With the presidential campaign in the home stretch, there have been the usual articles about what Barack Obama or John McCain might do after inauguration day.
Yesterday, the McClatchy papers published a story about how the candidates would rebuild the U.S. military. According to reporter Nancy Youssef, both the GOP and Democratic nominees have pledged the development of larger, more agile military forces, with emphasis on the Army and Marine Corps.
Sounds reasonable enough. After years of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, both services are in need of more money for equipment, training and additional troops. Senator McCain would like to expand the size of our ground forces by adding 150,000 new personnel. Mr. Obama supports a Pentagon plan that would increase the Army by 65,000 and the Marine Corps by 27,000 in the next decade.
But the prospective Commanders-in-Chief might want to add another item on their "to do" list for military personnel. Recently-released figures show that Air Force enlisted retention rates have plummeted over the past year. As Air Force Times reports:
The Air Force’s enlisted retention rates for fiscal 2008 fell to their lowest levels — by far — since before the war on terror began in 2001, according to statistics released by the Defense Department.
The Air Force also had by far the worst enlisted retention rates in the DoD, according to the statistics.
Overall, the Air Force achieved only 72 percent of its target number of re-enlistments for fiscal 2008. That is a precipitous drop compared to the 97 percent the service achieved in 2007 and 113 percent in 2006.
Retention among enlisted airmen in zone A, with less than six years in, was 64 percent of the goal in 2008, compared to 99 percent of the re-enlistment goal in 2007 and 113 percent in 2006.
In zone B — airmen with between six and 10 years service — re-enlistment in 2008 was 84 percent of the service’s goal, compared to 94 percent in 2007 and 114 percent in 2006.
And in zone C, those with more than 10 years service, the Air Force met 79 percent of its goal, compared to 99 percent in 2007 and 109 percent in 2006.
At first blush, the USAF numbers seem stunning. Retention rates for the Air Force have traditionally been the highest of the armed services. With its emphasis on quality-of-life programs, the service has long been able to "pick-and-choose" in recruiting new airmen, and deciding which ones will be allowed to stay in the military.
What happened? The suddenly "soft" retention rates for the Air Force underscore a fundamental rule of military and corporate retention: keep showing folks the door, and eventually, they'll take the hint.
According to Dr. David Chu, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, the decline in USAF retention rates reflects the service's recent draw down, and a corresponding decrease in re-enlistment bonuses. Since the mid-1990s, Air Force manning totals have been steadily cut, with the service (in some cases) sacrificing personnel to pay for weapons programs.
Predictably, the service (and DoD) went too far. As the economy boomed through 2007, airmen with marketable skills decided to take their talents elsewhere. Why stay in uniform when you can make twice as much--or more--working for a defense contractor.
Incidentally, Dr. Chu didn't mention increased deployments as a reason for the Air Force exodus. And for good reason. According to the service's own statistics, more than half of all airmen have never deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. While members of some career fields (combat controller, pararescueman, EOD) have faced multiple tours in combat zones, thousands of officers and enlisted members have remained stateside.
To improve retention, the USAF recently unveiled an expanded re-enlistment bonus program. Under that scheme, more than 17,000 airmen, in 88 career fields, will qualify for a retention bonus next year. It represents the biggest expansion of the program in more than a decade, and millions of dollars in additional payouts.
But money won't keep everyone in service. Air Force Times also discovered that retention rates among fighter pilots have dropped. Last year, only 57% of fighter jocks took the pilot re-enlistment bonus ($125,000 over five years), and acceptance rates were even lower among A-10 drivers (49%) and F-22 pilots (33%).
Unlike enlisted retention rates, there appears to be a correlation between deployments and the number of fighter pilots taking the continuation bonus. Since 2001, some fighter units--particularly A-10 squadrons--have been constantly deployed. In fact, many of the pilots who became eligible for the bonus this year began their operational careers seven years ago--a time that correlates with the onset of the War on Terror.
But some of the re-up rates remain puzzling. Flying an F-22 is considered a plum assignment, but only one-third of the eligible Raptor pilots took the bonus. One Air Force official speculates that the numbers are skewed, since only a handful of F-22 pilots became eligible for the bonus in 2008.
Of course, the underlying issue is what the Air Force could have done to stem the sudden drop in retention. In terms of ops-tempo, there isn't much the service can do. And, a fair number of pilots will still take their chances on getting an airline job, even in a slow economy.
But, in the area of enlisted retention, the USAF is reaping a harvest that was planted long ago. In the mid-1990s, when the service began cutting personnel (mostly junior airmen and NCOs) to fund the F-22 program, it sent the signal that hardware was sometimes more important than personnel. That trend continued during the DoD-mandated draw down, setting the stage for last year's exodus.
Retention rates will almost certainly improve in 2009, with economic uncertainty in the civilian job market and the USAF draw down now at an end. But keeping more experienced airmen and NCOs in uniform won't be cheap. So, as the next president "rebuilds" the military, his Pentagon team ought to ask a question. How much of the retention drop was self-inflicted, and what can be done to prevent it from happening again?