Attrition: Not Good Enough


February 6, 2010:  Back in 2003, when the U.S. Air Force noticed that an increasing number of veteran airmen were not reenlisting, they sought ways to hold onto these experienced NCOs during wartime. One of the several minor tweaks made was to allow NCOs to remain unpromoted longer before being forced to leave the service. This is part of the post-World War II "up or out" policy in the American military. If you are not promoted within a certain number of years (of your last promotion), you have to leave.

But now the air force has changed that policy, and fewer years are needed to get promoted, or not allowed to reenlist. This is part of a renewed air force downsizing effort, aiming to cut strength by 3,700 (1,633 enlisted and 2,074 officers). This downsizing will also be aided by encouraging early retirement, or allowing those selected for the cut, to leave before their current contract is up. Until 2008, the air force was in the process of cutting strength to 318,000. Each active duty airman costs the air force over $100,000 a year, thus the reduction of 40,000 troops would result in savings of nearly half a billion dollars a year. The money saved was going towards purchasing more technology. More new airplanes.

A change of leadership reversed that plan, and over the past year, the air force has been increasing strength again. The current cuts are partly the result of the recession, which has led to a lot more, high quality, people trying to get in. The air force took all it could get, and then decided to cut some of the less qualified people it already had. Thus the decision to make it more difficult to get promoted.

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 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 battle action on the ground while serving with the army. In two years, over 2,000 of these have been awarded.

The U.S. Air Force has fewer people on active duty today, 325,000, 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. Worldwide, armed forces are trending towards fewer, but more capable, troops. In the American armed forces, the air force personnel are the ones with the top scores. For decades, members of the U.S. military were, compared to their civilian peers (of the same age, health and education), superior. That gap has been widening.



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