Washington Watch: Working the Optempo Problem

Dec. 1, 1997

The Air Force hopes that by next spring it will see results from a series of measures it has taken to blunt the impact of chronically high operating tempo on the troops, who by all measures are working harder than ever before in peacetime. If the “fixes” don’t show some positive effect on retention and morale by next summer, the Air Force may have to take more drastic action, in the form of requesting additional troops or force structure, or asking to be excused from performing some lower-priority missions for which it lacks resources.

The new Chief of Staff, Gen. Michael E. Ryan, alluded to these fixes in his confirmation hearings this fall, insisting to a skeptical Congress that the optempo issue is one that is “under control,” despite declining pilot and enlisted retention. Ryan’s remarks were in sharp contrast, however, to those of Gen. Richard E. Hawley, head of Air Combat Command, who has for the last two years been highly vocal about optempo, repeatedly warning that the troops will start “voting with their feet” if the workload isn’t better managed.

Asked about the seeming difference of opinion between himself and Ryan, Hawley, in an interview with Air Force Magazine, answered, “I was right, and he’s right.”

“We had a serious optempo problem a couple of years ago,” Hawley explained. “We’ve worked hard on it, and in my view, we have largely got it under control. The fixes that we’ve put in place leave me pretty optimistic about the optempo issue in all but about three of our major weapon systems.”

Hawley first set out to develop a series of “metrics,” to determine just who was working too hard, and why.

“There is what I call ‘good’ ops tempo and ‘bad’ ops tempo,” Hawley asserted. “Nobody complains about going to Red Flag or Cope Thunder. It’s things like Southwest Asia, where you … live in a tent in 120-degree temperatures and don’t get any training while you’re there. That’s bad ops tempo. So the content of the ops tempo is important.”

The metrics included factors such as the duration of an individual deployment, as well as the frequency of inspector general visits; the unit’s equipment status; the level of effort needed just to maintain the day-to-day pace; the availability of adequate spares; the adequacy of training and experience of the unit’s maintenance force-“All those things are part of ops tempo,” he said.

Hawley also discussed the future shortage of air superiority airplanes and the likelihood of an expanded F-22 fighter buy and also made a pitch to “rebalance” the allocation of US defense dollars.

Instructing his staff to think creatively-as well as not to ignore the obvious-Hawley’s main fixes for overly high optempo included the following:

Spread the Work Around. Each winter, ACC hosts a planning conference with the USAF major commands, Guard, and Reserve to look over the “known” missions–such as Bosnia, Northern and Southern Watch in Iraq, Red Flag, competitions, and such-and spreads the workload out among the units available. This approach makes the burden more equitable, since some units were being tasked up to six months a year while some similarly equipped units were deploying hardly at all.

The load is not distributed in a “perfectly even way across the Air Force, because everybody’s got a unique situation,” Hawley said. For example, due to continuing uncertainty about the Korean situation, units on the peninsula do not deploy. “But everybody contributes to the max of their capability to those tasks to make sure we don’t pile it all up on one small part of the Air Force,” he added. What used to be considered major command responsibilities “are now Air Force responsibilities.”

Use Air Expeditionary Forces. USAF is trying to convince regional commanders in chief that a unit deployed in the United States, on alert, is almost as good as one forward deployed in the theater. The AEF concept calls for a task force to pack up, deploy to theater, refuel, and put bombs on target-all within 48 hours. The troops benefit from being at their home station, and the CINC benefits from having more airpower almost at his fingertips. Hawley said he briefed Marine Corps Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, the chief of US Central Command, and his staff on the concept, “and he bought it all.” Additionally, bombers may sit “conventional alert” to substitute for tacair units in the tank-killing role, given the arrival of new, mass anti-armor munitions like the Sensor Fuzed Weapon.

