Dissecting the Tempo Problem

April 1, 1998

In recent months, Air Force attention has been drawn repeatedly to the “tempo problem”—specifically, the strains caused by frequent and fast-paced operations and the increased demands on personnel. The service, as the situation wore on, conducted a number of studies, each trying to analyze the situation and identify the real problems. USAF wants to know just how units spend their time and what really is bothering the troops.

A Rand Corp. study found that units still spend most of their time—53 percent—on routine peacetime operations and local training. The next biggest block of time—19 percent—was consumed by inspections and wing exercises. The rest of the members’ time—28 percent—was taken up with activities such as Military Operations Other Than War, off-station training, Joint and combined exercises, and headquarters and local tasking.

From the perspective of the people involved, peacetime operations and local training constituted the best part of Air Force life. The most grievous parts of it—and where the tempo affects morale and makes life hard to take—were MOOTW, inspections, and wing exercises.

USAF’s conclusion was that the growing demands of peacekeeping, humanitarian actions, and other nontraditional activities have had an impact on morale and threaten future retention. In addition, though the service itself can do little to reduce the demands placed on it by national leaders or to limit necessary training and normal duties, it can at least ease up on the Air Force’s own inspections and exercises.

Air Force leaders announced that, beginning this year, it will reduce by 15 percent the number of USAF troops sent to support Joint Chiefs of Staff exercises. In Fiscal 1999 and 2000, it will reduce by five percent the scale of USAF and Joint training exercises. The Air Force has called a halt to Quality Air Force Assessments, effective as of Jan. 1. It will make a 10 percent reduction in the number of inspectors used for operational readiness in Fiscal 1998 and another 20 percent reduction in Fiscal 1999.

Moreover, said Air Force officials, the service will, when possible, combine inspections with real-world deployments.

“Marginal Improvements”

Such actions should help, but a recent study by the Rand Corp. suggested that broader remedies may be in order. The study, like others, focused on inspections and exercises as prime causes of stress. But, the researchers also said, “We are concerned that improving the focus of inspections and exercises and reducing the time devoted to them without considering other Air Force efforts involving planning, missions, and organizations may yield only marginal improvements in overall Air Force performance.”

While USAF leaders apparently agree, and have been looking at other areas in which to ease the burden on units and members, further solutions may not be easy to come by.

The Rand study, entitled “What Helps and What Hurts: How Ten Activities Affect Readiness and Quality of Life at Three 8AF Wings,” determined that USAF inspections and exercises generally had the greatest negative impact on such elements as readiness, members’ personal growth, and the quality of Air Force life. However, some other activities drew almost as much fire from members. These include peacekeeping activities, MOOTW, increased TDY, or temporary duty, and special taskings by headquarters and local commanders.

The Rand study provides an interesting case history in the Air Force’s effort at self-analysis. It was requested by Lt. Gen. Phillip J. Ford, the commander of 8th Air Force, and focused on operations at three Air Force wings: 27th Fighter Wing, Cannon AFB, N.M.; 314th Airlift Wing, Little Rock AFB, Ark.; and 5th Bomb Wing, Minot AFB, N.D. In calling for the survey, the general said, “We know we are working hard. But are we working smart?”

Past studies had explored the situation, but most limited their concern to the impact of increased TDY on specific squadrons. To get a broader picture, Rand surveyed all units within the three wings and looked at the full range of work activities, not just TDY alone.

The researchers intentionally chose wings with diverse missions, Cannon being a fighter base converting from F-111s to F-16s, Little Rock a C-130 tactical airlift base, and Minot a B-52 bomber base. And, rather than concentrate on operational personnel alone, they looked at those in logistics, support, medical, and other work areas as well.

Rand conducted face-to-face interviews with some 500 commanders and supervisors and asked them to speak not just for themselves but for all the personnel at their levels. The answers thus represented the views of about 15,000 military and civilian members, Rand said, and about 80 percent of the organizational units within the three wings.

The Troublesome 10

The responses of the sample group were weighted, based on the unit populations involved. In its study, Rand asked participants to consider the impact on their units of these 10 types of activities:

  • Routine peacetime operations and training.
    • Off-station training.
        Inspections, including preparations for them.
          Peacekeeping and other MOOTW.
            Wing exercises with multiple squadrons.
              Command exercises involving units from other wings.
                Joint exercises involving units from other services.
                  Combined exercises involving units from other countries.
                    Higher headquarters tasking for special operations.
                      Local tasking for such events as air shows.

