Attrition: Lieutenants Sacrificed to the Techno-Gods


December 21, 2007: The U.S.Air Force is killing its young, so to speak. Recently, 852 lieutenants received letters that they were likely to lose their jobs by next Summer. In the last two years, about 2,000 lieutenants have been similarly dismissed. The air force is reorganizing and downsizing, and that includes the junior officers who are usually immune to such cuts. The air force plans to cut their strength by 5,400 personnel in the next fiscal year (which began in October). This downsizing has been going on since 2005.

The air force has long been accused (by members of the other services) of operating more like a corporation than a military operation. That's a little harsh, because the air force is the most tech minded of the services, and has always taken the lead in adapting commercial innovations to military use.The air force and navy are downsizing in response to the impact of technology, outsourcing and automation, in a process similar to that faced by many civilian firms. Unlike previous years, when many troops were fired, most of the reduction in the next year will be from retirement and people not re-enlisting. There are now higher standards for re-enlisting, which improves the overall quality of the force. Only about 12 percent of the reductions next year will be involuntary, and all will be officers. There will still be a lot of enlisted personnel, in surplus jobs, who will be retrained. Each active duty airman costs the air force over $100,000 a year. The money saved will go towards purchasing more technology.

The U.S. Air Force has fewer people on active duty today, 334,000, than at any other time in its history. However, if you add in reservists (181,000), strength is a bit higher than it was when the air force was formed (from the U.S. Army Air Force) in 1948. The air force also has slightly more officers on active duty today (65,000) than it did in 1948, but that's a reflection of the growing importance of technology. Air Force personnel today have much more education than they did sixty years ago, and that is reflected in higher pay and, on average, higher rank.

The lower number of active duty troops mainly reflects the larger amount of technology, and knowledge, now used in warfare. Consider, for example, the differences between a World War II bomber, and a modern one. The principal World War II bomber was the B-17, which weighed 29 tons, had a crew of ten, and could carry three tons of bombs to targets 1,500 kilometers away. In current dollars, each B-17 cost about $2.2 million. But that was because over 12,000 of them were built. If bought in much smaller quantities, as is typical in peacetime, each B-17 would cost over $10 million. Now compare that to a modern bomber of comparable size (or at least weight), the F-15E. With a max weight of 36 tons, an F-15E can carry up to seven tons of bombs three or four times as far as the B-17, and has a crew of only two. But this $100 million dollar aircraft is much more than ten times as lethal as the B-17. That's because of guided bombs. A B-17 carried a dozen 500 pound bombs, but it took over 300 of these unguided bombs to guarantee a hit on a target below. The smart bombs of the F-15E guarantee a hit with two bombs (actually, it's 1.something, because there are occasional system failures with smart bombs). The smart bombs also glide 40 kilometers or more, allowing the F-15E to avoid most anti-aircraft fire.

Thus the big difference between these two aircraft is knowledge, as manifested in more, and better, technology. This has been a trend that has been ongoing for over a century, and continues. More technology requires fewer people, to achieve the same results, or results that were impossible in the past. The air force is not the only component of the armed services that is undergoing these simultaneous personnel shrinkages, and increased capabilities.




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