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Shaping the force: recipe for a slimmer AF

by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer
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Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Randy Redman

Step one: cut reenlistment bonuses into tiny bits. Step two: shorten the length of time to decide whether to reenlist. Step three: require many to retrain for a new career field. Step four: Add a couple of breaks to make departing the service or retiring more attractive.

If it sounds like a recipe for encouraging some to depart from the Air Force, that's because it is. If it sounds like a way to shape and improve the force by appealing to the most motivated, it's that too.

The new Air Force program, called Force Shaping, might be explained as simply as stated recently in Airman magazine: Retrain, get out or if you prefer, go Army. But there's much more to it than that.

Misconceptions and lack of knowledge among those the program will impact has been common, according to Staff Sgt. Donnele Starks, non-commissioned officer in charge of reenlistments and extensions. . He says he's encountering a number of Airmen who don't have a good grasp of what the program means to them and their Air Force careers. A town hall meeting on the issue was held but was not well attended, said Sergeant Starks.

The program is designed to reduce the Air Force roster to the approved level of 359,000, which as of this writing means 22,500 personnel must be trimmed. But more than just cuts, the program seeks to cut in the right places, reducing over-manned job fields and building up understaffed fields.

The initiative also is an attempt to weed out complacency and those with poor military track records, according to Sergeant Starks. Like a challenge on a reality TV show designed to thin the field, Force Shaping tends to favor the motivated and discourage those with less desirable records. Those not inclined to make the sacrifice or adjustments to current Air Force needs may want to think about "leaving the island."

Those who have been disciplined under Article 15s, placed on control rosters or otherwise have had their problems, are on the top of the qualification list for early departure.

"Another aspect of it is to shake up people who have been in career fields too long or who have gotten too comfortable," said Sergeant Starks. "Some people get into a rut and are just working toward retirement and then there are others who are really trying to move forward and make things happen in their career."

It is the latter the Air Force wants, said Sergeant Starks, but even while the overall goal of Force Shaping may be to thin the force by 22,500, he does everything he can to identify those eligible for reenlistment. If they don't qualify, "I try to figure out how to get them eligible," he said.

While working to boost reenlistment may seem to run counter to the goal of cutting the force, Sergeant Starks said on the other side will be squadron commanders, who will ensure the reduction goals are met. They have the job of reviewing reenlistments, recommending against those who lack motivation, have become complacent or have had too many problems.

At MacDill, most Airmen have clean records, said Sergeant Starks. That means MacDill's contribution to shaping the force is coming from those opting out of the service. He said so far it's been about an even split between people leaving and those choosing to retrain. He knows of no Airmen so far who have opted for the Army.

For some, particularly if they have put in their years, the prospect of retraining is all it takes to trigger retirement. That's OK, said Sergeant Starks, as that's how the program is designed to work.

"For some people it's too much," he said. "They just don't want to go through it and if they were thinking about getting out anyway, this (force shaping requirements) might do it for them."

With Force Shaping still in its infancy, no one has entered retraining yet due to having to get out of a restricted job field, said Staff Sgt. Matthew Vaught, NCOIC of enlisted retraining.

"It's sort of the calm before the storm," said Sergeant Vaught. "I know we're going to get pretty busy soon."

Sergeant Vaught said the likely scenario ahead is that many will discover they need to retrain if they want to stay in the Air Force. Many will agree in order to continue their careers and in the case of MacDill, most will have to move wherever their new job takes them.

"It will all depend on where they are needed most," said Sergeant Vaught. "If a person trains into security, for example, if another base is 30 percent undermanned (in security) and MacDill is 15 percent under, then they probably will end up at the other base."

Still in the oven, it will be a while before the Air Force recipe will get the taste test but hope is high it will be a recipe for success.

 

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