Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, addressing the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force, championed the future of Guard and Reserve units despite tight budgets. (Mike Morones/Staff)
WASHINGTON — The new Air Force secretary, in her first public testimony, threw strong support behind the Air National Guard and Reserve.
Deborah Lee James, who took over as secretary last month, said Thursday that, while no component will be protected from budget reductions, the Guard and Reserve will be relied upon more, not less, in the future.
“Effective utilization of our reserve components is critical if we want to get the best defense of our nation, particularly if resources are scarce,” James said.
James highlighted intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and cyber operations, as two areas of growth for the reserve components as the service looks to possibly cut more active-duty aircraft and airmen under sequestration.
The Air Force is the “superstar” among the military services in making full use of its reserve components, and those components will remain critical, she said.
James’ testimony kicked off the final meeting of the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force, which is mandated by Congress to provide input to guide decisions on the Air Force’s mix of active-duty, Guard and Reserve assets. The commission’s final report, due at the end of the month, will be hand-delivered to the office of the president and the House and Senate Armed Services committees. Both committees will hold hearings on the report and use it to form future budget decisions.
The commission was created by the fiscal 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, following a budget season that focused on battles between the active-duty Air Force and the Air National Guard, with Congress siding with the Guard to block cuts that lawmakers said were not proportional.
Since the commission began its hearings, which included visits to bases across the country and testimony from leaders both inside and out of the Air Force, the budget situation has grown more dire, but discussions have been productive, the commission chairman said.
“We’ve heard from a number of Air Force officials about their desire to communicate more broadly, to really connect with Congress and with the governors in terms of what’s really going on in the Air Force,” the chairman, Dennis McCarthy, said.
One of the major issues facing the commission has been understanding the cost of an airman, whether from the active force or reserve components.
While there have been models and estimates for years, they often contradicted each other, and different parts of the Pentagon could be using different assumptions in their models, leading to muddled data.
McCarthy said the Air Force has reached an “emerging consensus” on the use its Individual Cost Assessment Model (ICAM).
“I think there is an emerging consensus about how to calculate cost,” McCarthy said. “The Air force developed ICAM, and that is… being accepted by the air force. That model, as I’ve heard, represents using life-cycle costs for personnel, or some people call it a ‘fully-burdened’ cost of personnel. That is a significant change from the way the department has used the idea of personnel costs in the past. To my way of thinking, from what I’ve heard in testimony, it’s an improved way. “
McCarthy noted that the model presented by the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation at testimony is similar to ICAM, which represents “significant improvement in that area.”
Sequestration hit the Defense Department while the commission was meeting, forcing the Air Force to ground one- third of its combat fleet and move into a structure called “tiered readiness.” This structure prioritized the units getting ready to deploy, and those units not gearing up to deploy lost flight hours and proficiency.
This model is not workable for the Air Force, even if the budget cuts continue, James said.
“As a practical matter, given the size of our force today and the complexity of training, I do believe we need to be ready right away and not in a tiered approach,” she said.
Thanks to the budget agreement reached last month in Congress, the Air Force will have more funds than anticipated for fiscal 2014-2015.
Asked how she intends to spend those extra funds, James told the commission she may spend a bit on modernization but the bulk would go toward addressing the readiness gulf created by sequestration.
“I think the top thing is readiness,” James said. “I want to rebuild the readiness that suffered in the past year. That is the top way I would like to use that relief.”
James then elaborated on the impact the budget deal has on Air Force planning.
It’s not the be-all and end-all, but it’s a help,” she said of the agreement. “It’s a whole lot better. And having a bit of certainty is just a godsend, because not knowing what your budget number is going to be, not knowing when you’re going to know what your budget number will be, the uncertainty has been a killer.”
As James testified in Arlington, Va., Gen. Frank Grass, chief of the National Guard Bureau, told reporters in Washington, D.C., that guardsmen are operating at their highest readiness rate ever. While his component could sustain cuts, cutting too much from the active duty could have residual effects on the National Guard. “If the active duty loses money, we won’t be able to modernize, we won’t be able to send pilots to the schools,” Grass said. “Our training infrastructure comes from the active.”
While the Guard’s main mission is on the home front, and while there is room for growth in areas such as ISR, the Guard also needs to be a reflection of the active-duty force, and fly the same aircraft, so it can serve its mission of the reserve supply of the Air Force.
Grass pushed back against critics who say the Air National Guard “doesn’t need fighter jets.”
“What we need is what the Army and the Air Force needs in its reserve,” he said.