Air Force survey: Not enough people to do the job

Air Force survey: Not enough people to do the job

by Sig Christenson
San Antonio Express-News

A new Air Force "climate survey" suggests that years of Pentagon downsizing and cuts driven by the congressional budget sequester have taken a toll on its military and civilian workers -- an issue the service's leaders have raised repeatedly.

Only 63 percent of officers and enlistees, both active-duty and reserve, think that they have enough people on their teams to do the job, according to the survey, copies of which were released to the San Antonio Express-News and Air Force Times.

They also were asked if they agreed with the statement, "I have enough time to accomplish my daily workload during my duty hours." A little over 60 percent of officers agreed, while roughly 75 percent of enlistees did.

"It's no surprise that manpower and time are concerns to our airmen," said Gen. Stephen Wilson, the Air Force's vice chief of staff, in a statement sent Wednesday in response to questions about the survey. "At the time this survey was administered, our force was the smallest it has ever been in Air Force history.

"Despite the challenge this presented, day in and day out airmen carried out the mission without fail," he added. "Since then, we've also taken on a number of initiatives to grow the force, save airmen time and focus on revitalizing our squadrons."

The 2015 Air Force Total Climate Survey asked 132,000 active-duty and reserve airmen and civilian workers last spring about issues ranging from performance and supervisor support to satisfaction with the service. With some exceptions, airmen and civilian workers were generally upbeat.

Eighty-five percent rated their unit's performance as high, compared with 88 percent in 2012, the last time the survey was taken. More than eight in 10 felt strongly supported by immediate supervisors and senior unit leaders, and the same percentage expressed satisfaction. Those numbers were similar to or slightly better than 2012.

The response about having enough people on teams to do the job was among the lowest-scoring on that question in the history of the survey, and its drop from 65 percent in 2012 could be attributed to the budget sequester, the Air Force Personnel Center said.

It noted that the sequester triggered a cut in flying hours and in training and readiness in the major and combat commands. In the same four-year period, the Air Force reduced the active-duty workforce. But Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force's chief of staff until retiring last summer, said sequestration was not the only problem he faced on Capitol Hill.

"There just aren't enough people in the Air Force to keep all the aging systems they currently have, bring on the new systems that must be fielded to enable success in the future, meet all the service's deployment and contingency support requirements, and give airmen a battle rhythm they can sustain over time," he said.

"Trying to balance the budget in a way that is responsible for the future and take good care of airmen is always the goal," added Welsh, a San Antonio native and 1971 Reagan High School graduate who is now dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. "Unfortunately, when your budget is dissected line item by line item, and virtually everything is protected by someone, it's hard to make the adjustments that make sense for the long term."

The nation's overseas commitments are another big complication. Welsh's successor, Gen. David Goldfein, has warned that the force is under intense stress as wars rage on in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Airmen are constantly rotating from war zones and overseas deployments to home, where the pace rarely slacks, he said in a State of the Air Force briefing last summer.
 He referred to "the busiest Air Force that I have certainly ever seen in my 35 years of working on defense matters, but they are doing it."

Goldfein also warned at a recent Air Force Association conference in Florida that "when we talk about revitalizing squadrons, we're not talking about throwing manpower and money at this issue. Quite frankly, we don't have it."

The Air Force has tried to slow the loss of drone pilots with five-year, $35,000 re-enlistment bonuses, and it wants to increase bonuses to retain veteran fighter pilots. But one former Air Force chief of staff, retired Gen. Ronald Fogleman, said in a recent interview that the problem goes well beyond pilots.

"When I talk to the troops, I come away with the conviction that the Air Force is facing retention issues across the board and in all segments of the total force," he said.

The effect of Pentagon personnel cuts announced three years ago by then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the sequester's funding squeeze loom large in the survey. Hagel ordered the Army to eliminate 70,000 soldiers, but the 2011 Budget Control Act, called the sequester, went much further, forcing $454 billion in across-the board military spending cuts. If implemented as planned, the Army would eliminate $95 billion from its budget and cut its active-duty force to 420,000 soldiers by 2020.

Goldfein told senators at his confirmation hearing last summer that there are plans to add 4,000 airmen to the 317,800 on active duty to "right the force." The Air Force hopes to have 321,000 airmen, possibly within a year, but much will depend on funding.

In his State of the Air Force briefing, Goldfein echoed Deborah Lee James, the service's top civilian, in saying Congress had to jettison the sequester's constraints on the military, or "we will be unable to execute the defense strategic guidance and perform these missions to the level the nation requires."

The Air Force, meanwhile, has tried to insulate its San Antonio-based training command from sequestration. Col. Sam Milam, deputy director of intelligence, operations and nuclear integration for flying training at the Air Education and Training Command, recently said sequestration has had an effect "mostly on the staff ...but not at the line units."

Pilots in the training command have nonetheless complained about time spent on nonflight-related tasks.

If the Air Force could restore civilian schedulers, pilots would still work 12-hour days, said Capt. Christopher "Fiat" Umphres, a fighter training officer at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph.

"It's just who we are and what we're wired for," he said. "But we're going to get to spend more of that 12 hours training great fighter pilots or being great fighter pilots and less of it on things that make us want to tear our hair out."

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