Congress to USAF: Not So Fast on Your Reorg Plans

The Department of the Air Force’s plans to “reoptimize for great power competition” are meeting with skepticism in Congress, and lawmakers want more details before changes go into effect. Congress wants more detail from the Air Force and a six-month review on how its plans were developed, requirements included in the 2024 spending bill that passed the House and Senate March 22 and 23.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and his leadership team unveiled a sweeping 24-point plan to “re-optimize for great power competition” at the AFA Warfare Symposium Feb. 12, and leaders have been talking up the overhaul ever since.

Among the changes: A major command shakeup including creating a new Integrated Capabilities Command for the Air Force, a new Space Futures Command for the Space Force, the re-introduction of warrant officers in the Air Force, new exercises and inspections to ensure unit readiness, and new deployment rotation models.  

But Congress wants a say in any major changes and the long-delayed 2024 appropriations bill made clear lawmakers concerns: “To date, the Department of the Air Force has not provided thorough justification for this reorganization, a comprehensive implementation plan, or detailed budgetary information necessary for the Subcommittees to assess this plan.” 

The bill directs that any 2024 spending used for those changes be “designated a congressional special interest item for the purpose of the Base for Reprogramming.” It also asks for its own six-month review of the decisions and the way in which leaders arrived at their conclusions.

By designating these matters as “special interest items,” Congress is asserting its oversight role. Typically, any such item costing more than $10 million must be reviewed by the chairmen and ranking members of four committees—the House and Senate’s Armed Services committees and the House and Senate Appropriations committees, according to the Congressional Research Service. How much reprogramming the Air Force is seeking in fiscal 2024 remains unclear; given the extent of the changes and the time it will take to work out details, most reprogramming will probably hit the fiscal 2025 budget, rather than fiscal 2024, which is already half over.

The new bill directs the Air Force to report, at least 30 days before formalizing any organizational changes, details explaining: 

  • How the change differ from the status quo 
  • How each phase of the change will be implemented and what each phase will cost 
  • Any new “offices, commands, or centers” to be established 
  • Any impacts to military and civilians position, itemized by location 
  • “the programmatic impacts of such decisions”  

An Air Force official told Air & Space Forces Magazine that not all that information is fully understood yet, but that the Department will keep Congress in the loop.

“We fully intend to keep Congress informed throughout the process, but we are at the early planning stages, and we have a lot more work to do to flesh out all the details,” the official said. 

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David W. Allvin acknowledged both the missing details and the need for congressional buy-in Feb. 28 during a speaking engagement at the Brookings Institution.

“How we engage Congress, how we engage the stakeholders, how we look internally to our Air Force in different ways to accomplish this that aren’t fiscally intensive is going to be key to this—which is why it may be unsatisfying to some because we’re rolling this out without having the actual signed official document on what the end state looks like,” he said.

Kendall said from the start he wants to minimize costs, including moves for Airmen and Guardians, but that some costs will be inevitable.

“I think we can do so in a way which minimizes cost,” he said. “We have nothing in the ’24 or the ’25 budget for any of these changes. If we need any funds in those periods, we’ll do it through reprogramming.” 

Lawmakers appear concerned that the changes could remove some jobs from their districts, said Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a defense budget analyst.

“Ultimately politics is about who gets what,” Harrison told Air & Space Forces Magazine. “So I understand it’s inevitable that Congress would want to get into issues like this because it affects which districts get which jobs.” 

Retired Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, the former head of Air Force Futures, agreed.

“These are understandable fears, and it will be important for the Department to allay them, even though it may feel like it is unnecessary or already accomplished,” he said.

But retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, dean of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, said Congress is effectively meddling, which is likely to slow down needed changes and could add costs.

“The reorganization is a major positive step and the Air Force is taking responsible action by implementing it,” Deptula said. “It does not need Congress to inhibit its execution by excessive micromanagement.”

More Detail

In addition to reprogramming oversight, the bill directs the Government Accountability Office to conduct a 180-day review of proposed organizational changes, as well as the process used to craft it, including: 

  • Factors considered in the reorganization 
  • Feedback from combatant commanders 
  • Analysis conducted to determine the key decision areas 
  • The business case analysis used and estimated costs involved 
  • Estimated time to implement the plan 
  • Criteria for success, including “interim operational capability and full operational capability” 
  • Whether input from a recent acquisition reform was considered 
  • The potential impact on joint and coalition forces 

Harrison said this report will likely require “a couple of people at least in the secretary’s office to just work with the GAO to make sure they give the GAO the information it needs and that they sell it in a way so that GAO report comes out not looking bad.”  

But any finding by GAO concluding that the process was flawed in any way could provide ammunition to skeptics seeking to derail the process, Harrison added, noting what appears to be a trend of congressional oversight spilling over into micromanagement. 

“I think the Pentagon ought to absolutely have the power to organize fources and organize the bureaucracy in the way they best see fit,” Harrison said. “Congress getting down and trying to micromanage how the Secretary of the Air Force organizes his office and all the different major commands within the Air Force, that is micromanagement, and that is not healthy. Of course, Congress should always be a check on the system, to make sure [the administration] doesn’t run awry and do something completely illogical. But you don’t want to be looking over folks’ shoulders, telling them every little decision that they need to make.” 

Deptula said more than question organization, Congress should be focused on finding the resources to ensure the Department of the Air Force has the funds it needs to enhance readiness and modernization. The Fiscal Responsibility Act, meanwhile, is poised to further crimp that cash flow.

“A reorganization alone cannot make up for over 30 years of inadequate funding of the Air Force, driven by arbitrary budget caps exacerbated by multiple continuing resolutions,” Deptula said. “Yes, Congress has oversight responsibilities, but they need to address the big picture reality of timely execution of their Constitutional responsibility to ‘provide for the common defense.’”