Increased reliance on the Guard and Reserve is the answer

  • Published
  • By Brig. Gen. Samuel "Bo" Mahaney
  • Air Reserve Personnel Center commander

In response to the Air Force Time’s article last week – “Per-troop costs rising, new report shows,” the article misses a glaringly obvious solution.

The nation can maintain an appropriately sized Air Force, retain mission capability AND bring down personnel costs by quickly transitioning to greater reliance on Reserve and Guard forces.

As Lt. Gen. James Jackson, commander of the Air Force Reserve Command and chief of Air Force Reserve, said in recent remarks at the Air Force Association Mitchell Institute, we need to stop shrinking the Air Force. He made this point by saying, “That isn’t a solution. Because you can’t have a new tanker, you can’t have a new bomber, you can’t have new fighters, you can’t do new cyber units, you can’t do ISR, [and] you can’t do the space mission without the manpower.”

The most effective way to maintain an appropriately sized Air Force is to increase reliance on the Guard and Reserve. One option is to transition to a Reserve-Led Total Force Enterprise or RTFE at many bases where our forces operate.

The overriding reason RTFE works is simple: 1) our reservists and guardsmen are executing the mission, 2) training for the execution of the mission, or 3) off the federal payroll.

When not in use, they return to their civilian lives 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. While reserve forces account for 39 percent of military end strength, they consume only 16 percent of the Defense Department budget. Those are savings that are tough to ignore.

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James recognizes the potential for savings. She is currently studying what additional capability the Air Force might put into the Guard and Reserve. In the most recent State of the Air Force briefing, she said, “We believe we’ll have 80 percent of our entire force looked at between now and the end of the year,” adding that she expects the Air Force to determine more missions and capabilities for the Guard and Reserve in the future.

Transitioning from traditional reliance on a high percentage of personnel on active duty would solve a major fiscal quandary. The problem? Personnel serving on continuous active duty orders are paid 100 percent of the time, even when not training for, or executing, the mission. The lack of a “fiscal-switch” to flip when a military member’s mission requirements are reduced makes the traditional reliance on a high percentage active duty force ripe for reevaluation.

This is not to say that long-term active duty status should be eliminated. The review of the entire force currently in progress will reveal that many missions require large numbers of personnel on continuous active duty status. But that review will also reveal that bases like March Air Reserve Base in California can be used as successful examples of RTFEs where personnel in full time status account for less than 30 percent of the total force.

The Air Force Times article also mentions that military personnel costs are set mostly by Congress, and by law cannot be unilaterally adjusted like many other military costs such as modernization efforts and training. This is another strong case for the RTFE. Military pay and benefits are already set by law for each of the air reserve components and would not require lengthy changes in law to see dramatic savings for the defense budget. By using the RTFE model savings would be automatic and immediate.

Best of all, by relying more on the RTFE model, not only will the Air Force decrease rising personnel costs, it will increase readiness on all fronts. That is because 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 and are able to respond to national priorities in less than 72 hours with little to no prior notice to their families and civilian employers. It’s a win-win situation.

Given the constrained defense budgets for the next decade, a volatile world, and the fact that the Air Force needs to be ready at a moment’s notice, a step toward future reliance the RTFE is worth considering. At bases like March ARB, where use of the RTFE model retains mission capability AND brings down personnel costs, the future is now.

(Brig. Gen. Samuel “Bo” C. Mahaney is the commander of the Air Reserve Personnel Center at Buckley Air Force Base, Colo. He is the former installation commander of March Air Reserve Base and was the 452d Air Mobility Wing commander. 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.)