For anyone who served in the Air Force during the 1990s, it's a familiar refrain: early retirement boards, force "shaping" and involuntary separations, tools used to remove thousands of NCOs and officers from the ranks in the name of saving money.
How, with massive defense cuts on tap, force reductions are back--with a vengeance. The Air Force needs to get rid of 6,000 airmen by the end of this year, and they're looking any possible justification for getting rid of "redundant" personnel, as the Brits would say. Plans for an early retirement board for selected Colonels were actually put on hold because the service found more O-6s who could be eliminated. Now, a total of 584 Colonels will meet the August board, up from the 459 originally targeted for a July SERB panel. An early retirement board for selected Lieutenant Colonels is scheduled to meet this month, as planned.
The service is also getting rid of junior officers who have not entered technical training, or did not complete their designated course. According to Bruce Rolfsen of Air Force Times, at least 28 lieutenants in that category have been targeted for discharge; some will leave the service as early as this month.
About one-third of the junior officers are assigned to Vandenburg AFB, California, where they never entered (or failed to complete) missile and space training. And, as they scramble to find civilian jobs--or a slot with the Air Force Reserve or Air National Guard--some of the lieutenants are getting a nasty shock. Along with their discharge notice, the Air Force has also served notice that some of the officers may be required to repay part of their education which was financed by the service.
For one lieutenant, that bill could exceed $200,000--half the cost of his education at the U.S. Air Force Academy. The officer, who spoke with the Times on the condition of anonymity, had problems at the school and was put on probation at one point (the paper doesn't specify if it was for academic or disciplinary grounds). But, he still graduated with his class, and the service complied with his request for missile training.
At Vandenburg, his commander decided he did not meet required standards for the Personnel Reliability Program (PRP), which is mandatory for all personnel who work with nuclear weapons. Denied entry into the missile program, the lieutenant requested training as a finance or acquisitions officer. So far, that request has been rejected; instead, the academy grad has received his separation papers and a notice that he may have to repay part of his education.
Another lieutenant isn't facing a reimbursement bill, but his career as an officer appears to be over, barely a year after it began. A former NCO, he received his commission through Officer Training School last year and reported for missile training at Vandenburg. Early in the program, the lieutenant was received the seminal question asked of all prospective missile launch officers: would you launch a nuclear-tipped ICBM, if so ordered? The lieutenant answered "no," mistakenly thinking he had sole responsibility for carrying out the command (a missile launch crew consists of two officers). That answer was enough to keep him out of the missile program and the service has also denied requests to put him in another career field.
While the former Staff Sergeant will receive severance pay (based on his enlisted service), it's far from the combined income he once enjoyed with his wife. Before OTS, the NCO was stationed at a base in Colorado, where his spouse was employed as a civil service employee. She quit that job after her husband's commissioning, to accompany him on expected assignments as a missileer.
Based on our experiences (years on PRP and TS/SCI cleared), we'd say the lieutenants are partly responsible for their misfortunes. The former NCO committed a cardinal sin (for a launch officer) by expressing hesitation about executing launch orders. There is simply no room for doubt in that line of work; once verified and confirmed, the launch crew must be prepared to carry out their assignment, fully understanding that their actions will help unleash Armageddon on millions of people.
We also find it a bit odd that an NCO (with years of service under his belt) wasn't aware of the "two-man" concept. Virtually any activity involving a nuke requires a minimum of two certified personnel, hence the assignment of two individuals for every launch crew. If the lieutenant had any reservations about the ultimate nature of the job, he should have omitted "missiler" from his career preference sheet.
The academy grads selection of missiles is also a bit puzzling, given his checkered history at "The Zoo." But we're also a bit more forgiving in his case. After all, he still managed to graduate on time, and (we assume) that someone at the academy assured him that past cadet problems would not hinder him as an active duty officer.
Once upon a time, the Air Force was more forgiving of such circumstances. It was quite common to find wash-outs from pilot training (and other long tech schools) in other career fields. But in a mandatory force-reduction era, the service will use any excuse to get rid of a few more people.
The real problem, of course, is how the rules are enforced. We're guessing the lieutenant at Vandenburg isn't the only member of his USAFA class who spent time on probation. It would be interesting to know if any other "zoomies" with a similar past have been removed from training programs or denied entry into tech schools. If that didn't happen, we'd say the lieutenant has a basis for legal action. Unfortunately, there's no guarantee that a military appellate court (or a civilian court) would side with him, and it would take years--perhaps decades--to resolve the case, with no assurance of a favorable outcome.
In this draw down, as in those that came before, there is always a touch of irony. Even in the face of mandatory cuts, there are career fields that are undermanned. We wonder if any of the younger troops facing separation could be utilized in those AFSCs. Because this much is certain: as surely as the Air Force is scrambling to discharge thousands of personnel it no longer needs, there will come a time (probably 4-7 years down the road), when the service will be short of NCOs and officers, particularly in the middle grades. At that point, we'll wonder how much of the "experience shortage" might have been prevented, had the Air Force done a better job with those personnel cuts back in 2010.