The National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force is due to report a long-awaited, congressionally charged set of recommendations Jan. 30. While proponents of the National Guard are sure to get a lift from the blue-ribbon panel's findings—a key reason why it was established—a major revamp of how active-duty and reserve forces and Air National Guard are structured, equipped and funded does not seem to be in the government's flight plans.
To be sure, the National Guard—a large wing of the total U.S. military that answers to state governors until activated by the U.S. president—could see recommended increases in cyber and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions and manpower in coming budget cycles. Likewise, homeland defense missions such as domestic air patrol, disaster response and aerial refueling capabilities will remain key duties of the reserve components.
But a wholesale reorganization that moves much of the active USAF component's “muscle” into one or both of the reserve components, or merging of the two reserve components as once contemplated, appears unlikely. Moreover, the whole Air Force family will continue to wrestle with the overarching constraints of the 2011 Budget Control Act and its sequestration-level cuts to prior plans, uniting them against external pressures.
“It is both unfortunate and fortuitous that the Congress saw fit to establish this commission,” says the Air Force's 15th chief of staff, retired Gen. Ronald Fogleman. The commission should allow the armed service “to come to grips with the decisions required to build a force structure that is responsive to the requirements of the times and the future.”
Indeed, the Air Force's three “tribes” have been able to start mending relationships that were so frayed by 2012 that Congress established the panel and gave the chief of the National Guard Bureau, which organizes the state-based Air and Army National Guard, a seat on the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs of Staff (AW&ST June 10, 2013, p. 23). While the panel provided a sort of public truth-and-reconciliation process, sequestration, which took effect last year as the commission worked, refocused leadership's attention.
“I think we're in a pretty good place with the Air [Force],” says the National Guard Bureau chief, Army Gen. Frank Grass. “And we know that we can take some reductions and maintain a quality force in the Guard and pay the Budget Control Act bill.”
To that effect, now that he has a seat at the Joint Chiefs' table, Grass has found one of his biggest challenges is explaining to Guardsmen how much is at stake in keeping the active forces strong. That is because they perform different national security missions and because Guard equipment, training and opportunities flow from them. “As the active component loses money, we won't be able to modernize,” warns Grass. “We won't be able to send pilots to the schools that we need to as rapidly as we need to. We won't be able to get people into basic training and advance schools. So we need to work very closely with the two services.
“We could win the battle and lose the opportunity to be able to train our folks because the training infrastructure comes from the Army and Air Force,” he adds.
At the start of fiscal 2014, the Air Force comprised about 327,600 active airmen, 70,880 reservists in the Selected Reserve and 105,400 Guardsmen.
In turn, according to public statements by members, the Joint Chiefs appear to be settling on a relatively balanced mix of active and reserve forces that resembles the current makeup as they draft fiscal 2015-19 budget blueprints. While equipment squabbles such as whether to scrap the Guard-laden A-10 fleet remain, others such as what to do withare being worked out. Meanwhile, the rise of cybersecurity, ISR and homeland defense in national security strategy herald explicit opportunities for U.S.-based forces to participate.
The next Quadrennial Defense Review, due alongside the 2015 budget request in the coming months, is expected to say as much, according to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey.
“The homeland is no longer a sanctuary,” Dempsey says. “Whether it's potentially ballistic missiles or cyber, something could potentially affect the homeland in a way that it hasn't heretofore. So the homeland is actually achieving much greater prominence in our discussions of our future strategy than at any time in my 40 years, as it should.”