Air Force spending cuts and thinking small

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The Air Force has undergone many changes and improvements over the last 11+ years, but the transformational changes appear to be missing, indicating legacy thinking. Focusing on legacy or one-dimensional thinking would certainly generate stagnation with corresponding lost opportunities. The problem with this type of thinking is the reality that nothing remains the same. You cannot continue to focus on legacy practices and remain on top. A great example of this is not with the Air Force, but the intelligence community (IC). It took the IC ten years of war and an unsanctioned thought piece by three intelligence officers in 2010 before the IC realized how much they were failing at their craft in the field? The Defense Intelligence Agency in particular has since been transforming away from legacy thinking. That same level of transformation needs to happen in the Air Force.

If the Air Force wanted to move away from thinking small regarding its budget, it could start by making small changes with big impact potential. This does not mean across the board cuts or cutting missions which is small thinking, but better utilization of forces.  A sound opportunity for larger thinking resides in the Air Force Reserve component. The duplication, legacy policies, and management overlap are undeniable with regard to the individual reserve management programs which are made up of the Participating Individual Ready Reservists (PIRR) and the Individual Mobilization Augmentees (IMAs). The administrative practices are so outdated and so misunderstood by senior leaders in both the active and reserve forces that it calls for a major shift in thinking by Air Force leaders. Just like the millions of dollars that could be saved by curtailing the practice of issuing flight uniforms to crew members when they are not needed, millions more could be saved if the active component senior leaders would engage more forcefully with the management of the PIRR and IMA reserve programs supporting thousands of reservists.

Much of the PIRR and IMA administration resides within the Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) which uses its Readiness Management Group (RMG) to manage the programs. The RMG bureaucracy is almost completely duplicative in nature to active component administrative practices, and minimally congruent with the needs of individual reservists or the assigned/attached unit’s missions.  Active units already have well managed processes in place to support integrated individual reservists, including Unit Reserve Coordinators (URCs). When you add in Base IMA Administrators and full time Active Guard Reservists (AGRs) on staff of larger associated or partner units working the same issues, the definition of insanity starts coming into play.  

A number of changes could be made to improve the effectiveness of individual reservist programs, but expecting the AFRC leadership to conduct a thorough review with active counterparts is unlikely. What it will take is active component senior leaders stepping up to take ownership of their assigned/attached reservists. The IMA and PIRR programs support “their” missions and continuing to allow split management with AFRC in particular should not be the way the Air Force does business today. Change will only come about at General Welsh’s level or through pressure from the HASC and organizations like the Reserve Officers Association (ROA). There are just too many entrenched tribes and protectors within the Air Force to resist real innovation and thinking large in times of fiscal restraint. 

Bartley is the CEO of StratCOA which is a strategy consultancy, a retired colonel, and member of U.S. Representative Martha Roby’s defense and veterans’ advisory committees.