Reduce Inspections and Combine Tasks. IG visits will be less frequent. Particularly in bomber units, “we found ORIs [operational readiness inspections] to be a significant part of their workload,” Hawley noted. In addition, IG visits will more often be timed to coincide with deployments–“killing two birds with one stone,” he said. The IG gets to see a real-world test, and, since many deployments will be no-notice, “the wing commander doesn’t feel compelled to give them all the practice that he would otherwise have felt compelled to give them in preparation for an IG.”

Cut Back on Exercises. Both the USAF leadership and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have mandated a reduction in exercises as a way to lighten the workload. Also, competitions like William Tell and Gunsmoke will shift to a triennial schedule.

Eliminate Some Lesser Taskings. Regional commanders in chief have been asked to scrub their requirements and ask only for those capabilities they absolutely must have, rather than asking for units that merely raise their level of comfort. New requirements must be cleared through the JCS.

Become More Efficient. Success in working smarter-such as using one spare tanker for Northern and Southern Watch, instead of one each–may help reduce the workload, although “there is a degree of risk” in having such reduced depth, Hawley admitted.

Increase the Crew Ratios. On the E-3 AWACS, in particular, an increase in crew ratios has eased a backbreaking deployment schedule which had been driving many AWACS specialists out of the service. Creation of Reserve associate wings in some weapon systems has also lessened the individual burden.

Buy Some More Assets. If there aren’t enough of some kinds of aircraft, a few more might be bought. A prime case in point is the RC-135 electronic reconnaissance aircraft. Two more Rivet Joints are on their way to the force to ease the shortage. Also in store are a few more H-60 helicopters for combat search and rescue. Any system routinely busting a JCS-set “sustainability” optempo ceiling is a candidate for additional procurement.

Shorten the Deployments. Units will now deploy overseas for 45 days rather than 90, reducing the stresses of being away from home and family-as well as training-too long. Units deployed for 90 days tended to need “long work ups” when they returned, to get back to full mission readiness, since in-theater training is usually limited and poor in quality. Regional CINCs get fresher, more recently trained and combat-ready troops, and the troops get a less disruptive deployment.

Increase the Pay, Benefits, and Quality-of-Life Funding and Bonuses. Such has been requested from Congress.

Hawley acknowledged that many of the solutions–such as the 45-day deployments–have only recently been put into effect, and there hasn’t been time yet to see if these efforts will boost morale and reduce the stress on the troops. “I think we’ll have a good picture of how successful we’ve been by next spring,” he forecast. “By that time, it will be clear whether our initiatives to enhance some of the compensation issues”-the most recent pay and bonus requests to Congress-“are going to bear fruit.”

Nevertheless, Hawley is acutely aware of warning signs that some of the troops are fast losing their commitment to “service above self.”

“About 36 percent of the people who are eligible to establish a date of separation have established one,” Hawley said, adding, “a year ago, it was about 28 percent.”

The ACC chief sees that increase as troublesome but not cause to panic. More telling, to him, is the number of troops who are declining to accept bonuses and who are eligible to declare a separation date but have held off.

“The number of people who have not declared is way up,” he noted, and the number of personnel saying, ” ‘I’m not going to take the bonus, but I’m not going to establish a date of separation, either,’ is very high.”

Hawley continued, “And so I sense from that, that a lot of people are kind of marking time, they’re going to see how well we do controlling ops tempo. And they’re going to see how well we do delivering on our promise in many other areas”–principally in quality-of-life initiatives such as better housing and family support at home and during overseas deployments.

“They’re waiting to see,” he summed up. “We’ve got to prove to them that we’re going to deliver. And I think they’ll have made that judgment by spring.”

But if the fixes don’t have the desired effect by then, what then

“We won’t be out of ideas,” Hawley asserted. “We’ll go to Congress and say we need to pay these people more. We’ll go to JCS and say we need to task them less. We need to rely more on forces on alert in the United States and less on forces camped out in the theater. We’ll say we need to increase pilot production. We’ll take all those measures, if we have to, … and more.”

He added, “We’ll keep working this until we fix it, and we’ll eventually fix it.” By next summer, “we’ll know whether or not we have to circle back and try something new.”

