Toward a Total Force

Feb. 25, 2016

the Air Force is deployed, it is a Total Force, with Active Duty, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve Command serving side by side. Only back in garrison are things different—for now.

However, inside the Pentagon, the Total Force Continuum office is working to make it easier for airmen to transition across components and is analyzing and planning the right force mix for every major mission in the Air Force, all in an effort to provide maximum airpower capacity at the best value.

The Total Force Continuum, or TFC, grew out of the Total Force Task Force, established in early 2013 to determine whether and how the service’s structure should change to meet mission requirements.

“The results of this task force will inform our strategic planning and programming for Fiscal 2015 and beyond and will also serve as a resource to the congressionally directed National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force that will be examining Total Force issues later this year,” then-Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley said in February 2013 at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla.

Brig. Gen. Patrick C. Malackowski, military deputy for Total Force Continuum, told Air Force Magazine that before 2012, USAF had been creating associations. These combine an Active Duty and reserve component entity into a classic association, an active association, or an air reserve component association. According to Malackowski, Donley asked the Air Force to look at why it was recommending more associations and where best to establish them.

When Gen. Mark A. Welsh III became the Chief of Staff in 2012, he told leaders they must change the structure of the Air Force from the inside, “or somebody else will do it for us,” Malackowski said.

The idea behind the Total Force initiative was to garner as much capacity as possible, Malackowski said, because after more than 20 years of continuous war, “the force was getting tired both in resources, like platforms, and our airmen.” Retention and affiliation rates were decreasing, he said. There was a recognition that neither the budget pressure on the Defense Department nor the mission requirements were likely to go away.

Instead of trying to “buy our way into being a better Air Force,” leaders are working to “get better by smartly adjusting and evolving into a better Total Force.”

In the long term that means adapting the operationally indistinguishable Total Force concept that already exists in deployed environments to the garrison. Instead of potentially having one Active Duty wing and one reserve component wing at a base, there will just be one Total Force wing.

“At some point I think we’re going to get to the maturity where we’re going to be able to drop the Total Force moniker, and we’re going to be Airmen with a capital A. … That’s where we’re headed,” said Brig. Gen. Craig L. La Fave, special assistant to the chief of Air Force Reserve and military deputy for Total Force Continuum.

The goal is integration, not assimilation, said Brig. Gen. Jeffrey B. Cashman, special assistant to the director of the Air National Guard and military deputy for Total Force Continuum.

“We can’t afford to lose the specific qualities of each component that give us the distinct value of them. So we’re not trying to make everyone look like Active Duty or Guard or anything like that, but instead, to capture each of those unique values and put them together side by side, in much the same way that we’ve been doing overseas for the past 15 years,” Cashman noted.

Since its inception the TFC has had many successes.

The Air Force moved to a Total Force recruiting system, went from separate active and reserve component officer training schools to one school, and instituted performance reports every two years for traditional Guardsmen.

Previously, Guardsmen didn’t typically get performance reports, which meant no paper trail for airmen who wanted to transition to Active Duty.

In the active component, leaders identified that they could use Guard and Reserve airmen for two or three years to serve on Active Duty as Reserve Officer Training Corps instructors at universities, La Fave said.

“We’re just in the phase of collecting applications now, but that’s a good example of walking through that door from one component to another component,” he said.

The effort to man those ROTC instructor billets also brought up another issue: Why does the Air Force only commission Active Duty component officers through ROTC

So in the next year, there will be about 100 airmen—the expected annual number—who are commissioned directly into the Air Force Reserve from ROTC, Cashman said.


There is also a new component in the Total Force: the Civil Air Patrol. The Air Force announced in August 2015 that when conducting missions for the Air Force as the official auxiliary, CAP is part of the definition of the Total Force.

Additionally, Active Duty and career status active Guard or Reserve members can apply for a program that allows up to 40 airmen to be inactivated and transferred to the Individual Ready Reserve for up to three years before returning to Active Duty. The program, known as the Career Intermission Program, began in 2015 as a way for top performers to take time off for personal or professional reasons, but eventually return to duty.

There is a misconception that CIP airmen who transition out of Active Duty status to the Guard or Reserve can stay in the same job and simply spend less time at it, Cashman said. Although the Total Force Continuum is working to make it easier for airmen to transition between the components, an Active Duty airman must move to a different billet if he or she wishes to move to the reserve components, and vice versa.

“This mythical ability to sit in your same seat and dial up or down your participation as it suits you does not exist—and will not exist,” Cashman said. “It’s the needs of the Air Force that you serve, not the needs of the airmen.”

Despite the successes TFC has had in overcoming obstacles on the road to its over-the-horizon goal, many challenges remain. Cashman said he believes cultural differences may be the most problematic, while La Fave rejected the idea of “barriers.”

“We’ve got three distinct components: We’re not here to eliminate that,” he said. “What we’ve done early in our Total Force evolution is we built windows between the components, so we could see it, get a common understanding. What we’re talking about doing now is building doors, a flow between components, but not an elimination.”

Even legislative issues often referred to as barriers “are really challenges for all three components,” not among components, he said.

