The Citizen Airman: Will the superhero take a fall?

  • Published
  • By Brig. Gen. Samuel "Bo" Mahaney
  • Air Reserve Personnel Center Commander
Since their inception in 1948, and most especially over the last two decades of sustained global operations, the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard have developed into the most effective citizen air force in history. They are manned by multi-talented, multi-tasking superheroes that deserve the very best command and support structure our nation can provide. These Citizen Airmen are your neighbors, your doctors, your airline pilots, and your children's school teachers. At regular intervals they deploy into harm's way to work as combat civil engineers, dismantle unexploded ordinance, secure air fields, care for and transport wounded warriors, repair aircraft, and fly the most complex weapon systems the world has ever known.

Citizen Airmen are held to the same high standards of skill and operational readiness as their full-time counterparts. More than ever, these Citizen Airmen represent an unmatched force, able to respond to national priorities in less than 72 hours and with little to no prior notice to their families and civilian employers. Even so, they are poised to do much more! The National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force's recent report recommends that they do just that. The report calls for the Air Force to maintain or increase the size of the air reserve component and carry out more of the core Air Force mission.

These ideas merit strong consideration. After all, 75 percent of air reserve component members are part time. Because of this, Citizen Airmen are dramatically less expensive than full-time Active Component Airmen. These Citizen Airmen are either 1) performing their mission, 2) training for their mission, or 3) off the federal payroll. When not in use, they return to their civilian jobs until called upon to rotate back into the ongoing mission. Between rotations, they draw on the federal payroll only when training for the mission or maintaining their military qualifications. A January 2013 report by the Reserve Forces Policy Board determined that fully trained, deployment-ready Citizen Airmen cost two-thirds less than their Active Component counterparts. Those are savings that are tough to ignore in our fiscally challenged environment.

The National Commission's recognition of the value and effectiveness of our Citizen Airmen is to be lauded, which is why their recommendation to eliminate the Air Force Reserve Command is so shocking. AFRC is the Air Force major command that organizes, trains and equips Airmen of the Air Force Reserve who comprise about 70,000 of America's 170,000 Citizen Airmen. Without AFRC, these superheroes would not be able to manage an effective reserve-work-life balance and perform the mission year in and year out. Leaders throughout AFRC play the critical role of coordinating with civilian employers, matching Airmen availability with training dates, and helping Airmen maintain a balance between these demands and the requirements of the Air Force mission.

Congress established the AFRC because of mistakes and lessons learned in the Korean conflict, Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. It doesn't make sense to go back in time and repeat those same blunders. This recommendation, if carried out, would pull the rug out from under Citizen Airmen at the very moment when they are being asked to take on a greater responsibility in the nation's defense. Asking the other nine major Air Force commands to piecemeal the role performed for nearly 50 years by AFRC and its predecessor is untenable and will surely impact combat-readiness, cost-efficiency and the mission-effectiveness not only in the Reserve, but throughout the Air Force. Indeed, it will take years, if not decades, for those commands to even begin to match the skilled and seasoned insight already provided by AFRC leadership.

The Citizen Airmen of the Air Force Reserve deserve a better approach. The elimination of AFRC may deliver short-lived savings, but with history as a guide, the long-term cost of repairing the damage done to our Citizen Airmen, their families, and their employers would come at an exponentially higher price. As our Nation asks its Citizen Airmen to take on an even greater responsibility, it cannot simultaneously strip the battle-tested support, command, and leadership structure so vital to the success of this incredible fighting force. If significant savings are what we seek, we should retain and bolster AFRC to guarantee the effectiveness of our Citizen Airmen as they continue to take on a larger role in our Nation's defense today and into the unforeseen conflicts of tomorrow.

Brig. Gen. Samuel "Bo" Mahaney is the commander of Headquarters Air Reserve Personnel Center, Buckley AFB, Colo. He has taught as an Adjunct Professor of Fiscal Law at Georgetown University Law Center, is a former Harvard National Security Fellow, and is a former Air Force Legislative Fellow. The opinions expressed above are his own and do not represent the Air Force or the Air Force Reserve