Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh stressed in his Aug. 23 speech at the General Conference of the National Guard Association of the United States that each component of the service has a important role to play and that all three arms of the Air Force should work together seamlessly. (Tech. Sgt. JT May III/Air Force)
CHICAGO — The Air Force’s top uniformed official expects to see the lines between the active, guard and reserve components continue to come down as the service looks for ways to operate effectively under limited budgets.
“If we can become more efficient as an Air Force without losing operational capability, by putting more things in the Air Guard and Reserve component, then why wouldn’t we?” Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said Saturday at the 136th General Conference of the National Guard Association of the United States.
The conference, held this year in Chicago, brought together around 4,000 members of the Guard, including large numbers of adjutants general, the head of the Guard for each state. Defense News traveled to the conference aboard an Air Force plane.
The response to Welsh was very warm, notable given the recent public spat over the fiscal 2013 budget, when members of the guard and reserve bucked against what they saw as disproportionate cuts planned out in secret by the active component. Congress intervened, setting up a National Commission to discuss how to better integrate the force.
With the contentious recent history and an ongoing, similar situation growing between the Army and its guard component, Welsh could have faced a hostile crowd. Instead, it felt more like a victory lap for improved relations, although the general himself was quick to point out that significant work remains.
Much of that work will be done through the Total Force Continuum, set up as a permanent office to make recommendations on matters of force structure between the active, guard and reserve components.
Welsh highlighted the “high velocity analysis approach” being taken by the TFC, which involves a 90-day review of both individual weapon systems and skill sets such as lawyers and engineers. At the end of those reviews, the Continuum makes a recommendation on what the force structure mix should look like.
That group expects to complete 80 percent of the system-by-system reviews by the end of the year, Welsh said, with a plan to incorporate those findings into the service’s 2016 budget request.
“The intent is to figure out how to quit doing things that stand in the way of doing things with common sense,” Welsh said of the TFC.
At one point Welsh, at about the halfway mark in his term as the service’s top uniformed official, was asked by an audience member how he plans to ensure the actions being put in place now don’t go away when he leaves office.
Welsh responded that his goal is to institutionalize the tools and analytics being developed by the TFC, so that it is “just part of how we do business” going forward.
Throughout the speech, Welsh stressed that each component has a role to play, and emphasized that the differences help make the whole greater. But his message continuously returned to the idea that all three arms of the Air Force should be working together seamlessly.
In what could sum up the speech, Welsh showed a slide featuring three airmen, all in similar dress, one each representing the different components of the service,
“This is kind of the point. Who cares who’s the Reserve or active officer,” Welsh said, as the audience applauded again.
Army, Guard relations remain strained
Welsh’s speech was a sharp contrast to its follow on, a keynote by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Graham, the co-chair of the Senate National Guard Caucus and former member of the Guard itself, was combative in tone to perceived enemies in the active component.
“We’re gonna stop the plundering of the guard’s combat role, because it would set the guard on a course that would not allow you to bring to the table your highest and best course,” Graham told the audience, in a clear reference to the brewing conflict over Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno’s decision to move rotorcraft from the guard to the Active component.
“To my active duty friends, we are not your enemy. We are your best asset,” Graham added to large applause from the crowd. “To those who believe you’re going to take combat aviation out of the Guard, you’re going to have another thing coming,”
Graham also touched on the political power the guard wields on the Hill, and urged the audience to wield that power to help overturn sequestration.
“I want you to pledge to me that you’re going to use your voice to wake the Congress up,” Graham said. “I need you, far more than anytime in my political life.”
Outside observers have expressed concern that the work done by Welsh’s team to heal relations between the active and guard could be damaged as relations strain with the Army. After his speech, Welsh expressed confidence that the issues could remain independent.
“We — the Air Guard, the TAGs and the active — control that. We do not have to be impacted by that unless we choose to be impacted by that,” Welsh said. “I believe we can continue to have a discussion about the Air Force side of the occasion and [the TAGs[ can separate that form the army side of the equation.”
Asked whether he had any advice for Odierno, Welsh demurred.
“I don’t think Ray Odierno needs my advice on figuring out how to run the Army,” Welsh said. “He loves all soldiers, so I think they’ll work through the process they have to develop to get to where they need to go.”