Total Force in a Search for Balance

Sept. 1, 2003

In the two years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Air Force’s Total Force concept has been sternly tested by a series of worldwide demands. The force has not only survived but prospered, and has proved invaluable. Officials say the integration of active duty, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve Command forces made possible Operations Noble Eagle, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom.

With so much of the Air Force’s combat power placed in the reserve components, the nation simply could not have gone to war the way it did—on short notice and with unexpected demands—without the Guard and Reserve contributions.

The Total Force arrangement is not perfect, however. USAF officials feel force structure, staffing, and mission adjustments are needed, primarily at the margins.

They do not expect to make a drastic overhaul of a system generally regarded as the Defense Department’s best example of effective active-reserve integration.

Thomas F. Hall, assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, noted in April that “the Air Force has always been a model and a leader with the way it uses its Guard and Reserve.”

The Air Force’s Total Force concept of operations has enabled the service to make the most of the Guard and Reserve. Reserve component forces have a hand in nearly every mission, and, when the requirements have surged, the “part-timers” have also surged to meet the challenge.

“ We are no longer a force held in reserve solely for possible war or contingency actions,” Lt. Gen. James E. Sherrard III, commander of Air Force Reserve Command, told a Senate panel in May. “We are at the tip of the spear.”

For Operation Iraqi Freedom, AFRC forces, said Sherrard, flew about 45 percent of the C-17 missions, 50 percent of the C-5, and 90 percent of the C-141. They also flew one-fourth of the air refueling sorties and nearly half of the aeromedical evacuations. The Air Guard flew 43 percent of Air Force fighter sorties and 86 percent of the refueling sorties.

The Guard and Reserve provide 25 percent of the aviation assets in each of USAF’s 10 rotating air and space expeditionary forces (AEFs).

When necessary, these ratios go even higher. ANG and AFRC have more than 65 percent of the Air Force’s tactical airlifters, 60 percent of its aerial refueling, 38 percent of its fighters, 35 percent of its strategic airlifters, and 20 percent of its combat search and rescue capability.

Part-timers add the equivalent of 10000 full-time personnel to the Total Force in a “normal” year—and even more when units are called up to meet wartime demands. By June 25, well after the end of major combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, more than 34,000 Guard and Reserve airmen remained on active duty.

This heavy load has created concern that the part-time force is being overused. There is ample anecdotal evidence that some reservists have had enough of the call-ups and that some employers are asking Guardsmen to “reconsider” their military service. These incidents have not yet developed into large-scale problems, officials report. The Guard is “holding up well” under the demands and expects to maintain its traditional retention level of about 90 percent, Lt. Gen. Daniel James III, ANG director, told Air Force Magazine.

Air Force leaders are aware of the implied contract that Guardsmen and Reservists have with their communities and families. Reservists signed up for occasional weekend service plus two weeks of duty a year, except in times of national need. To keep segments of the part-time force from becoming de facto full-time airmen, USAF leaders are looking for ways to prevent the same individuals from being repeatedly mobilized.

One obvious solution is to shift high-demand reserve capabilities to the active force. That would reduce the mobilizations, but there is a downside. Air Force reservists are very good at what they do, and they would be difficult and expensive to replace.

Creating a seamless Total Force, in which part-timers are considered interchangeable with full-timers, takes a commitment to training, modernization, and readiness. The Air Force has made this commitment. Moving more capability to the active force to minimize reserve call-ups creates a full-time cost and offers a debatable benefit.

Michael L. Dominguez, assistant Air Force secretary for manpower and reserve affairs, identifies the key problem. “If you think we are going to be in a big fight and not bring the part-time force along, then you are talking about a much more expensive Department of Defense,” he said.

Staffing a Total Force

Some of the existing reserve component arrangements have come under question by DOD’s leadership. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has questioned whether the correct missions have been assigned to the active duty and reserve components and whether it is appropriate to draw upon part-time forces every time a conflict erupts. He wants to re-evaluate the mission areas, stating in a July 9 memo that “the balance of capabilities … is not the best for the future.”

Rumsfeld called for rebalancing the active and reserve forces to more efficiently meet demands. In the memo, he called for the Pentagon’s senior leadership to devise plans to reduce the need for involuntary mobilizations, especially during the first 15 days of combat operations. Rumsfeld’s guidance calls for mobilized forces to be given “meaningful work and work for which alternative manpower is not readily available.” Mobilized forces should also be sent home as quickly as possible, he said. (See “Washington Watch,” p. 11.)

Explaining the concern earlier this year, Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said DOD “can’t even do some of the things … day to day without calling up the reserves.”

While the Army needs to mobilize large numbers of Guardsmen and Reservists just to deploy an active duty division overseas, the Air Force does not have that same kind of problem, Dominguez said.

For the Air Force, said Dominguez, the question is, “On the margin, … what size of an initial response do you want? How quickly? And are you prepared to pay for it?”

Moving missions to the active force makes them more expensive because they become full-time capability. Leaving capabilities in the reserve components, however, means more mobilizations are required.

