The Associate Push

June 1, 2012

For years, Active Duty fighter squadrons have struggled to get younger pilots the experience and cockpit time needed to develop them into combat pilots, instructors, and leaders. Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve squadrons, on the other hand, have experienced mentors and space in the flying schedule.

A crew chief marshals a 157th Fighter Squadron F-16 at McEntire JNGB, S.C. The 157th is an active associate unit. (ANG photo by MSgt. Marvin Preston)

To increase the absorption of pilots and rectify the imbalance, the Air Force is moving out with a plan to build active associations with every Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command fighter squadron over the next few years. The new initiative aims for nothing less than building an associate relationship with every Guard and Reserve fighter unit by 2018.

Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz announced the move in February at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla.

“In addition to the 100 Total Force Integration associations that we currently maintain, … we are planning to add active associations at all air reserve [component] fighter locations,” Schwartz asserted.

“We will continue to explore additional opportunities for associations in order to enhance operational synergies, improve access to aircraft and total rotational capacity, … leverage experience, and improve retention of valuable human capital,” he said.

Air Combat Command already has “classic associate” constructs with USAF’s two Air Reserve Components (ARCs), but ACC is confident the “active associate” model—in which a Guard or Reserve unit has principal responsibility for a weapon system and shares the equipment with Active Duty personnel—will be the most efficient way of maturing Active Duty fighter pilots.

The reasoning behind the move boils down to simple demographics: There are too many Active Duty junior fighter pilots and not enough midgrade fighter pilots. Active squadrons frequently have too few aircraft and budgeted flying hours for everyone in them to build an appropriate level of flight time.

It’s a serious problem, and not fixing it would hamstring a generation of fighter pilots. Getting such pilots their initial 500 flight hours in the first three years is essential for career development.

If a young pilot “doesn’t come out of that [first operational tour] labeled an experienced fighter pilot, his options for follow-on assignments are limited,” said Col. Brent King, ACC Basing Division chief. Without the logbook, pilots are barred from teaching in formal training units, flying as aggressors and evaluators, or instructing at weapons schools. That hurts the service as much as the individual airmen.

A Pilot Factory

Meanwhile, “you’ve got Guard and Reserve units out there that are full of highly experienced folks; 98 percent of them are probably instructors,” King noted. Most of today’s Guard and Reserve pilots are combat experienced, and by apprenticing the new pilots to these squadrons, “we basically make a factory to make experienced fighter pilots that we didn’t have before,” King said.

There’s also enough space in the flying schedules of ARC fighter squadrons to permit more sorties and a higher aircraft utilization rate. That’s because ARC units tend to be populated by high-time veterans who don’t need as many hours to maintain proficiency.

On the heels of a service summit to cope with the problem, Schwartz last year directed Air Combat Command to establish 171 “absorbable active association pilot billets … at all Air National Guard and AFRC fighter squadrons,” King said.

SSgt. Stephen Polkinghorne and TSgt. Andrea Senecal with the 158th Fighter Wing load an F-16 at Burlington Arpt., Vt. Burlington has a small “footprint” of Active Duty personnel. (USAF photo by A1C Sarah Mattison)

By late March, King noted, ACC Commander Gen. G. Michael Hostage had a handshake deal with Air Force Reserve Commander Lt. Gen. Charles E. Stenner Jr. and Air National Guard Director Lt. Gen. Harry M. Wyatt III to establish the billets. There is a separate arrangement for each component.

The new program of record expands the number of active associations by 10 squadrons. Most importantly, it provides the necessary funding, Active Duty personnel, and flight hours to begin the process this year.

ACC has two active fighter associations already in place. Both are test cases. One, with South Carolina ANG’s 157th Fighter Squadron at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, is fully operational. The second, with the 158th Fighter Squadron at Burlington Airport in Vermont, has only a “small footprint of Active Duty guys,” which the command will now complete under the new plan, said King.

Pitching the proposal to Air Force leaders in March, ACC pegged the cost of creating associate slots for Active Duty pilots at “$2.7 million on average, per absorbable billet,” said King. Although it’s an efficient structure, ACC’s bill to stand up the associations by Fiscal 2018 comes to roughly $400 million per year. Those funds will have to come from efficiency measures or cuts to other ACC programs.