CMSgt. Lorraine F. Regan, special assistant for Total Force enlisted issues, said she primarily sees administrative hurdles.

“We’ve been working together side by side, deploying, for many years,” Regan said. “Operationally, tactically, we work very well together.” However there are still many administrative, policy, and systemic hindrances that conspire to make it difficult to transition among components.

“I think integration as a whole—we’ve been doing it well for many years. We’ve just got to get the right kind of guidance and the right policies in place to facilitate that integration better,” Regan said.

Right now, the TFC is working to get an integrated personnel pay system online to overcome the issue of late paychecks every time an airman switches components.

There also is a push to consolidate some functions in the field, Cashman said, using the example of Scott AFB, Ill., where each component has a separate supply depot.

“At the grassroots level, we’re looking to gain efficiencies there,” he said.

The Right Ratio

In addition to integration, the TFC office has been working on a mathematical analysis of the force mix.

“We started about a year ago, to analyze every major mission area. There were 35 of them in the way we broke it out, and we built an objective mathematical model to which you could say, ‘What if we went 70-30 active-reserve? What if we went 85-15? How much does it cost? How much capacity does it deliver to the Air Force?’?” Cashman explained.

Then, he said, planners measured the capacity against the Air Force’s requirements to find the most efficient ways to man the missions.

They discovered that the Total Force is below the number of airmen necessary to execute the mission right now, Cashman said. They also found that for 24/7 missions, the most economical way to staff is with the Active Duty force, while unsurprisingly, missions having a heavy surge requirement are most economically filled with the reserve components.

“That’s what we’ve learned from going through the $52 billion Air Force investment in our personnel, the 437,000 billets we analyzed in the last year. And we can, in future budget proposals, show some objective metrics underpinning the decisions we make,” he said.

In fact, some of that math was incorporated into the Fiscal 2016 and 2017 budget proposals, though Fiscal 2018 is the first year it informs every decision, Cashman said.

It comes down to force mixing to produce capacity, Malackowski said.

“The Chief and the Secretary do not have enough airmen to do the missions that are required, … and how they make do is by the quality of people like Chief Regan. Our airmen just keep coming back and saying, ‘Yes, ma’am’ and ‘Yes, sir,’ … and that’s across all three components,” he said.

The Total Force transformation may not be complete, but much has changed since Operation Desert Storm 25 years ago, Cashman, La Fave, Malackowski, and Regan said.

“For those of us who were serving [during Desert Storm], the mission delivery—the most important thing that our Air Force does—the history books will say that all the units delivered the mission exactly the same,” Malackowski said.

“But if you walked the flight line … we certainly looked different. And we certainly didn’t go to the chow hall and integrate like you’re doing in this office today.”

Regan was in the active component during the first Gulf War and said things are “dramatically different” now.

“I can’t recall having very much engagement with any reserve component members back then, so I think that speaks a lot to how far the Air Force has really come,” she said. “Today, when I go into almost any community, people notice if there are representatives of all the components there, and if it’s not mentioned, people will ask, … and they’re trying to build their teams with that Total Force mentality in mind.”

Desert Storm may have been the beginning of the cultural evolution of the Total Force, Cashman said.

“The dramatic changes we’ve seen in the last three years, even, were founded on the experiences of the Air Force’s senior leaders now, over the last 25 years of Air Force engagement of war, where they all fought side by side with other component members. Their perception of what the reserve component is, is very different than the generation before them,” he said.

Good Head Start

As the Air Force has moved forward, Total Force integration efforts have converged with not just the Budget Control Act and sequestration in recent years, but also with Russian aggression in Ukraine, the rise of ISIS, and other new mission demands on the Air Force, La Fave said.

“This is something that we’ve gotten a pretty good head start on, but it’s a requirement. The fact is, we, the Air Force, have been at war for 25 years and the requirements aren’t going away. So we’re looking at ways of leveraging those strengths of the three components to fight our nation’s wars.

“In better times, if there were unlimited budgets and unlimited numbers of aircraft we could order, and it was quiet on the eastern and western fronts, different story. But here we are today trying to solve our nation’s problems with a capable Air Force made up of three components,” La Fave said.

Malackowski agreed.

“The demands on the Air Force and the demands on the department have increased at an exponential level, and unless you grow airmen and you grow budgets—and you know we’re not doing that—you’ve got to get better. It’s my personal belief that it’s the best Air Force that it’s ever been, and it’s been an honor to serve with it, but we also know that we have to get better. And so this Total Force Continuum is certainly working to do that.”

In September 2015, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James wrote that making Total Force integration a permanent part of the Air Force culture is “a critical part of our evolution.”

“If we are to remain the world’s most dominant Air Force, we must continue to remove barriers that inhibit Total Force integration. As we move forward, I am committed to ensuring a seamless and efficient Total Force,” she said.

That commitment to the Total Force concept at the highest levels is encouraging, Cashman and Regan said, because it shows it has truly become part of the Air Force’s culture, even if the end is not yet in sight.

“From the strategic level, we’re still in the middle chapters of a very long book,” La Fave said. “We’re doing great, we’re fighting our nation’s wars with the resources and the great airmen we’re given, but I think there’s great change to come, and we’re here to shape that.”