Thursday, April 28, 2011

Air Force Math

It's no secret the Air Force has down-sized in recent years. Since 2004, the service has trimmed more than 40,000 airmen from its ranks, for a variety of reasons. Some positions were eliminated to save money, or free up capital for new weapons systems; in other cases, advances in technology made a few billets "redundant," as the Brits would say. The Air Force also endured personnel cuts to free up more resources for the Army and Marine Corps, which have borne the brunt of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the manpower reductions only go so far. While thousands of NCOs and lower-ranking officers left the service (and were never replaced), the Air Force was expanding its senior leadership cadre. In fact, the USAF has added 44 new general officer billets over the past seven years, as detailed by Scott Fontaine of Air Force Times.

While the Times hasn't posted Fontaine's piece on its website, the Project on Government Oversight blog has extraced some nuggets from the article; read it and your blood will boil:

  • The U.S. Air Force has more general officers per capita than any other U.S. service, and that has led Defense Secretary Robert Gates to put nearly two dozen such billets on the chopping block.”

  • “In the last seven years alone, the service has shed nearly 43,000 airmen while adding 44 generals.”

  • “At the end of fiscal 2010, the Air Force employed 315 general officers and the end strength stood at 329,323, or one general for every 1,045 airmen. For comparison, the Army had only three more generals — 318 — but had 231,000 more troops, for a ratio of 1 to 1,765.”

  • “The service had 308 general officers as of February 28, the most recent statistics the Defense Department provided. Current law allows the Air Force to have 208 general officer billets, and the defense secretary can designate another 208 general and flag officers for joint positions — and at least 76 of those must come from the Air Force. Other exemptions allow for the promotion of more general officers, such as a regulation that doesn’t count retiring officers on terminal leave against the cap.”
These totals are even more amazing when you consider that outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates has railed against "brass creep"--the steady (and presumably, unnecessary) expansion of flag-rank positions while other billets are being slashed. But the Boys (and Girls) in Blue managed to pull it off. And with Mr. Gates riding into the sunset, the service may see new opportunities for more general officer billets under the new SecDef, Leon Panetta.

We haven't seen the Air Force's justification for more generals. But the service has long proved adept at preserving its "flag class." Almost 20 years ago, then-Air Force Chief of Staff General Merrill "Tony" McPeak launched a re-organization of wing-level organizations, putting a brigadier general in charge of most. McPeak said the move was justified by the "size" and "mission" of a typical flying wing. Never mind that Colonels had been leading those same units, in war and peace, for more than 30 years. Putting a one-star in charge of a wing preserved a number of brigadier general billets.

But that was just the start of the preservation game. McPeak and his minions added more groups below the wing commander, saving a lot of O-6 positions. The Air Force also added new "mission support squadrons" (MSS) in the operations group, putting such functions as intelligence and weather under the charge of a rated officer (usually a pilot).

Officially, the service claimed the new organizational scheme made support elements more responsive to the operational mission. That claim was dubious at best, but another benefit was abundantly clear. MSS leadership billets preserved slots for pilots who needed a squadron commander tour in order to advance.

For his next project, we'd like to see Mr. Fontaine tackle a companion issue. Over the past decade, there has been even greater growth in the number of senior civil servants working for the Air Force (grades GS-14, 15 and the SES ranks); in fact that number dwarfs the increase in general officer billets.

True, a brigadier general with 24 years of service earns more than $180,000 a year in pay and benefits. But a GS-14 with a little experience (and locality pay) pulls down $100,000 annually, and pay rates for SES and comparable Senior Level (SL) positions command salaries ranging from $119,000- $179,000 a year.

How fast are the civilian ranks expanding? Consider this example: Wright-Patterson AFB, the largest single employer in the state of Ohio, will add more than 900 civilians to its workforce this year. Obviously, those new employees aren't starting off at the SES level. But the service hires more than a few civilians at the GS/GG-13 and 14 levels, putting them on track to compete for SES positions in the future.


Ed Rasimus said...

Some good, some bad in that logic. On one hand it isn't a relevant numbers game. Who does the fighting in the various services. Army units are large with lower ranks and lots of manpower. Navy generally fills ships with large numbers of lower ranks. AF fights wars with aircrews which are predominantly officer ranks. Comparing numbers proportionally between services isn't a rational thing.

McPeake is a singular loonie who did more damage as CSAF than anyone before or since. But, there is a rationale for elevating wing command billets to O-7 level. Bases have been eliminated and units consolidated. Where typical wings used to operate a single aircraft type from two (or occasionally three) squadrons, you now have much greater variety and unit numbers under a wing organization and hence larger staffs and greater coordination requirements.

It may not be total justification but it is more than a simple numbers game.

Steve said...

It should also be remembered that Congress approves the officer promotions and especially scrutinizes general officer ascensions. They could very easily reject levels of promotion and numbers promoted.

Unknown said...

Saying that Congress approves the officer billets is true but waiting for them to be the consious of the DOD is like leaving the cat in charge of the canary cage.
Saying that McPeak did more damage to the USAF than any other is an understament. The officer corp is the good ol'boy network where the aviators take care of themselves. You can bet that those general positions are created to help aviators continue to move up. You won't see a Civil Engineer as a general of a MSS but some F-117 pilot that hasn't flown in years but still wears his flightsuit because "he used to fly" will get that position. Do more with less is what we were told, so how about the O's do more with less as well.