However, it’s still cheap by comparison, pointed out Lt. Col. Jeffrey Burdett, ACC Total Force Initiatives branch chief. Creating the capacity needed to absorb and integrate 171 junior fighter pilots in the Active Duty force would require 12 new squadrons. That’s “$200 million a year approximately, per squadron,” for F-16 units, he said—far more expensive than piggybacking on Guard and Reserve units already on the books.

On the Reserve side, ACC is standing up active associations with fighter units at NAS Fort Worth JRB, Tex., and Whiteman AFB, Mo.

With the Guard, in addition to filling out the ANG test unit at Burlington, the command is standing up partnerships with fighter squadrons at Buckley AFB, Colo.; Montgomery Regional Arpt., Ala.; Duluth Arpt., Minn.; Homestead ARB, Fla.; Joe Foss Field, S.D.; and Truax Field, Wis. As of March, ACC was selecting leaders for each association and conducting site surveys of each intended base.

A Seasoning Shortage

King expects personnel will be in place at Fort Worth, Homestead, and Whiteman by the end of the year, and that all 10 associations will reach initial operational capability by 2017. While the active association principle functions the same way with AFRC units as it does with ANG units, Air Combat Command agreed to a slightly different manpower footprint for each.

The Reserve plan assigns nine Active Duty pilots to each AFRC fighter squadron—seven rookies and two veterans to command the Active detachment and liaise with the host unit. To compensate for added wear on the aircraft, each unit also gains a complement of Active Duty maintainers—156 for F-16 squadrons and 100 for A-10 squadrons, King said.

SrA. Adam Hamel sets up a maintenance station next to a 192nd Fighter Wing F-22 at JB Langley-Eustis, Va. The 192nd became a classic associate in 2007. (USAF photo by MSgt. Carlos J. Claudio)

With the same funding, the Guard proposed a slightly different arrangement which ACC and USAF leaders approved. Instead of nine pilots and roughly 100 maintainers at each squadron, the Guard suggested a smaller Active Duty footprint at both Burlington and Dannelly. This saved money and allowed the Guard to stand up associations at four additional ANG locations, according to King.

Four locations were originally slated to lose several F-16s under the Fiscal 2013 budget, so Guard leaders suggested using the remaining funds to essentially buy back the airframes, explained King. “Since they still had the airframes, … it was really a perfect match to increasing our combat capability,” King said. Rolling in Active Duty funding, flight hours, and manpower allowed the Guard to keep Buckley, Duluth, Joe Foss, and Truax at 18 jets each, instead of the 15 aircraft first budgeted for Fiscal 2013.

Now, each of the six Guard units will be assigned four Active Duty pilots—one experienced squadron commander and three green pilots. In addition, they will get a reduced complement of 40 Active maintainers to bolster the part-time workforce. The Air Force essentially redistributed regular Air Force manpower slated for Montgomery Regional Airport and Burlington, and combined it with some REGAF savings “to form associations at four additional ANG locations,” said King.

Though ACC is moving ahead with sending four pilots to each ANG squadron, the command approved eventually upping the number of pilots to eight pilots and 80 maintainers—if and when funding permits. This would change the ratio of experienced to inexperienced pilots, but King said the higher number of Active Duty airmen was planned into the scheme from the outset and wouldn’t harm the student-teacher ratio.

Neither the pilot absorption issue nor associations with the ARC is new. Air Combat Command began exploring the idea—especially in the A-10 community—as far back as 2002. King led the effort at the time.

Before 9/11, “pilots were getting out of the Air Force, separating and doing other things,” said King. “That created a shortage of those very seasoned, very experienced fighter pilots.” Instead of becoming commanders and instructors, fighter jocks went elsewhere, leaving a “void for units to train their new guys,” with cascading effects on the force.

The idea of associating fighter units took hold with the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure process, although it was touted at the time as an efficiency measure, rather than a cure for any other problem. As a result, the first two associations—one at Hill AFB, Utah, and a second at Langley AFB, Va.—stood up as classic associations in 2007.

Classic associations essentially align a Guard or Reserve unit together with an Active unit. Both pool their personnel to cooperatively fly and maintain the aircraft owned by the Active Duty unit. This approach cuts flying costs and injects experience back into the Active wings, but “doesn’t provide a lot of help for the absorption problem,” observed King. For fighter units, “if you really want to benefit from experiencing young guys faster, … active associations are the way to go.”

