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USAF commission struggling with cost figures

Chairman Sees 'Progress' on Key Question

Aug. 28, 2013 - 10:17PM   |  
Air Force Reservists load a GBU-54 bomb onto an F-16. One of the biggest challenges facing the congressionally mandated Air Force Commission is putting a price tag on members of the Reserve component.
Air Force Reservists load a GBU-54 bomb onto an F-16. One of the biggest challenges facing the congressionally mandated Air Force Commission is putting a price tag on members of the Reserve component. (Air Force)
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WASHINGTON — The National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force, a congressionally mandated panel studying the force mix of the service, continued to struggle Tuesday with one of its biggest challenges: getting a handle on the cost of an active-duty airman versus the cost of a member of the Reserve or National Guard.

Starting with the first public hearing in June, commissioners have been presented with a number of different calculations on how to determine the figure. Without at least a trustworthy range of costs, making potentially sweeping recommendations about the force mix — that can get buy in from both the Pentagon and Congress — could be a steep challenge.

The commission’s second public hearing Tuesday opened with a group of five retired Air Force generals proposing that the Air National Guard (ANG) and Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) be merged into a single entity. That was followed by retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Andrew Davis, now the Executive Director of the Reserve Officers Association, and USAF Maj. Gen James Stewart of the Reserve Forces Policy Board, who argued that merging the two would be detrimental to the service. (Stewart stressed he was speaking for himself on this matter.)

In both cases, numbers were presented to back up each side’s argument, furthering the need for the commission to have hard data on costs.

To that end, the afternoon session featured testimony from Lt. Gen. James Jackson, chief of the Air Force Reserve, and Dr. Scott Comes, the acting director at OSD Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE).

According to Comes, CAPE research found that Reserve airmen are cheaper — as long as they are not activated. Once they are, however, costs escalate to be roughly equal to those of active duty service members.

“The key conclusion from the CAPE analysis is that cost does not equal cost effectiveness,” Comes said. “Cost is not and should not be the primary driver for the total force mix.”

Continued Comes, “the Reserve force will always be less expensive than active forces when they are not used, because as a part-time force they have lower peacetime manning and training levels. Correspondingly, they may have lower readiness and availability for many missions. Therefore, the mix debate should not turn on determining the cheapest force we can buy, but rather the right mix of active and Reserve forces that achieve the missions of our superiority strategy.”

Jackson disagreed with CAPE’s assessment that the Reserve forces have lower training or readiness than their active-duty compatriots, noting that the AFRC maintains a higher level of readiness than its cousins in the other branches.

“The Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard take the same inspections, train to the same standards, as the active duty,” he told reporters after the panel concluded. “So we don’t have tiered readiness within the Air Force Reserve component.”

He also denied that there would be serious delays in mobilizing the Reserve forces within a 72-hour period

“We don’t usually, as a nation, as evidenced right now, make decisions on the spur of the moment,” Jackson said, alluding to the ongoing situation in Syria. “If something is bubbling up, the commander in chief makes choices on what his response will be. There is, in my opinion, always adequate time to go ahead and make sure that you can get every member available as required, and most of the time we can put those units on a ‘prepared to deploy’ order so they have already been recalled and can be available if and when an action is taken.”

Jackson declined to say whether any Reserve units have been prepared to deploy in case a military action against Syria is launched.

Speaking after the meeting, Chairman Dennis McCarthy expressed confidence that a cost figure is becoming clearer, despite the disparate estimates that have been presented to his panel.

“I don’t think we’re there yet, although I think we are starting to see less of a gap in terms of the ranges that people are talking about,” McCarthy said. “As more people are studying it, more people are paying attention to it, there becomes more of a consensus about what factors should go into calculating the cost. There may not be complete agreement yet, but I frankly think the Department of Defense is making progress on getting a more common understanding of the cost.”

In the meantime, commissioners have to think not just about how much an airman costs, but how much he gives back per that dollar value.

“These discussions of how much does an individual airman cost is an input cost, and it’s an important factor, but not the only factor,” McCarthy said. “We need to understand output costs, or how to measure cost effectiveness as well, because that’s what the statute calls on us to report on.”

As the year has progressed, the commission has evolved from a lean affair to a robust operation, with double-digit full-time support staff helping the process along.

“From a staff perspective, we’re very fortunate,” he said. “We have just about everybody we have asked for, and we have a very strong team. From a commission standpoint, the eight commissioners are tremendously diverse in terms of their experience and their backgrounds. And that’s obviously a strength, and they are all working very collegially together. So I think both of those factors bode very well for us producing a high-quality report.”

McCarthy, a former lieutenant general with the Marine Corps who also served as the executive director of the Reserve Officers Association, added that he expects the report will be finished on time.

The Air Force has set up its own version of the national commission, known as the Total Force Task Force (TF2), to study many of the same issues. When asked about interaction between the two groups, McCarthy said there hasn’t been “a great deal of contact.”

“They were in very early, one of our first hearings, where the three general officers leading that effort came in and testified,” he said. “I suspect that they will be back before we wrap up. I don’t have a specific date when they will be back, but I would be shocked if we don’t schedule them to come back and catch up on what they are doing and follow up on some of the issues that we’ve learned about in the course of our work.”

The commission was mandated by the fiscal 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) following a series of bruising battles between an Air Force looking to make equipment and personnel cuts and a Congress aiming to protect local units. Commission members were nominated by President Barack Obama and the leadership of the House and Senate Armed Services committees.

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