The Air Force’s Mixed Messaging Problem

Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James Cody addresses Airmen Leadership School class 15-B Nov. 14, 2014, at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming.
Photo by Lan Kim

No one can miss the fact that the U.S. military is getting smaller. Serious cuts in every part of the Department of Defense budget are being enacted, planned, and imagined. One of the most visible ways these cuts are being mandated is through a reduction in end strength, the legal limit of personnel for each service. Every branch is dealing with these personnel cuts differently, yet the programs can generally be divided into two categories: voluntary and involuntary separation.

Much of the discussion in media outlets has been over involuntary programs because what these programs boil down to is telling service members who have volunteered their lives for their country, “We don't want you anymore.” The individuals serving during the past decade have endured numerous deployments, brutal fighting, and countless other hardships on a scale not seen since Vietnam. No matter the budgetary arguments, there is no easy way to fire those people.

However, if we want to talk about the future of the U.S. military, we need to talk about the voluntary programs. These programs are taking many forms, some offering early retirement or extra separation pay as a bonus for people willing to leave on their own. For the Air Force's Force Management programs, Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh made it clear the Air Force was going to look for as many volunteers as possible before it forced anyone out. It closed its 2014 force management programs after reducing personnel by 19,833 airmen --- out of nearly 330,000 active-duty members --- of which nearly 70% opted to separate voluntarily.

According to Welsh, this push for voluntary separation was intended to make sure the relatively negative situation of downsizing the force remained as positive as possible. But what are the secondary implications of using volunteer programs first? In order to answer that question you have to consider who is likely to be interested in a voluntary separation program.

Despite the largest manpower cuts the military has seen in years, the armed forces are still some of the most secure jobs in the country. Military pay has also been outpacing civilian pay for the last several years and the military provides benefits seen in fewer and fewer private companies. With all of these advantages, the likeliest candidates to volunteer to leave are high performers. Lt. Gen Samuel Cox,  the Air Force deputy chief of staff for Manpower, Personnel and Services, stated earlier this year that he was worried the strongest airmen would volunteer to leave.

However, not everyone shares this fear through the ranks. Force Management programs have been often brought up in Air Force professional development briefings, including one I attended in early 2014. During many question-and-answer sessions, someone would ask the colonel or general speaking if the Air Force was worried about the types of people who were voluntarily getting out and if they were tracking top performers who decided to leave. The answer was usually no, the Air Force is not worried because the Air Force has a really deep bench with plenty of talent to plug any holes.

One individual told a story about a Pentagon conference for new generals who had just been promoted. A briefer told them if on the way back to their hotel that night their bus went off the bridge and they all died, there would just be another bus full of new generals to take their place the next day.

It is easy to understand why the Air Force would want to convey a message like this to senior leadership and to junior officers. Leadership wants to demonstrate it is not worried about losing talent because it conveys to the people who stay in that the service has faith in them. But there is another way to look at this messaging. If I have a stellar career and make it to the very top of the top 1%, I don’t matter. Could be me, could be someone else. In the end, my contribution to the Air Force will not be unique and the Air Force isn’t really concerned about my decision to stay or leave.

The Air Force isn’t the only service branch facing these problems. An independent Navy Retention Study completed in 2014 found that 69% of officers who responded felt the primary determination in performance rankings was timing, rather than merit --- not exactly the kind of reaction you would expect if people felt their efforts were appreciated in the workplace. In 2010, a report from the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College reported a drop officer retention rates, specifically those of high-performing officers. The paper highlighted how “quantity-focused incentive programs run counter to a talent-focused Officer Corps strategy.”

Though Welsh had the intention of making Force Management as positive an experience as possible, when mixed with a general institutional inability to focus on individual accomplishments instead of looking at broad personnel numbers, it presents a dangerous message. This is all happening at a time when millennials are filling the military junior rank structure, a generation that wants to be valued and feel like they are making a difference.

The sentiment that whoever chooses to stay or go doesn’t impact the force is both untrue and damaging to the future of the military. History demonstrates that the right leader at the right time makes the difference in almost every pivotal situation. Why do we celebrate individuals like Jimmy Doolittle or George S. Patton? I wouldn't want to bet the outcome of the Battle of the Bulge on the theory that anyone could have led the Third Army to a decisive victory against the Germans if Patton had not.

While every other organization fights to keep their best people on board, the Air Force as an organization seems to believe that as long as enough young people join its ranks, enough good ones are sure to make it through the promotion system to lead the service of the future. This analysis is likely to ensure many potential leaders will leave the service and we can only hope the key leaders in the next war don't leave to fly for American Airlines.

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Aliah Reyes, a Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) recovery team recovery noncommissioned officer, sifts through dirt during a recovery mission in Lang Son Province, Vietnam, Oct. 29, 2019. (Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Rusty Frank)

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