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Another path to airpower: Creating the militia U.S. Air Force of the 21st century

Another path to airpower: Creating the militia U.S. Air Force of the 21st century

By Luke Ahmann

Best Defense guest skywalker

The United States Air Force recently announced its new policy for strategic guidance, given the constrained resources available: their answer is to trade size for quality. The current AF is unaffordable. The new AF will be "smaller but superb."1 This sounds good on paper, but the reality is that a smaller AF may not be able to meet the surge requirements dictated by unpredictable future threats.

Another solution is to create a more cost effective AF. Instead of trading size for quality, why not create the most robust, quality AF that the nation can afford? Why not create a force "capable of deterring and defeating aggression…in one region even when…committed to a large-scale operation elsewhere," as defined by the January 2012 Strategic Defense Guidance?2 A return to the militia construct historically founded in our Constitution promises to provide the nation an ability to create such a force.

The Reserve Component (RC) of the AF has "been transformed, both practically and philosophically, from a strategic force of last resort to and operational reserve that provides full-spectrum capability to the nation."3 The RC is an integral piece of our nation’s AF, as we prepare the force of the future, it must be an integral part of the solution.

The AF will say that a recent RAND study determined that a full time force is cheaper than a part time force. Really? Cost analysis is only as valid as the assumptions put into them: Change the assumptions, and you change the outcome. Cost studies alone are typically operating on the margin and lack the macro vision for a true total force of the future. Absent from the discussion is the long term value, as well as the ability to "shelf" unneeded surge capability should it be needed in the future.

The RC provides long term value and an ability to maintain surge capacity at a fraction of the cost of active forces. The RC is able to operate and maintain aircraft at 70 percent of the cost of its active counterparts.4 Recent studies show that RC units cost 25-33 percent less than comparable active units.5 A RC airman costs, on average, only 38 percent of an active airman.6 The RC can operate and maintain aircraft AND employ airmen more cost effectively. Creating a smaller active force, while simultaneously shrinking the portion of the force in the RC (as currently proposed by the AF), does not take advantage of our nation’s militia construct that can provide more capacity for the same cost. A heavier reliance on the RC does.

The primary arguments against expanding the RC and shrinking the active forces are that: (1) the RC cannot maintain readiness, and (2) the RC is not as accessible as the active force. These are red herrings. Within the AF, the RC is trained and evaluated to the same standard as active counterparts, yields similar results in operational inspections, and performs seamlessly in combat. Additionally, the RC maintains more operational experience in technical fields due to lower turnover rates. Accessibility of RC is not a structural problem, but a funding problem. Approximately 70 percent of the RC is part time. In order to employ them in a full-time status, the AF must pay them. In order to pay them, the AF must re-allocate a portion of the baseline budget away from the active force and toward the use of the RC.

The AF has it wrong: It does not have to trade size for quality. The preceding decade has developed a RC within the AF fully capable of producing quality air and space power at a reduced cost. The RC costs less, and therefore, the American taxpayer can protect the trillions of dollars invested in AF people and equipment by shifting more toward the RC. Implementing AF proposals to shrink the RC does not take advantage of the proven cost effective militia construct founded in our nation’s heritage. What is best for our nation’s AF? An affordable AF that can execute the mission. Expanding the RC provides such a force.

1. USAF Force Structure Changes: Sustaining Readiness and Modernizing the Total Force, February 2012, page 1

2. Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, January 2012

3. Comprehensive Review of the Future Role of the Reserve Component, Volume I, 5 April 2011, page 1

4. FY11 Budget Rollout Brief,

5. LtCol Mark Valentine, Call up the Reserves

6. FY11 Budget Rollout Brief,

Luke Ahmann has served in both active and reserve components of the US Air Force, most recently as an F-16 Fighter Squadron Commander. He is currently a national security fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. He holds a BS from the United States Air Force Academy and an MBA from Bentley University.