Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein says the service is 30,000 airmen short of what it needs to meet requirements. We know this is an understatement because his recently retired predecessor — now a board member at Northrop-Grumman — admitted the shortage was at least 15% across the board, or 48,000 airmen.
Luckily, help is on the way, in the form of 4,000 additional authorizations included in the Air Force’s annual budget. Sure, this number only represents 8% of the known manpower deficit, but this means that on current pace, assuming retention doesn’t continue a precipitous decline, it will only take until 2028 for the service to actually have enough people to do its job. Until then, “more with less” should do just fine, as it has for a quarter century of deterioration.
Fortunately, it sounds as though these new additions will also be fresh recruits, meaning we will pay them less and they won’t question invalid orders, bad leadership, or stupid policies near as much as their experienced counterparts. Sure, it means they’ll actually add to the service’s overall workload for at least a few years before reducing it, but it’s not as though we’re in an era of dynamic shifts in the character of war that place special premiums on experience.
Besides, this is a proven strategy. The Air Force added more than 33,000 new airmen in fiscal ’16, including the highest number of enlisted recruits since the end of the Vietnam War. This means 11% of the service is comprised of noobs still in their first year, and yet look what great shape we’re in. This proves the wisdom that if you’re going to be at your smallest size in history, why not also be less experienced than ever before? It is through this wisdom that we’ve found the strength to cashier experienced, valuable, mission-essential airmen — over the objections of their commanders — over trivialities or because of their positioning on a budget spreadsheet created by an overpaid, cubicle-dwelling staff weenie.
The other impressive thing is how quickly service leaders came to the conclusion they needed more manpower. Secretary Debbie James, according to reporting by Air Force Times, initially thought the idea of slashing 25,000 airmen in 2014 made sense, although she carefully points out that she inherited the policy from her predecessor. But after dozens of scripted VIP tours to USAF installations over the next three years, which consumed enough jet fuel to pay for a few thousand more airmen, she rapidly concluded that the service was too small and took the decisive measure of injecting a small number of new recruits whose additions will likely be nullified by declining retention. Sure, her method was far more expensive and much slower than simply asking commanders and listening to them. But a person usually only gets one shot to globetrot on the taxpayer dime, and besides, she needed to look busy and involved.
In the timing and pace of her decision making, James emulates Gen. Mark Welsh and his sidekick, CMSgt. James Cody, who actually pursued and implemented the drastic cuts of 2014 but swiftly reversed themselves years later, on the eve of retirement, by declaring the service was undersized for its challenging global mission. Gotta admire people who only take three years to tacitly admit they screwed up, and who spare us the nettlesome task of holding them accountable by waiting until a cushy retirement is assured.
Fortunately for all of us, the crack editorial team over at AF Times didn’t push or prod James, Welsh, Cody, or former manpower boss Lt. Gen. Sam Cox, on their rationales for bulbous delays, mangled implementation, and inexplicable reversals in end strength policy during their joint tenures. No questions were asked about the mess they’ve made of the Air Force or how that mess implicates national defense. This is for the best. Pesky searches for greater truth not only carry the danger of public accountability, which is unpleasant for untouchable uber-bureaucrats such as these, but there’s also the risk of limiting AF Times’ future access, without which we would be starved of the serial hagiography, inappropriate deference, and human interest fluff to which we’ve become accustomed.
All sarcasm aside, the Air Force is in bad shape as it enters 2017. We now have a CSAF who appears to have pure intent, but the decisions coming from the Air Staff thus far in his tenure are doing nothing to bring his vision to life. We’re just hearing a lot of great talk coupled with the same stale approaches on issue after issue. This must change. The Air Force cannot bear another several years of institutional neglect. Decisive leadership is needed. That has to start with an intellectually independent and bold Secretary willing to challenge and even break with the generals. Whoever Trump chooses, let’s hope that person is up to the task … because the future of American defense is in the balance.