Rumsfeld’s memo directs the rebalancing effort to “specifically address capabilities that reside exclusively or predominantly in the RC and are in high demand.”

USAF officials have been looking at manpower priorities since 9/11, attempting to find ways to meet increased demands through more efficient use of “human capital.” The ANG’s James said that volunteers have helped ease the “repetitive use” burden—the problem of some airmen being kept disproportionately busy.

Large numbers of Guardsmen signing up for mobilization mean fewer have to be called involuntarily.

At one point after 9/11, more than 6,000 Guardsmen were voluntarily serving on active duty. By the middle of this summer, more than 1,200 remained in this status.

The Guard and Reserve are composed of volunteers, as is the active force—a fact that many people fail to recognize. While it is universally accepted that DOD needs to be careful not to mobilize reservists unnecessarily, mobilizations can in no reasonable way be called involuntary conscription.

Meeting with defense reporters in June, Pentagon personnel chief David S.C. Chu pointed out that reservists choose military service. Calling the all-volunteer force a triumph, Chu said, “I am not sure I understand the distinction between sending an active unit to do the nation’s business and sending a reserve unit. … They are all part of a volunteer force. It is all one force.”

Chu added, however, that DOD has tried to spread the burden of deployments to Iraq. Some reserve units had not been used in a long time. “We deliberately, in this mobilization, tried to share that burden better,” Chu said.

The Air Force and DOD both have been studying possible changes to maximize reserve component effectiveness. Chu said the conclusions from these reviews will be reflected in the Fiscal 2005 budget request, due early next year.

Officials are keeping an eye on reserve recruitment of prior-service personnel. The preferred “harvest” for the ANG and AFRC, said Dominguez, is “people who are already skilled in the actives, as opposed to kids off the street whom you have to train.” Relying on this pool of personnel is challenging “because we have a smaller active force, and it has been under Stop-Loss for a long time,” he explained.

The Stop-Loss instituted for Operation Iraqi Freedom ended in July, and officials said they saw no reason to expect a mass exodus. Also encouraging is the fact that retention was solid when the Stop-Loss for Enduring Freedom was lifted in 2002.

Fear of Repetitive Overuse

Evaluating morale and job satisfaction across the Total Force, however, can mask pressure points in specific career fields that have indeed been overused. These low-density, high-demand specialties cause concern because they are in short supply, and, if their airmen get “burned out” and want to leave military service, the problem would rapidly grow worse.

“ Our challenge is really the one of repetitive use, which is a different challenge [from those] the other services face,” Dominguez said. “If we have to keep pulling in part-timers on a repeated basis and dribble into a full-time employment, well, that is going to be a problem.”

For some specialties such as intelligence, combat search and rescue, and pararescue, USAF is finding “we are a little thin, and the repetitive use or the extended use is a challenge,” Dominguez said. “We’ll have to fix that … a number of different ways. You can shift capabilities between Guard and Reserve and active.

You can expand the capabilities that you have, [or] you can substitute capital for labor.”

The Air Force is attempting to do all of these things. Some CSAR units have transferred to the active force, the number of Total Force security personnel is being increased, and the service is looking hard at new technologies to reduce the number of people needed for force protection.

Easing the strain on part-time units by transferring missions to the active force is not always a good solution. “As you move things between active and reserve status, you are going to create a set of expenditure needs,” Chu noted. “You are going to have to train people differently. Units are going to need to change the equipment. And some of that will cost money. So there is a resource aspect to this that has to be dealt with.”

The Pennsylvania Air National Guard’s EC-130 Commando Solo wing is one place the Air Force must solve both resource and repetitive use problems.

The six EC-130s used to jam enemy communications and broadcast US messages are unique; they are the only assets of their kind. The Commando Solo Guard unit has been mobilized repeatedly since Operation Desert Storm.

“ Commando Solo is a troubling [case] because it is a really unique capability, really important capability,” Dominguez said.

The Air Force will “probably” need to expand the capability at that unit, he said, but “whether it is grown in the active or reserve, … a lot of factors will go into that.”

James said, “You start looking at that tempo, and you make a decision as a Total Force.” The question is whether the Commando Solo unit should be different, not if it needs to be on active duty, he said. “Does it need to be an associate unit, a reverse associate unit, a blended unit? These are the ways we will approach our force structure rather than rushing to put everything on active duty.”

USAF has also been at the forefront of organizing unique basing and command arrangements. Through blended and associate units that combine active and reserve forces, the Air Force has always been out on edge in creative force structure arrangements, Hall said.

Nontraditional arrangements, such as colocating active and reserve airlift components, have been “very successful for the Air Force,” Hall added.

Officials tout the success of the 116th Air Control Wing at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia as an example of how scarce assets can be maximized. This wing, which contains active duty and ANG personnel, maximizes the availability of high-demand E-8 Joint STARS aircraft by increasing the number of people assigned to the system.

However, Dominguez said, “You’ve got to have the right mission, the right systems, and the right opportunity with [a] local population that can support” a part-time workforce supporting the active duty. Blended and associate wings are not one-size-fits-all cures for situations like that of the Commando Solo unit in Pennsylvania.