Nonetheless, Hawley has few ready answers for the people who work on some “low-density, high-demand” systems, who are routinely tasked to deploy more often-and longer-than those in most other systems.

With respect to the U-2, RC-135, A-10, EC-130, and H-60 forces, said Hawley, “I do not have confidence that I’ve solved the ops tempo problem.”

In the case of the RC-135 and H-60, more aircraft may lessen the load, higher crew ratios can help the U-2 pilot force, and sometimes F-16s with anti-armor capability can substitute for one of the tank-killing A-10s. However, said Hawley, these systems are the “five or six … I still have a problem with and I gotta continue to work.”

Pilot retention has been a particularly sensitive subject this fall, drawing the attention of Congress and even of the national news media. Hawley agrees that the dropping pilot retention rate is a significant concern but not a force-breaker.

“I wouldn’t call it a crisis,” he said, but rather “another cyclical downturn in our retention of pilots. We go through this about every 10 years, it seems,” and each episode seems to coincide with an airline hiring surge.

Given a requirement for 10,000 new airline pilots a year (all requirements, not just the major airlines) for as many as 10 years to come–far outstripping military pilot production–Hawley doesn’t see the problem solving itself anytime soon.

“I can’t compete with the airlines” on pay, Hawley said. Rather, he said, he’s trying to “highlight what we do well,” which is to offer “a great mission.”

“Our pilots like to fly Air Force airplanes,” he went on. “They’re good equipment. It’s … exciting, … it’s challenging, very demanding.” And, he added, “They get to work with Air Force people, and maybe I’m being a little prideful here, but I think Air Force people are more fun to go to work with and have as neighbors. We offer a chance to serve your country. And there’s still a lot of people around who like serving their country.”

Hawley couldn’t say whether he is able to hang on to the best pilots, but “I think we’re hanging on to the ones that I want”–who are happy with the service and driven by the mission and the opportunity to serve. “And they’re doing a great job for us.”

He added, though, that pilots are getting undue attention and that retention problems–what he called “symptoms” of the excessive optempo problem-afflict a number of specialties.

Security Forces, he noted, have been working 12-hour shifts for months. The heightened workload has been caused by two factors: increased force protection requirements caused by the June 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia and the fact that the specialty is only 79 percent manned. It’s a pace that is grinding down those in the field, said Hawley, “but you don’t hear about that” in the media.

Yet while the Air Force is addressing the immediate optempo problem, it may have sown the seeds of future problems in some of the changes it recommended in the Quadrennial Defense Review.

For example, going down to 339 F-22s from 442–that is, from four wings to three–means more risk, Hawley said.

In the future, “some CINC is going to have to get by with less air superiority than he’s getting by with today,” he said. “Our F-15 force is fully tasked today. They can’t handle any more … ops tempo, and we’ve got four wings of them. So somebody’s going to have to make do with less.”

He readily admitted that this situation “may well make it more difficult” to carry out the national strategy of winning two Major Theater Wars in close succession. The F-22s in the planned numbers are deemed adequate for the two MTWs because it is expected to be “so dominant … that we will still be able to achieve air superiority quickly.”

In terms of optempo, though, the F-22 plan has a built-in deficiency.

“The problem that we will have is not with the two MTW scenario,” said Hawley. “It is with the day-to-day … peacetime contingency commitments around the world.” Hawley thinks 339 will not be enough F-22s to police the now-typical high number of contingencies and still have enough left over for training and depot work.

Like the F-15, “we’ll have to keep about half of the force in the United States and about half deployed overseas. That’s as thin as we can get. We have to maintain that rotation balance. You can’t sustain a weapon system when it’s all overseas, because the people never come home.”

However, Hawley doesn’t think the 339 figure is the final word on the F-22.

“I don’t think we’ll end up with just three” wings, he predicted. Because the F-117 and F-15E will need to be replaced about the time the end of the F-22 run is reached, “my guess is … we’ll turn to the F-22” to replace them.