                    The study looked at each activity in terms of the time and intensity of work it required, its impact on readiness, and its effect on professional growth (opportunities for study, formal military or academic training, and community involvement) and personal life (ability to take annual leave and attend family events, health problems, and family difficulties such as separations and incidents of abuse).

                    In addition to the statistical data it acquired, the Rand report was laced with personal comments from members, some of them highly critical of the situation in which they work.

                    Most respondents agreed that the most positive activities in which their units were involved were routine peacetime operations and local training. More than three-fourths of those surveyed would have preferred to increase the time spent on these activities. They now account for only about half the units’ workloads, according to the study, but they were credited with doing the most to improve both wartime and peacetime readiness.

                    At the other end of the scale, more than 70 percent said that inspections and wing exercises degrade readiness because they often entail fruitless activities that consume inordinate amounts of time.

                    Such activities increase work weeks from the average 48 hours to more than 60 hours. Since the intent is to practice and test capabilities under stress, the study said, this is not inherently bad. Most respondents, however, argue that they do not improve readiness.

                    Inspections and wing exercises elicited particularly negative reactions at Minot. One respondent at that base agreed that “all opportunities to practice our wartime skills have a positive effect on our wartime readiness.” But the respondent added, “[However,] the frequency of inspections and exercises does not allow us enough time to identify mistakes, learn from them, and then develop and implement corrective actions. We end up making the same mistakes over and over. Not so serious in practice but absolutely catastrophic in war.”

                    Off-station training activities drew mixed reviews. The other eight activity areas consistently received more negative ratings. In fact, all groups said they saw a degradation of mission readiness in almost all nonroutine activities and most said they were hurting the quality of Air Force life as well.

                    The survey looked at the quality-of-life impact in two categories: professional growth and personal and family life.

                    In general, the respondents said that quality of life was best under routine operations and local training and off-station training. At least, they said, these activities had no negative effect on professional growth and had the least adverse impact on personal and family life.

                    MOOTW and Other Disruptions

                    The activities seen as most negative to quality of life were MOOTW, inspections, and various exercises. Which of these factors was considered the worst, however, varied somewhat by base.

                    One commander at Cannon said, “Prep[aration] and training time for deployment and the extended deployment time (90–175 days) eliminate the potential for college classes or [Professional Military Education].”

                    Another Cannon respondent said, “[Our] 11–14-hour days make it next to impossible to do [senior service school] or read material on leadership, quality improvements, etc.”

                    In terms of impact on family life, the study said, MOOTW has the greatest negative effect, but all types of TDY and heavy workloads are taking their toll.

                    A Minot commander said, “In the last six months, a total of seven people have filed [for] and been granted divorces. In a squadron of 65 people, this is really bad. Everyone has been either TDY or caught up in the high ops tempo area.”

                    A respondent from Cannon said, “Younger troops have a lot of problems ensuring that their families are taken care of. Now, a lot are getting out because they know more deployments are coming.”

                    Time off is not a solution, in the view of a respondent at Little Rock. “Taking leave is a no-win proposition,” that person said. “It’s difficult to find time to take leave, and work just piles up while an individual is on leave, creating stress upon return to duty.”

                    Interestingly, the responses from some support units were more negative than those from operational members. Security police squadrons, for example, found activities such as MOOTW, inspections, and wing exercises to be highly disruptive of personal and family life. Medical groups were even more outspoken about the negative effects of such activities, even though the report noted that these groups already spend more time on routine activities and do not see as much increase in workload with exercises and inspections as other groups do.

                    Missing the Mark

                    The Rand study acknowledged that the services have made numerous efforts to measure the impact of nonroutine activities and have launched various initiatives, but it questioned whether they had gotten to the heart of the problem.

                    Early DoD efforts were directed at “stressed systems” and their crews on the national level. The Pentagon responded with the Global Military Force Policy. Issued by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this policy requires decision makers to be aware of the thresholds at which readiness and quality of life degrade and of the adverse effects of continued operations above these thresholds. GMFP identified stressed systems, however, not units. It assumed all units would carry a fair share of taskings.

                    The Air Force Studies and Analyses Agency looked at squadrons with these stressed systems and expanded the focus from systems to activities causing stress. AFSAA identified negative effects of optempo/perstempo on people and equipment, but it did not look at activities of units that didn’t own stressed systems (operational and support).

                    AFSAA made recommendations for limiting and/or managing taskings, for improving the management of human resources, and for adopting initiatives to improve the quality of Air Force life.