“ It doesn’t do you any good to increase the crew ratio on, say, a C-5, because you can’t keep it flying to use that [additional] crew,” he added.

Officials say USAF will continue to look for innovative ideas. Some bases, such as Fairchild AFB, Wash., have reserve and active units colocated and flying the same types of aircraft. The service will look at locations like that as possible candidates for new Total Force arrangements.

James suggested using “reverse associate” units, ones in which active duty personnel are assigned to ANG units. “This will take advantage of the operational infrastructure savings … while broadening assignment opportunities” for the active duty, he testified before the Senate appropriations defense subcommittee.

Noble Eagle: A Guard Domain

More active duty participation could strengthen the homeland air defense mission, which has been dominated by the Guard. ANG leaders told Congress in May that Guard forces are the “backbone” of Operation Noble Eagle, for which Guard units fly about 75 percent of the combat air patrol missions and 62 percent of the refueling sorties. By May, the Guard had executed more than 29,000 ONE sorties since Sept. 11, 2001.

Further, the Guard has “maintained almost 100 percent of the alert sites,” James said. Officials note that, for the air defense mission, the Guard has largely shifted from surge mode to sustaining mode. The around-the-clock CAPs flown after 9/11 have given way to greater reliance upon aircraft and bases on alert.

“At the current alert levels,” Dominguez said Noble Eagle is “a sustainable mission,” so long as Guard units continue to be supplemented by active duty forces.

The Guard is ideally suited for the Noble Eagle mission because of its “geographic dispersion,” Dominguez said. A Guard pilot flying a CAP over Salt Lake City, for example, can take two days off from an airline job, fly the mission, and “go back to the airline job.”

Therefore, officials feel there is no need to hand the homeland air defense mission to the active force, so long as the Guard has the resources to perform the mission.

James would like to see actual combat air patrols become the responsibility of active duty forces and their larger pool of fighter aircraft, leaving the Guard to concentrate on maintaining the alert bases and forces. He noted that active duty Navy and Marine Corps units can also contribute aircraft and pilots to the CAP mission.

Homeland air defense is “a Total Force challenge,” Dominguez said, and the Air Force must approach it that way.

While the flying operations are largely under control, “the struggle is [in] combat service support,” Dominguez said. Alert bases now are operating 24/7 when “they used to be bases we powered up on the weekend,” he noted. Since round-the-clock air defense was an unexpected mission at most of the alert sites, the command posts, maintenance facilities, and ammunition storage sites are not up to requirements at many of these locations and need modernization.

For the Total Force, this is an ongoing challenge: Keeping the reserve forces engaged in the face of evolving requirements. As long as they are expected to remain on par with the active duty, Guard and Reserve forces must continue to receive the modernization and upgrade funding that accompanies that requirement.

James called funding “a continuous and serious challenge” because “it is increasingly difficult to keep [ANG] legacy systems relevant, given the transformation of the Air Force to better, more effective technologies.”

Dominguez said a change in perception is in order. For the Air Force, he said, “it is probably best that people lose the term ‘reserve’ because it carries with it a lot of the baggage from the Cold War.” Reserve forces are no longer backups, he explained, “they are full-time forces manned with part-time airmen.”

Creating a Total Security Force

After 9/11, the Defense Department’s security requirements skyrocketed. Suddenly, force protection at every military installation became critical, and many Air Force sites that primarily had been part-time Guard bases found themselves operating around the clock flying combat air patrols. There weren’t enough security personnel to go around, especially when USAF began opening up new expeditionary bases overseas to support operations in Afghanistan.

After USAF Guardsmen and Reservists had shouldered this unexpected burden for a year, the Air Force “had to ask the Army for help, because we couldn’t get fixes in place soon enough,” said Michael L. Dominguez, assistant Air Force secretary for manpower and reserve affairs. The Army “very graciously joined in protecting US Air Force installations across the globe,” he said.

The Army in September 2002 agreed to contribute Guardsmen for up to two years, while USAF worked on a long-term solution to its security problems. The commitment runs through September 2004. While local Army reservists provide security at Air Force bases nationwide, many of USAF’s trained security forces have been freed to provide protection overseas.

“ At the peak of [Operation Iraqi Freedom], we were operating in the neighborhood of 36 expeditionary air bases,” Dominguez said. “We are talking about expeditionary in pretty unpleasant and unsafe parts of the world, so every one of those had to be secured.”

USAF’s reserve security forces are expected to head home by fall, Dominguez said, because USAF has “used them up” since 9/11.

The Air Force plans to shift additional personnel into security and has received Congressional approval to contract out some security functions. Dominguez said that USAF also plans “an aggressive program” to develop or procure new security technology to offset manpower demands, rather than “just throwing more bodies” at the problem.

The Air Force goal is to reduce security manpower requirements by 25 percent. Sensors, scanners, and commonsense modifications to roads and barriers can all reduce manpower demands, said Dominguez. The goal is to prevent reserve security personnel from becoming trapped in a never-ending mobilization.