demands it faces today, according to Kojak. Shifting 36,000 troops would bring the risk to nearly 20 percent, she said.

The three air branches have 487,000 uniformed airmen — or 312,00 in the Air Force, 106,000 in the ANG and 69,000 in the Air Force Reserve — but military leaders want more troops in every branch “because we’re way too small” compared to mission demands, she said. The Air Force has asked to grow to 317,000 active troops in the next fiscal year.

Transferring more active duty airmen to the Guard “would be a way to save dollars in an environment are pretty scarce especially for modernization,” but moving tens of thousands of airmen quickly would be “daunting,” said John Goheen, spokesman for the National Guard Association for the United States in Washington, D.C.

The relationship between the Air Force and the Air Guard has improved since “strained relations” between the two branches led Congress to create the federal commission, Goheen said.

Much of that strain centered on proposed cuts critics contended would have imposed disproportional losses to Air National Guard ranks and planes.

“I think that the total force …. is in a much better place today than they were just a few years ago,” he said, crediting the Air Force’s top leadership. “They walk the talk.”

The Air Force is in the process of identifying Air Guard bases to locate the F-35 jet fighter and KC-46 aerial tanker. The ANG wants also wants the latest version of the long-flying C-130 cargo plane, he said.

More reserve forces

Among other measures, the NCSAF report urged the Air Force to fill more cyber, space, special operations, instructor pilot and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance career fields with reserve airmen. In a pilot program, the commission also said reserve airmen should play a bigger part in the intercontinental ballistic missile mission.

The Air Force relies heavily on reserve forces for aerial tankers and radar planes, Thompson said, but added “there are significant problems in managing a force that is too heavily skewed towards reservists.” The estimated $2 billion in savings to shift active duty jobs to the reserve “isn’t much in the context of a $600 billion defense budget, and such a move might create unforeseen costs of its own,” he added.

The Air Force consumes 4 percent of the federal budget, and much of what it does supports other military branches and agencies, he said. “So saving $2 billion at the cost of potentially impairing service flexibility is no bargain,” Thompson wrote.

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