What to expect in 2016: US Air Force

What to
in 2016

From the growth of the force, to the opening of pararescue jobs to women airmen, to allowing enlisted troops to take to the skies, the Air Force will be much different in the upcoming year.


Rebuilding the force

After steep cuts in 2014, the Air Force had just 312,980 active-duty airmen on its books in 2015. The service’s end-strength was lower in only one year, 1947, when it was formed.

Fewer troops mean several important career fields are undermanned, such as airborne cryptologic language analysts, combat controllers and airmen working in mental health services. Especially hard hit were aircraft maintainers who are forced to work long hours to keep up with an ever-increasing operations tempo.

The Air Force has several programs designed to boost its numbers in 2016.

Some plans center on bringing in new airmen. For instance, the original call for 24,000 recruits has grown to more than 28,000.

There are also programs that offer prior service enlisted airmen and officers from critical career fields the opportunity to serve again.

In addition, re-enlistment bonuses for more than 70 jobs and high-year tenure extensions for a few hundred enlisted airmen aim to keep experienced individuals the Air Force may have lost otherwise.

Photo courtesy Douglas Ellis/U.S. Air Force

Male-only jobs no longer

Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced earlier this month that all combat jobs will be open to women. This includes six Air Force career fields that were previously open only to men.

They are: combat rescue officer, special tactics officer, enlisted combat control, pararescue, tactical air control party and special operations weather airmen.

In an effort to develop gender-neutral standards for combat-related jobs, roughly 70 female airmen participated in a series of tests over two months in Texas. The tests were based on real-life scenarios and specific tasks that could be encountered in combat. The results will be used to adapt some of the regular physical fitness activities.

Although the standards will be gender-neutral, according to Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold, the commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, the physical fitness regimen will be just as grueling as before.

“The standards will not be lowered to incorporate or integrate women into our formations at U.S. Special Operations Command or in AFSOC — repeat, will not be lowered,” Heithold said in an interview with the Air Force Times.

Photo courtesy Jose R. Davis/U.S. Air Force

Enlisted pilots?

The Air Force made a decision this month to bring back something the service hasn’t had since 1957: enlisted pilots.

Specifically, flying remotely piloted aircraft.

Approved two weeks ago, enlisted airmen will no longer serve solely in crew roles, such as a sensor operator.

Under the new policy, airmen will be allowed to pilot the unarmed RQ-4 Global Hawk, and may eventually get the OK to fly the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones — both which carry missiles.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh have both expressed their confidence that enlisted airmen are up to the task.

“We have great confidence in our enlisted force that they can do this job,” James said. “Times change and we learn, and we talk about strategic agility, so we have to be prepared to try new things.”

Enlisted drone operators are seen as a big help in the undermanned and overworked field, where Predator and Reaper pilots fly around 1,000 hours annually, compared to the average fighter pilot’s 250 hours. Compounding the staffing shortage, the Air Force is losing 240 pilots a year, while only training 180 replacements.

That prompted Defense Secretary Ash Carter to cut daily armed air patrols in combat zones.

Detractors point out that there are several issues that would need to be addressed before airmen get the controls of the drones. Officers and enlisted airmen would be doing the same job, while earning very different pay checks. There is also the concern about what the chain of command would look like.

These are some of the same conundrums that led the Air Force to do away with enlisted pilots after Master Sgt. George H. Holmes — the last enlisted pilot — retired 58 years ago.

Photo by Robert Cloys/U.S. Air Force

Retirement changes

Big changes are in store for the military’s 70-year-old retirement system.

The new defense authorization bill significantly reduces the value of future 20-year pensions, and implements a new blended program resembling civilian 401(k) retirement accounts.

The new program will have troops invest 3 percent of their monthly paychecks automatically into a Thrift Savings Plan account, with 1 percent of that being matched by the DOD. That DOD contribution will increase to 5 percent of pay after two years’ service.

The program will not be in full effect until 2018.

Another issue that needs to be addressed before the switch is how each service will handle continuation pay. Designed to boost mid-career retention, continuation pay would trade cash for another four years’ service after personnel have reached the 12-year mark.

Active-duty servicemembers could earn 2.5 times their basic pay per month, and reservists could earn 0.5 times their basic pay. The service secretaries can also authorize a basic monthly pay multiplier of up to 13 for active-duty, and 6 for reservists for hard-to-fill jobs.

The Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission even recommended the Air Force increase continuation pay up to 15.9 for some officers, which would allow the service to meet future manpower challenges.

The final numbers will ultimately be decided by Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, but Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh shared a word of encouragement during an edition of Airman to Airman.

“Nobody’s going to hurt you on the pay side of the house,” Welsh said. “Nobody’s going to make retirement something you won’t be very satisfied with... The Air Force isn’t going to allow it, the Department of Defense is not going to allow it and Congress is not going to allow it. So let us work the details of those programs, and you focus on getting the job done.”

Photo courtesy Teresa Cleveland/U.S. Air Force

Cuts to ‘Tops in Blue’

The Air Force’s much-maligned musical group “Tops in Blue” may be facing a final curtain call in the upcoming year.

For 62 years, the service’s premier band has traveled around the globe to entertain airmen and their families. Surveys show that 96 percent of commanders feel that the entertainment value is excellent.

To get the rank-and-file perspective, the Air Force in October surveyed 4,674 enlisted airmen, officers and civilians to see if they think the benefits of Tops in Blue outweigh the cost. The results of that survey have yet to be released.

This year, “Tops in Blue” cost the Air Force at least $1.3 million, $1 million of which was Morale, Welfare and Readiness funding taken from other base programs.

While the band’s costs went up 13 percent compared to 2014, corporate sponsorship went down. Dropping from around $170,000 last year, to only $25,000 in 2015. Taxpayer appropriated fund contributions stayed at $319,000.

Critics point out that these numbers do not include the salaries of the 37 enlisted airmen and officers away from their primary duties for a year, or the travel costs of sending them to their concerts.

The Air Force defends the program, however, as a way to boost morale and recruitment.

Photo courtesy Brittany A. Chase/U.S. Air Force

Acquisition changes

Plagued by weapon systems development delays, an aging fleet and potential enemies that are quickly developing advanced technologies, the Air Force is looking for ways to streamline its acquisition process.

One idea currently being researched to defeat the evil forces of bureaucracy sounds like it’s straight out of a science fiction film: a thinking supercomputer. The system is envisioned to be able to wade through mountains of U.S. regulations that govern Air Force acquisitions, and translate those results to help businesses fully comprehend a contract, or answer their questions.

This system could be a bonus to small businesses that are especially challenged when trying to abide by federal regulations. According to a Government Accountability Office study, the current process “discourages small and innovative businesses from partnering with the government in emerging markets.”

There are also changes on the horizon that are less cutting-edge.

Named “should schedule,” a new program will provide monetary incentives contractors and vendors to complete their projects ahead of time. The program will initially focus on smaller projects such as the current $1.1 billion upgrade to GPS infrastructure.

The ultimate goal is to avoid project setbacks in larger programs, such as the estimated $55 billion Long Range Strike Bomber slated for operations in 2025.

Photo courtesy Adawn Kelsey/U.S. Air Force

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