Attrition: USAF Turns Off Hiring, Turns On Firing


June 24, 2010: Because of the recession, the U.S. Air Force has more people (335,000) than it is supposed to have (331,700). So, over the next two years, it will reduce strength by nearly 6,000 airmen. This is yet another shift in personnel policy, as only last year is was announced that the air force was going to rebuild its strength. This came after four years of downsizing (in an effort that shed 40,000 airmen).

It's even more complicated than that. Two years ago, 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.

Meanwhile, the air force is taking advantage of high civilian unemployment, and recruiting all the high quality people it can. In addition, it has now raised standards for airmen wanting to extend their contracts. Thus the air force gets more capable new troops, and is able to dismiss those who don't measure up to the higher standards. The latest cuts mostly (76 percent) involve officers. Most of the enlisted cuts will come from NCOs who have not been performing well. Senior officers, who are close to retirement, will be allowed to take early retirement, and all personnel who have been around for a while, will get additional separation pay. 

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. Getting the Combat Action Medal will help some marginal performers stay in, the award having demonstrated the ability to keep it together in high stress situations.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force has fewer people on active duty today 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 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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