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As Lt. Gen. Darrell Jones, the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, tries to steer the service through a force reduction in 2014, he's keeping one eye on the sequester.
Jones said in a Sept. 4 interview at his Pentagon office that he doubts the cash-strapped Air Force will have to roll out any additional programs to reduce the service's ranks next year, beyond what has already been announced, unless the fiscal 2015 budget appears especially dire. That could prompt the Air Force to add new voluntary or involuntary force management programs.
"The real question is, how long will sequestration last?" Jones said. "And what will be the budgetary pressures ... on the Air Force?"
The Air Force has already unveiled a slate of voluntary and involuntary force management programs for fiscal 2014, including 15-year retirements, service commitment waivers, an expanded Palace Chase program that allows active-duty airmen to serve out the rest of their time in the Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve, and selective early retirement boards for colonels and lieutenant colonels.
But Jones said those targeted cuts will likely be enough to get the Air Force to its expected 2014 active-duty end strength of 327,600 — a reduction of about 1,860 airmen from the expected 2013 end strength of 329,460.
"Unless we decide 2015 is going to be a totally different picture than we foresee right now, we don't foresee having to modify that," Jones said.
"But we could. If we were to realize significant reductions in 2015, there would be an opportunity that we might have to go back and readdress 2014 programs in the end of the year," he said. "But short of having that new [end strength] number, we're not going to make any changes."
Jones said the Air Force also could reconsider its force management programs if too few airmen volunteer to leave under the already-announced plans. But he said he thinks the Air Force has accurately predicted the number of people who will take advantage of these plans.
Jones said he is conscious of pitfalls that cutting airmen arbitrarily could create. One of his biggest concerns is avoiding a so-called "bathtub" effect, which would come from significantly cutting accessions. That would be an easy way to lower the number of airmen, he said, but it would create a dearth of airmen of a certain age that would be felt for 20 years.
The Air Force has fallen into that trap before, Jones said, most recently in 2005, when it cut enlisted accessions by 38 percent. But now, Jones said, he wants 2014's accessions to be at least 97 percent of what is planned.
"The bathtub, you just can't recuperate from," Jones said. "We felt [the 2005 cuts] for years, so we don't want to do that. But if we can maintain accessions at 97 percent, I'm confident we can sustain the force without the bathtub."
Jones said no significant changes to the Air Force's uniforms are on the horizon, beyond minor tweaks to things like zippers and where patches are located.
He credited the Air Force with significantly improving uniforms in recent years, such as the Improved Physical Training Uniform Running Suit. The new PT clothes, he said, are more compatible with the outdoor activities airmen engage in, and no changes to them are in the works.
"The [PT uniforms] we have are working well, and continue to do that," Jones said. "We really don't get much blowback."
Jones said he thinks that a switch to a more comfortable fabric — as well as cultural changes stemming from more than a decade of deployments — is resulting in a greater use and acceptance of Air Force PT uniforms.
"When I would visit bases 20 years ago, you never saw airmen out in Air Force PT gear, exercising together and working out together," Jones said. "You see that now. You see it at the base fitness center, you see it [at] unit exercises. Part of that is a result of people deploying and coming back from deployment, where you wear your PT clothes all the time, and that's your alternate uniform. That's really becoming part of the culture, and I think that's a great thing we can all be proud of."
Jones said he is open to the Air Force adopting the same utility uniform as its sister military services — a change that would likely save the government money on mass production costs.
But he would not say whether he supports such a change yet because the Pentagon is still studying the issue. A provision in the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act — which has so far passed the House and is awaiting passage in the Senate — would require the services to transition to a single camouflage utility uniform by 2018.
"I think it's something we have to look at, going to one uniform," Jones said. "I'm looking forward to seeing what the report says. I'm not saying no. We want to have the best uniform that best protects our airmen, our soldiers, our sailors, our Marines, when they're downrange, outside the wire, inside the wire.
"It's got to be comfortable, it's got to be functional, and it's got to provide the right degree of protection when they do their mission."
Squeeze on amenities
But if the sequester continues, Jones said, it is likely to put the squeeze on the amenities enjoyed by airmen and their families. Some base amenities rely on funds appropriated by Congress — in addition to fees paid by the airmen and families who use them — and Jones said budget cuts could prompt the Air Force to cut down on those features.
"What I foresee in the future is, money is tight," Jones said. "When money is tight, the ability to use appropriated funds to support certain programs on base is going to be very limited. So that's going to add pressure on bases."
Air Force bases are going to have to start asking if certain amenities are sustainable — and whether they're worth saving — in these cash-strapped times, he said.
"I think what we have to evaluate there is, is the function used by our airmen?" Jones said. "If the answer is yes, does it support resilience and reconstitution when the airmen come back from overseas? Is it something that helps the airmen get ready to go back to work?
"If the answer is yes, and we can afford to run it, we have to keep it. But if it's hardly ever used, and it's a big drain on our funds, then I think we have to look very carefully at whether we can keep it."
Programs that contribute to resiliency do everything from helping airmen and families exercise to letting them decompress and "blow off steam," Jones said.
Outdoor recreation is one of the most important activities for young airmen, he said. Coffee shops and other common places to build community are also important, Jones said.
"These programs form, to me, the culture of what being an airman is like," he said. "What it's like to work at a base, what it's like to be part of a community. These are all contributors to the community.
"The longer we are in sequestration, the more pressure there is going to be on appropriated fund support for family programs, and we're going to have to make decisions on whether we can continue to do these programs."
Jones also said he hopes all bases will have loaded information on their amenities into the Air Force's MyAirForceLife app by the end of 2014.
"The days of [paper] fliers being the way we market to airmen are gone," he said. "It's now apps on the phone that tell them what they can do."