Attrition: USAF Invents The Future


May 19, 2009: The U.S. Air Force is seeking to rebuild its strength, after four years of downsizing (in an effort that shed 40,000 airmen). Last year, in the wake of a major leadership shakeup in the United States Air Force (the top military and civilian leaders were fired, and the new military leader is not a fighter pilot), the U.S. Secretary of Defense ordered that the air force halt its downsizing program. Many in the air force agreed with this change.

The downsizing had been going on since 2005. The air force was reorganizing, while also downsizing, and that included cutting several thousand junior officers, who are usually immune to such cuts. The air force planned to cut their strength by 5,400 personnel last year. Now there's an effort to increase strength to 350,000, or more.

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. But sometimes this thinking collides with the fact that the air force is a combat organization. Especially during the Iraq and Afghanistan operation, more air force personnel found themselves under fire. Not pilots, but over 20,000 non-pilots that volunteered to help the army by doing support jobs in the combat zone. The air force was persuaded to create a Combat Action Medal for airmen who saw action on the ground while serving with the army. In two years, over 2,000 of these have been awarded.

The air force and navy were downsizing in response to the impact of technology, outsourcing and automation, in a process similar to that faced by many civilian firms. While some troops were fired, most of the reduction was from retirement and people not re-enlisting. There are now higher standards for re-enlisting, which improves the overall quality of the force. Few (10-15 percent) of the reductions were involuntary, and most of those were officers. Each active duty airman costs the air force over $100,000 a year, thus the reduction of 40,000 troops resulted in savings of nearly half a billion dollars a year. The money saved was going towards purchasing more technology. More new airplanes.

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.

One reason for halting the downsizing, was poor morale because of a personnel policy that was sending some types of air force troops overseas again and again, while many other hardly went at all. There were many complaints from the officers and airmen spending all that time overseas (many since 1991, to patrol the Iraq "no-fly" zone). But air force brass had been ignoring the complaints, believing that there were so many people trying to get in, or stay in, the air force, that they could just tell the troops to suck it up. The new air force management is taking this in a different direction. That means that the old air force plan, of shedding personnel so they could buy more new F-22s and F-35s, has been dropped. Now the future is more non-flying technology, more UAVs and more things that haven't been invented yet.




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