A1C Christopher Kreager of the 158th Fighter Wing’s maintenance squadron works on an F-16. ACC found that reserve maintainers are the “crunch factor” when it comes to deployments. (USAF photo by SSgt. Dan DiPietro)

The classic associations at Langley and Hill faced an uphill battle from the outset, confronting a number of difficult issues. Outside circumstances, such as cutting the fighter force USAF-wide, hampered the initiative somewhat as well, but “kluging two wings together and determining what the real, right manpower was for it” afterward was not something ACC cared to repeat, King said, adding, “we really didn’t have a good handle on that back then.”

While things functioned smoothly at the operational level, the chain of command and differing responsibilities, such as the Guard’s state-level mission in peacetime, created conflicts.

“From the standpoint of the daily flying schedule, here, it is seamless; there is no difference between the pilots,” said Lt. Col. Pete Fesler, commander of Langley’s Active Duty 27th FS. However, he acknowledged, “there’s a different command, control, and administrative chain,” which proves tricky in terms of unity, planning, and discipline.

“You basically have competing interests and competing bosses,” noted King.

On top of the command problem was the severe overmanning issue, exacerbated by the Combat Air Forces Redux, which cut 250 fighters from the inventory in 2010. At the outset, “there were a lot of airplanes, so they could handle the increase of pilots” at both bases, said King. However, Hill lost an entire squadron of F-16s, and Langley—in the midst of transitioning from the F-15 to the F-22—dropped from three squadrons to two.

With too few jets to keep pilots current, both bases found themselves struggling to adjust. Cutting Guard or Reserve pilots would sacrifice valuable experience, while cutting Active Duty positions endangered the units’ ability to deploy. This tension represented the Achilles’ heel of the classic construct.

In wartime, an activated reserve component airmen deploys like any other. For peacetime and expeditionary commitments, though, “it’s all based on volunteerism, whether it’s a deployment to the area of operational responsibility or an exercise,” explained ANG Maj. Darren Gray, 149th FS assistant operations director at Langley. “Some guys have a lot of flexibility based on their job. … Others are much more constrained.”

Finding the Sweet Spot

While active associations don’t suffer from this problem, there was no realistic way of changing the framework already in place at Langley and Hill. Instead, ACC studied the personnel mix to find a way of better matching the mission and equipment needs.

“It was obvious they were fat—overmanned—and we needed to right-size that,” said King. “Split operations,” where one squadron deploys and the other stays behind to maintain proficiency, turned out to be the most manpower-intensive. “When you do the math, there’s kind of a sweet spot on where REGAF and [air] reserve component manning” should be to handle deployments, he noted.

Furthermore, ACC found that maintainers, rather than pilots, were the real crunch factor.

“They’ve got a higher part-time presence and it takes more of those folks to go,” explained King.

Amn. Branden Jewell closes the canopy of a 442nd Fighter Wing A-10 after loading the aircraft with liquid oxygen at Whiteman AFB, Mo. Air Combat Command began exploring the idea of associations in the A-10 community in 2002. (USAF photo by SrA. Wesley Wright)

The command decided to trim both organizations to fit a split-operating scenario, starting with Langley last November. Hill followed suit in March. The plan for both keeps Active manning high enough for each organization to rotate a squadron out on deployment and uses the part-timers to bring them up to full war footing.

Langley shed 19 pilot authorizations, some of which they already struggled to fill, along with 162 maintenance slots. Those cuts came mostly from the Active cohort. The effort at Hill followed similar lines, and King expects ACC will continue to massage the mix as the effects become clear. Through the adjustment process at Langley and Hill, “the Air Force and ACC have learned how to do this better,” asserted King.

For fighters, the big lesson is that sending a small Active Duty detachment to a reserve squadron is better suited to solving the unit’s seasoning and absorption problems.

“We’ve had issues with certain associations and we’ve worked through them” benefiting all components involved, King added. On the other hand, the lessons learned at Langley and Hill have been of benefit to highly successful classic associations in other fields—notably security forces, intelligence, and remotely piloted aircraft operations.

The best type of association is “very much dependent on mission,” said Burdett. “They’re two different entities” with different benefits, King observed. To balance experience across the Air Force and gain access to previously untapped aircraft and flying hours, though, the Air Force prefers active associations.

“That’s where we get our big absorption benefits from associating,” said King.