“We may modify it a little bit, but a variant of the F-22 will wind up being delivered, to the tune of at least a couple more wings, in order to fill in the rest of that force structure requirement for that deep penetrating, interdiction fighter,” Hawley asserted.

He maintained that the F-22 will be a better choice than, say, the Joint Strike Fighter because “the characteristics that produce a dominant air superiority fighter also turn out to be the basic airframe characteristics that make a good interdiction platform. And that’s why the F-15E serves us so well today; it derived from that very capable F-15C air superiority fighter.”

The JSF, meanwhile, “if it comes in at the price tag we’re looking for, which is under $30 million a copy, in 1996 dollars, I don’t think it will deliver an airplane that can fulfill the F-15E mission or the F-117 mission.”

Hawley doesn’t believe that the advent of high-precision weapons, capable of fulfilling the “one target, one bomb” goal, will pose much threat to the force structure as it stands today. The force is already down to a size decided on because the precision weapons were coming, and it was decided that USAF could live with a “period of risk” in capability until they arrived.

“It’ll probably never be ‘one target, one bomb,’ just because the planners will always want high [probability of kill] and they’ll probably put two bombs on it anyway,” he said. But the driver of force size is not wartime capability but the “requirement to be present all over the world.”

He asserted that “I could not sustain our current requirement for overseas presence with a smaller force structure than we’ve got today,” especially given that more than one of every four USAF people is deployed outside the country at any one time.

Hawley said that even though the Quadrennial Defense Review put great emphasis on bombers in the “halt phase” of a conflict, and that bombers offer the range and speed to help offset high optempo, he agrees that buying new bombers is not feasible.

The Air Force is hard-pressed to afford the airplanes it has requested, let alone those it hasn’t, he said. And, “I don’t think that the Army is prepared to offer up divisions in order to buy B-2s, and I know the Navy’s not going to give up carriers to buy more B-2s. So it’s very difficult for me to find space in the budget for more B-2s.”

However, he offered that “the mix of B-2s, B-1s, and B-52s works pretty well for us. You’ve got the B-2 for the high-end target … that’s deep, well defended, that you need to penetrate early in the war in order to do that halt phase, take down that command and control structure, help beat up the defenses-those kinds of things that you need a stealthy, long-range platform to work on in the early days.”

The B-1, meanwhile, will serve well as a platform to attack enemy armor “out in the field, … on the march” where it won’t be protected by the “high-end” air defense threat, and the B-52, with its standoff weapons, can stay away from danger until after air supremacy has been achieved.

“We think that’s a pretty good mix,” he asserted, “particularly when combined with the other systems that are coming along,” such as the F-22 and JSF, precision munitions, and GPS targeting on almost all weapons.

Since the Administration seems unwilling to cut back on commitments much further, and the Pentagon seems unwilling to cut back on readiness, and modernization and force structure can’t stand to be reduced any more, where can resources be found to give the troops the additional relief they need

“You’re going to have to … find some areas where you’re willing to make some trades, willing to incur some risk, in order to restore balance to the force,” Hawley said.

“I don’t think we have an appropriate balance today” between land- and sea-based tactical aviation, he added.

“We need some carrier-based air,” said Hawley. “It is very expensive. It costs a lot to field a carrier and its associated air wings, but you can’t do without it. They provide a great capability. So I would never advocate that airpower-land-based airpower-is going to obviate the requirement for carrier-based aviation, no more than I would say that it obviates the requirement for adequate ground forces.

“What we need is a balance.”

While he declined to say what he thought was an appropriate level of carrier aviation funding and force structure, Hawley said flatly that USAF and ACC “can’t do with any less land-based tacair. My forces are stretched to the limit right now.”

He further feels that some of the things that led to the “hollow force” of the late 1970s are creeping back into the picture now.

“The sustainability and readiness of the forces that we’ve got today [are] declining,” Hawley asserted. “I think we need to increase our investments in … the fundamentals of sustainment: depot, spare parts, well-trained support crews who know how to maintain airplanes and keep ’em flying.”