                    Until recently, however, the Air Force has focused heavily on one particular activity associated with stress—TDY. It has tried to develop a “corporate view” of what happens to Air Force people in such circumstances, but this has been difficult, Rand said, because of varying definitions of TDY.

                    Air Combat Command has researched yet another aspect of stress-inducing activities—how the taskings from outside sources accumulate at wing level. ACC’s Scheduling Integrated Process Team led to a worldwide contingency and exercise scheduling conference to build “breathing room” into deployments and spread the work more evenly across the force. Again, however, the focus was mainly on TDY–related activities and exercises.

                    ACC’s Optempo IPT identified more activities that cause stress and established ways to identify “hot” units. They looked at contingency and/or exercise participation, deployment intervals, TDY rate, “spin-up” and “spin-down” (preparation and recovery) times for contingencies and Operational Readiness Inspections, as well as at the number of exercises and surges, overdue training, and five- to seven-level manning for certain specialties.

                    Last summer, 7th Wing at Dyess AFB, Texas, completed a review of its workload, trying to capture all the activities in all operational and support areas. The effort pointed to the value of looking across all units within a wing, not just the squadrons owning stressed systems, and of looking at all types of work activities, not just TDY–related activities.

                    Rand’s study continued that kind of probing by trying to establish the existence of differences or similarities within and between wings and groups (operations, security police, medical operations squadrons, fighter squadrons, etc.). It also surveyed members of the wing staff (chaplains, judge advocates, etc.) but found their functions so diverse that the results would not be meaningful and did not include them in the analysis.

                    Where Time Is Hardest

                    Of the two activities taking up most of their time, the respondents gave their highest marks to routine peacetime operations and local training and their worst to inspections and wing exercises. In terms of disruptions to professional growth and personal and family life, routine activities again received the best marks and inspections and wing exercises the worst, along with MOOTW. Other activities were rated in between these extremes but generally on the negative side.

                    Looking at individual wings, however, Rand found some differences in how they spent their time. Respondents from Minot said they spent more than the average amount of time on inspections and wing exercises, and Cannon respondents said they spent more time on MOOTW.

                    Individual groups also varied both in the amount of time they spent on activities and in their recommendations. While all groups recommended increases in routine operations, medical personnel were less concerned than support personnel about reducing instances of MOOTW.

                    Security police, services, and communications squadrons indicated they spent less time on routine operations than other groups. But respondents in almost all units and specialties recommended spending more time on routine duties and training.

                    The workloads involved with various activities were estimated by the respondents. On the average, they said that routine operations and local training, off-station training, and other local taskings required about a normal 48-hour work week.

                    MOOTW increased the average week to almost 53 hours, and exercises raised it to around 60 hours. The heaviest increases were for wing exercises, which the respondents said pushed the work week to more than 70 hours.

                    Some activities not only increased the length of the work week but raised the level of intensity. Again, the respondents said that wing exercises and inspections involved the highest levels of work intensity. Routine operations and local training generally were said to be the least intense activities.

                    Rand noted that nonroutine activities, such as inspections and exercises, should be expected to increase stress because they are designed, at least in part, to tax people and systems and show how they react under such circumstances. The question, however, is whether they improve or reduce readiness. Another part of the study was designed to show how members think various activities affect readiness.

                    Respondents generally agreed that routine operations and local training improved readiness but that most other activities hurt it. Inspections and wing exercises scored low on the readiness scale, particularly at Minot. Headquarters and local taskings also were seen as contributing little to readiness.

                    Get Well Programs

                    In January, USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Michael E. Ryan reported some of the efforts the Air Force has made or is planning to address the optempo/perstempo problem. Borrowing a term normally used to alert aircrews to flight conditions, he issued what he called a notice to airmen, or NOTAM, and promised more such reports in the future.

                    In his initial NOTAM, Ryan detailed plans to reduce exercises and inspections. In addition, he said, USAF has launched new efforts to ease burdens on the families of deployed people, including a unit ombudsman program and improved family communications with videophone connections.

                    Meanwhile, the Air Force plans to continue its self-study in hopes of not only diagnosing its maladies but finding cures.

                    Bruce D. Callander, a regular contributor to Air Force Magazine, served tours of active duty during World War II and the Korean War. In 1952, he joined Air Force Times, serving as editor from 1972 to 1986. His most recent story for Air Force Magazine, “The Evolution of Air Mobility,” appeared in the February 1998 issue.