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The Air Force's goal is to complete the bulk of its force management cuts by the summer of 2015, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said May 13.
In an editorial board meeting with Air Force Times, James said the Air Force plans to cut its active-duty ranks by 16,700 airmen through voluntary and involuntary force management programs in fiscal 2015 — the last year the service is planning massive force cuts. The Air Force will then cut the final roughly 2,000 airmen in fiscal 2016.
"I realize this is a period of great uncertainty, but by next summer, we are looking to be done with all these different voluntary and involuntary measures, because we'll basically be shaped and about the right size of where we want to be," James said.
When the Air Force announced its force management programs last year — its deepest since the end of the Cold War — officials repeatedly said they planned to cut up to 25,000 airmen over five years. James' statement considerably shrinks that time frame and is the first time an official has confirmed the vast majority of those cuts will come in two years instead.
"We're going to be a smaller Air Force, we project over the next five years, and we have a plan on what's going to happen when," James said. "It's heavily in FY15, a little bit in FY16. That was a conscious choice. We're going to do it as quickly as possible and get it behind us."
James, who was previously an executive at SAIC, said that her experience conducting downsizings in the private sector has convinced her it is best to get them over with quickly.
"I've done them slow, and we convince ourselves sometimes that if you drag it out over five years, that that's actually better for people, because it'll be a more gentle slope, and you can manage it better," James said. "But you know what? If you take five years, people will worry about it for five years. If you take one year, people will worry about it for one year. So during the period of uncertainty, people are going to worry. There's no way around it. The best you can do is tell them what you know, tell them what you don't know — but get back to them — and tell them when certain things are going to happen as best as you know it, and keep updating it because things change."
As the Air Force reshapes itself, James said it will be key to make sure ranks and career fields are properly balanced to meet future needs. Air Force analyses show the service is heavily overmanned in career fields such as security forces, which so far are most heavily targeted by enlisted retention boards. And the Air Force found it has "bubbles" in certain year groups and ranks that it is now trying to deflate.
But the Air Force also realized it is undermanned in battlefield airmen, James said. Those career fields include combat controllers, pararescuemen, tactical air control party, or TACP, members, and special operations weather technicians — all of which have never been eligible for voluntary or involuntary force management programs and are often eligible for special incentives to help retain them.
Personnel chief Lt. Gen. Samuel Cox said at a May 15 Air Force Association breakfast in Arlington, Virginia, that fighter pilots are also undermanned and being exempted from force management programs.
So far this year, the Air Force has approved at least 5,600 airmen for separation or retirement. Most of those came through voluntary separation pay or early retirement programs, although roughly 300 were caught by an involuntary date-of-separation rollback or Selective Early Retirement Board.
Another roughly 6,700 are still in overmanned career fields and must be separated by the end of fiscal 2014, according to the Air Force's latest enlisted retention board and officer force shaping board and enhanced Selective Early Retirement Board matrices, although those numbers are certain to change as more airmen are approved for voluntary programs.
James said the cuts will fall more heavily on active-duty airmen than Guardsmen and reservists, which will leave the Air Force relying more heavily on the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve than it does today.
James said the Air Force is also planning to reduce its civilian ranks.
'Principles on this were sound'
But James thinks that the force management program — as bumpy as it has occasionally been — is on the right track.
"I think the principles are very sound," James said. "Even as we look back, and mistakes may have been made, and communication failures and whatnot, I think the principles on this were sound."
Those principles include getting the cuts over with as quickly as possible, using voluntary separation measures as much as possible before resorting to involuntary cuts — even though voluntary measures cost more money — and using a new Quality Force Review Board to separate airmen with negative quality indicators such as disciplinary problems.
James said the Air Force wants to give airmen four months' notice about the force management programs they may be vulnerable to so they have enough time to consider their options and talk things over with their families. That is slightly shorter than the six months' lead time Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said last year that he wanted airmen to have.
And James said Air Force supervisors were told they are expected to "go on the offense" and talk to their airmen about how the force shaping efforts might affect them, and advise them of their options.
Cox said the Air Force is concerned that some of its strongest airmen who are eligible for voluntary separation or retirement may choose to leave, and because they are talented, seek employment in the private sector. Supervisors need to regularly talk to those airmen and discourage them from leaving, he said.
"You want the commander to put their arm around [high-quality airmen] and say, 'You've got a future in the United States Air Force,' " Cox said. " 'We need you on our team.' "
The Air Force also has to do a better job communicating with airmen on where they stand as force management goes forward, James said.
"I'm not happy with the way it's gone," James said, adding that she's heard complaints directly from airmen. "It hasn't been enough information, it hasn't been quick enough, it's difficult to read. I've done it myself, tried to go on and understand the rules. It's hard. Of late, I've certainly asked them, the chief of staff has asked the key leaders who are charged with this, let's kick this up a notch. Let's do more frequent communications, let's try to make it easier to access, try to make it easier to understand."
For example, the Air Force put the voluntary programs on what officials called a "strategic pause" in March while it re-examined its projected force reductions — a processthat alarmed many airmen. It took the Air Force eight days to release a statement on the pause.
James said she thinks communication has improved lately — for example, the Air Force in April launched a Web page with regularly updated information on force management programs — though she said the Air Force needs to keep working on it. In her past experience, James said communicating through all the layers of an organization has always been the toughest part of efforts such as force management.
That's why it's important that Air Force leadership remains engaged on this issue, she said.
"Keep the four-stars and the three-stars, meaning the next level up, keep all of us engaged and involved," James said. "Because if those leaders at lower levels are not reaching out to their people, you tell their boss, and their boss gets on it, then they'll get on it."
The 16,700 reduction in 2015 would represent a 5 percent cut in active-duty end strength. That is large, but still less than the 8 percent, 40,560-airman reduction the Air Force made in 1992, Cox said at the May 15 breakfast.
Cox told Congress in April that the 2015 force management programs will include Quality Force Review Boards for enlisted airmen, and enlisted retention boards for senior airmen through chief master sergeants. Officers will also face force-shaping boards, reduction-in-force boards, and enhanced Selective Early Retirement Boards.
Cox said at the AFA breakfast that it is too early to tell what kind of force management programs might be required in 2016 for the last 2,000 or so airmen.
But the Air Force is also planning steep cuts to accessions to help achieve the necessary cuts, Cox said. The Air Force plans to cut accessions by 4 percent this year, and 14 percent next year.
After the last 2,000 airmen are cut in 2016, the Air Force would be left with roughly 308,900 airmen. That is close to the 305,827 active-duty airmen the Air Force had when it became its own service in 1947.