Due to budget cuts, there will be fewer inspectors general visiting bases and less flying to meet new operational readiness inspections. (Sgt. Darron Salzer / Army National Guard)
Air Combat Command has been forced to cut back on inspections because of budget cuts, and that could mean less work for crews being inspected.
The command is sending fewer inspectors to bases for operational readiness inspections, producing shorter inspection reports and conducting some parts of the ORIs remotely to save money, command officials said.
Sequestration has limited the ability of the ACC inspector general to travel to bases and cut back on flying hours for units hosting inspectors. As a result, the command is focusing on “compliance-based inspections” and using a tiered readiness similar to the Navy that keeps units at a lower level of readiness if they are not directly supporting a combat role, similar to how a carrier group winds down after a deployment.
“The expected level of readiness is different for those units who are not scheduled to support a combat role,” said Col. Rickey Rodgers, the ACC chief of inspections division, on July 2. “Particular units cannot be expected to have the same level of readiness when, due to sequestration impacts, we are forced to limit their resources and flying hours. However, the expectation for a high level of compliance does not change regardless of readiness challenges.”
ACC’s inspector general is responsible for evaluating the readiness of 225 units every two years. Extensive operational readiness inspections can require up to 75 inspectors from 41 career fields. Because of budget cuts, the command is accomplishing readiness inspections at a rate of about 60 percent less than what was projected, Rodgers said. The Air Force hasn’t said how much it expects to save, just that the savings will be “significant,” Rodgers said.
The command outlined one example of the new approach to inspections: The IG recently traveled to Joint Base Andrews, Md., for an inspection of the 113th Air National Guard Wing, during which it did not launch aircraft or spin up its F-16s. The inspection was 26 pages long, instead of the normal 100-plus pages, according to an Air Force news release.
“Many units are unable to accomplish the flying portion of their scheduled readiness inspection and therefore receive a compliance-based inspection,” Rodgers said. “The decrease in ACC units’ abilities to accomplish a readiness inspection has had a significant impact on the readiness schedule.”
The shorter inspections largely focus on “safety, fiscal responsibility and security requirements,” Rodgers said.
The inspectors are also doing their work during planned exercises, rather than having units create artificial deployment scenarios for each inspection.
Inspectors also call partner units on the phone to walk them through inspections to cut back on travel, and work with the Management Internal Control Toolset digital checklist to see real-time information. Rodgers said ACC inspectors will also use online programs such as Defense Connect Online, Guard Knowledge Online and Sharepoint to let them look at the unit’s most current data and be able to talk in real-time with units.
“This has been a perfect storm for the IG,” Chief Master Sgt. Thomas Schwenk, ACC superintendent for the office of the inspector general, said in a release. “We’ve been putting into place these digital systems and stepping back from large base exercises as part of inspections already. Sequestration is just forcing us to speed up that process and tailor each inspection specifically to a unit’s degraded readiness.”
The changes come after years of ramped-up inspections. Following the 2007 cross-country flight of a B-52 carrying nuclear weapons, which prompted the firing of top Air Force leaders, the service increased the frequency and difficulty of ORIs.
In 2009, inspectors filed the most “unsatisfactory grades” in a decade and this high tempo of inspections has continued, with airmen facing months of preparation for an inspection. These grades put careers on the line, with many commanders whose units fail inspections losing their command.
Last month, a commander in Global Strike Command at the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., was relieved after his unit was found to be “unsatisfactory” in one area of the inspection.
The preparation for an inspection can take months. For example, the 366th Fighter Wing at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, began preparation last summer for its ORI, which took place in the spring. Airmen faced exercises beginning in July, familiarizing themselves with readiness reports, visiting other bases then testing readiness over the course of five months. In February, the wing began full-speed exercises and a test evaluation before ACC inspectors came at the end of April.
The intensity of inspections at the wing level began to drop last fall, following a trial program set up in U.S. Air Forces in Europe. Under the program, the wing commander and experts inspect subordinate units and report those results to the major command. This will be coupled with the command-level inspector visits every two years, which is what is now being cut back in ACC.
“This construct fits nicely with the new AF Inspection System that incorporates a Commander’s Inspection Program that routinely looks at those areas the commander considers most important,” Rodgers said.
The Air Force announced in April it would ground 17 combat-coded squadrons and operate others at a reduced state of readiness to save money. Service officials have said it could take six months to a year to regain the level of readiness lost to the reduction in flying hours.