For several years now, the Air Force has been in a dogfight with its own National Guard and Reserve.
The two sides are tussling over how to manage the shrinking pie of the defense budget. The pressures of the federal budget sequester have only made things worse.
“Money’s tighter now,” said Larry Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning Washington think tank. “It’s going to get intense.”
The stakes are huge. Hundreds of aging aircraft need to be refurbished or replaced, thousands of airmen will lose their jobs and aviation squadrons will be shut down. The decisions Congress makes now will ripple through air bases across the country for years to come — and determine how prepared the Air Force is when the next conflict erupts somewhere in the world.
“Historically, we’re very (bad) at figuring out what’s coming around the corner,” said Steven Bucci, a senior foreign policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “A very fit, uber-capable force is better than one that’s small and flabby.”
More than a year ago, Congress created a panel, called the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force, to figure out what the future force ought to look like. The eyes of Air Force boosters are on Washington, D.C., today as the commission presents its findings.
Will the commission protect the active-duty forces by making bigger cuts to the Guard and Reserve, as senior leaders proposed two years ago?
Or will they listen to the governors and members of Congress who want to preserve their home-state forces?
The timing is important, with the Air Force just weeks away from presenting its 2015 budget plans.
With so much anger pointed at Congress these days, there’s pressure to compromise.
“There’ll be some wailing and gnashing of teeth, at the state level and with the congressional (state delegations),” said Bucci, director of Heritage’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies. “(But) I think we’ll end up seeing both sides giving a little bit.”
It wasn’t always as ugly as it’s been lately. The Air Force got along well with its Guard and Reserve components until a congressionally mandated round of military base closures in 2005, said retired Maj. Gen. Roger Lempke, a former adjutant general of the Nebraska National Guard.
He said the Air Force gathered information from Air Guard and Reserve units around the country, then worked in secret to come up with a plan that Guard leaders thought hurt them badly.
“They really tried to take a whack out of us,” Lempke said. “The relationship really turned sour. It’s been that way ever since.”
Congress jumped in then and forced some changes, he said. Offutt Air Force Base near Bellevue and the National Guard Base in Lincoln both had appeared to be in jeopardy, he said, but both survived.
Bucci said Air Force leaders anticipated leaner times two years ago when they pitched their 2013 budget.
“They tried in good faith to get ahead of the curve,” he said. “I think the active-duty Air Force is trying to do the right thing.”
Foresighted or not, the cuts seemed to Lempke and many governors to be skewed against the Guard and Reserve. For example, the proposal called for cuts of 9,900 personnel and five A-10 squadrons. More than 60 percent of the airmen and 80 percent of the squadrons would have been slashed from the Reserve.
That didn’t sit well in Congress, where the National Guard, in particular, carries a lot of clout. Air Guard units are in every state plus the District of Columbia.
“There was a lot of backlash,” Bucci said. “The folks on (Capitol) Hill said not only ‘No,’ but ‘Heck no!’ ”
Congress restored most of the Guard and Reserve funding. And in January 2013 it created the commission to determine what the Air Force should look like in the future. Of the eight members, four were selected by President Barack Obama and two each selected by the leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.
The commission held public hearings in six states and accepted hundreds of pages of written comments from military and political leaders and from the general public.
“That was Congress’ way of slapping the Air Force’s hand,” said Todd Harrison, a former Air Force Reserve officer who is now a fellow at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “The Air Force learned from that. They’ve learned they have to coordinate more with the adjutant generals. They’re not going to be able to get a lot of cuts from the Guard and Reserve.”
The Air Force got hit hard last year from the combined effects of budget cuts and the federal budget sequester. Besides mandatory furloughs for civilian workers, Air Force leaders grounded some fighter wings and slashed maintenance and training.
“It’s a little hard to stay ready if you can’t fly,” said Bucci, who served as a military aide to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during the early part of the George W. Bush administration.
At Offutt, some Rivet Joint pilots resorted to “chair-flying” — sitting in their grounded KC-135 jets and pretending to fly training missions. Offutt and three other bases permanently closed their base libraries, and the two swimming pools closed for the summer after money to pay lifeguards was yanked (although one reopened after private funding was donated).
There are about 329,000 active-duty airmen and 211,000 more in the Guard and Reserves. Experts say a larger active-duty force costs more but is ready at any time; a larger Guard and Reserve can save money, but it takes longer to call up in an emergency.
“During peacetime, folks in the Guard and Reserve don’t cost as much,” Harrison said. “But when they do activate, they became almost as expensive.”
The commission report could settle the future of the A-10 Warthog, a slow, low-flying, 1970s-vintage aircraft used to support ground forces. Although it’s scheduled to stay in the fleet until 2028, the Air Force has proposed eliminating it. Last month, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III said $3.7 billion could be saved by retiring all 349 aircraft from the fleet by 2019 and letting other aircraft pick up the close-air support mission.
“From the Air Force perspective, that low-altitude, low-tech aircraft is not the way they want to go,” said Lempke, who is now an aide to Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb.
Congress, naturally, sees things quite differently, because many of the A-10 squadrons are in Guard and Reserve units (though none are in Nebraska or Iowa). Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H. — whose husband is a former A-10 pilot — has led the fight to save the Warthog. Last year she held up the confirmation of new Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James for a time over the A-10, and she sponsored a provision in the new defense authorization bill barring any moves toward retiring the aircraft.
“The A-10 isn’t going to go away,” said Korb, of the Center for American Progress.
Most watchers say the Guard and Reserve will fare well when the commission makes its recommendations. James said as much in her testimony before the panel Jan. 9, stating that the Air Force “will rely more heavily” on Guard and Reserve forces in 2015.
“She said all the right things,” Lempke said. “And Welch has really tried to smooth things out.”
Some observers say reinforcing the Guard and Reserve can be an affordable way to give the military the ability to ramp up its forces if unanticipated conflicts arise.
“We don’t know what the demand is going to be in the future. Other countries have a say in that,” Harrison said. “Putting things in the Guard and Reserve can be a good way to hedge your bets.”
The commission looked at other issues, too. It floated the idea of merging the Guard and Reserve into a single unit, but that proved unpopular. Some watchers think it may look instead at creating a more seamless Air Force and Air Force Reserve so airmen could switch back and forth more easily.
Its members also have discussed moving some active-duty jobs into the National Guard.
Lempke said he thinks Nebraska’s air units — both active-duty and Guard — should fare reasonably well. The U.S. Strategic Command is building an expensive new headquarters at Offutt, and the Nebraska National Guard now occupies a gleaming new headquarters at the Lincoln Air National Guard Base.
The Air Guard’s 170th Group, at Offutt, has worked side by side with active-duty Air Force units since its establishment. Lempke said that’s exactly the kind of partnership the commission may want to see more of.
“We bring continuity to them for training and mission support,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a lot of emphasis on that.”