Air Force to accelerate headquarters staff cuts

Monday - 3/3/2014, 4:52am EST

Jared Serbu reports.

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The Air Force will not only meet but exceed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel edict to the military services and Defense agencies to cut back their headquarters-level spending by 20 percent over the next five years. And the service will do so more quickly than required.

Top Air Force officials said last week, by going beyond Hagel's 20 percent directive, the service will reduce internal costs so they can redirect funds to readiness and modernization activities.

The reductions will be spelled out in more detail in the formal rollout of the Defense Department's 2015 budget proposal Tuesday.

The Air Force will begin to trim military, civilians and contractor staff in headquarters positions — at the major command level and above — fairly soon, and finish the process in as soon as one to two years, said Deborah Lee James, the secretary of the Air Force.

Additionally, she said the Air Force will move to realign its organizational structure, getting rid of as many areas of what it sees as administrative overlap as possible.

"We're looking to centralize policy and oversight of installation support, so that would be a joining together of things like civil engineering, security forces and contracting, as well as some others," she said Wednesday at the Bloomberg Government Defense conference in Washington. "We're also taking a strong look at what we can stop doing. There are all kinds of administrative tasks we currently do, and the only reason we do some of them is because we've always done them. We're re-looking all of that, trying to reduce the tasks that aren't required by law. In so doing though, we need to make sure we're not simply foisting more work on fewer people."

Splitting long-, short-term budget planners

The changes also will include a significant restructuring of the top Air staff at the Pentagon.

The Air Force intends to split up the current organization of its deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and programs — referred to in military staff parlance as the A-3/5 — and merge some of those functions into the office of the existing A-8, the deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and programs.

Eric Fanning, the undersecretary of the Air Force, said the new A-5/8 organization would be tasked with building and maintaining 30-year plans for the service, while the Air Force financial management community would focus on building year-to-year budgets.

"We wanted a team that we could pull out of the constant do-loop of the budget," he said. "Everything in the Pentagon is built around the schedule of the budget, and that's at least been a once-a-year exercise in the past. But this madness of the budget cycle over the past few years has taken that loop from a year, to six months, to a quarter, to a month. It was pulling everyone into that mayhem. We want to take a team out of that madness, have them take a breath, and really focus on long-term strategy. We think it will guide us in making decisions and give us some baseline benchmarks in how we're doing to build the Air Force we think we need."

The service does not currently think it's on track to build that force it needs, mostly because it says it has more force structure right now that it can reasonably afford to maintain and keep ready.

As a result, Fanning said, long-range reviews over the past year pushed Air Force decision makers to decide that they needed to sacrifice capacity for capability. In other words, the service will need to get smaller in order to become more modern and adequately trained.

"We were on a path, even if the President's budget were enacted, to build an Air Force that we couldn't keep ready," he said.

Under the current force structure, long-term forecasts the Air Force conducted last year concluded that it would have a laundry list of still-unmet procurement needs beginning five years down the road that would have been pushed off from prior years as the service struggled to keep airmen trained and its equipment inventory in working order.

"That's not unusual to the Air Force. When you build a five-year defense plan, you fix things in it by moving all your problems to the sixth year," Fanning said. "But we made a determination that we were a good 20 years into a readiness problem inside the Air Force. By readiness, I don't just mean flying hours. It's our maintainers, our ranges, our high-spectrum, high-end integrated training. These are all things that we haven't been doing well since even before the wars. We decided we can't continue to manage these problems by building these bow waves and digging into our operating and maintenance accounts, we've got to fix readiness inside the Air Force."