Attrition: Downsizing Debacle Derailed


September28, 2008:  New management at the U.S. Air Force halted its downsizing program last Spring. At the same time, the air force discovered that more of the people it did not want to lose, were leaving. These are experienced people with rare skills that are in big demand. Top of the list are EOD (bomb disposal) and forward air controllers. People working these jobs are in big demand in Iraq and Afghanistan, even with the decline of roadside bomb activity in Iraq. Same with the forward air controllers. There have never been enough people with these skills, and the air force wants to hang on to the senior men, if only to train new people. But after twenty years of service, you can retire on half pay. Many older EOD and air controller NCOs are under pressure from families to take the pension and not spend so much time in combat zones. So the air force has increased reenlistment bonuses for these folks from $60,000 to $90,000. The air force is also increasing the number of job categories eligible for bonuses from 37 to 88. There are a lot of people, with a lot of scarce skills, coming up for 20 year retirement.

The abandoned downsize program had been going on since 2005. Last year 852 lieutenants received letters that they were likely to lose their jobs by this Summer. In the last two years, about 2,000 lieutenants have been similarly dismissed. The air force was reorganizing and downsizing, so energetically that even junior officers, who are usually immune to such cuts, were fired. The air force planned to cut their strength by 5,400 personnel this fiscal year (which began last October).

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 navy has also been downsizing, for the same reasons as the air force.

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. Unlike previous years, when many troops were fired, most of the reduction this year is 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 this year were to be involuntary, and all those would 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. More new airplanes.

The U.S. Air Force has fewer people on active duty today, 334,000, than at any other time in was formed (from the U.S. Army Air Force) in 1948. The air force does have 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.

Another reason for halting the downsizing, was 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 largely ignored 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, will also be dropped. As many corporations have discovered, downsizing often ends up dismissing key people you did not realize were key until after they were gone (and quickly hired by someone else.) This was the case with EOD and air controllers, two groups of highly skilled specialists who don't have much to do in peacetime, but are in big demand when there is a war.





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