Attrition: It's Not Easy Being Lean


April 3, 2010:  The U.S. Air Force downsizing effort now seeks to reduce strength by 5,750 people over the next two years. This is up from an earlier (January) plan to cut 3,700. This downsizing will encourage early retirement and allow those selected for the cut, to leave before their current contract is up. At the moment the air force is over strength, at 335,000 airmen, by 3,300 troops. The current cuts are partly the result of the recession, which has led to a lot more, high quality, people wanting to join, or stay in. The air force tried to hang onto more people than it could afford to, so now has to cut some of the less qualified people.

Two years ago, the air force was in the process of cutting strength even more, to 318,000. The main incentive was saving money. 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.

Then an unexpected change of leadership (the top military and civilian leaders were fired, and the new military leader was not a fighter pilot) reversed that plan, and for a year, the air force was increasing strength. This came after five years of downsizing. The air force was reorganizing, while also shrinking, and that included cutting several thousand junior officers, who are usually immune to such cuts. It's not easy being lean.

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 outfit. Especially during the Iraq and Afghanistan operations, 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 battle action on the ground while serving with the army. In two years, over 2,000 of these have been awarded.

Despite the demands of Iraq and Afghanistan, the air force has fewer people on active duty today, 335,000, 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 (63,000) 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. But that still means fewer people are needed. Since the 1990s, dozens of squadrons (of ballistic missiles and aircraft) have been disbanded. Many jobs have been automated. The biggest problem is not cutting or adding a few thousand troops, but retraining many, whose jobs have become obsolete, for new skills that didn't exist until recently.





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