Attrition: USAF Downsizing Halted

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June 11,2008: In the wake of a major leadership shakeup in the United States Air Force (the top military and civilian leaders were fired, and the new military leader is not a fighter pilot), the U.S. Secretary of Defense ordered that the air force halt its downsizing program.

The downsizing has been going on since 2005. Last year 852 lieutenants received letters that they were likely to lose their jobs by this Summer. In the last two years, about 2,000 lieutenants have been similarly dismissed. The air force was reorganizing and downsizing, and that included the junior officers who are usually immune to such cuts. The air force planned to cut their strength by 5,400 personnel this fiscal year (which began last October). This downsizing has been going on since 2005.

The air force has long been accused (by members of the other services) of operating more like a corporation than a military operation. That's a little harsh, because the air force is the most tech minded of the services, and has always taken the lead in adapting commercial innovations to military use.

The air force and navy are downsizing in response to the impact of technology, outsourcing and automation, in a process similar to that faced by many civilian firms. Unlike previous years, when many troops were fired, most of the reduction this year is from retirement and people not re-enlisting. There are now higher standards for re-enlisting, which improves the overall quality of the force. Only about 12 percent of the reductions this year were to be involuntary, and all those would be officers. There will still be a lot of enlisted personnel, in surplus jobs, who will be retrained. Each active duty airman costs the air force over $100,000 a year. The money saved will go towards purchasing more technology.More new airplanes.

The U.S. Air Force has fewer people on active duty today, 334,000, than at any other time in its history. However, if you add in reservists (181,000), strength is a bit higher than it was when the air force was formed (from the U.S. Army Air Force) in 1948. The air force also has slightly more officers on active duty today (65,000) than it did in 1948, but that's a reflection of the growing importance of technology. Air Force personnel today have much more education than they did sixty years ago, and that is reflected in higher pay and, on average, higher rank.

What the Secretary of Defense was addressing, by halting the downsizing, was a personnel policy that was sending some types of air force troops overseas again and again, while many other hardly went at all. There were many complaints from the officers and airmen spending all that time overseas (many since 1991, to patrol the Iraq "no-fly" zone). But air force brass largely ignored the complaints,believing that there were so many people trying to get in, or stay in, the air force, that they could just tell the troops to suck it up. The new air force management is taking this in a different direction. That means that the old air force plan, of shedding personnel so they could buy more new F-22s and F-35s, will also be dropped.

 


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