Exceptional Release Presents: Standardizing the Unpredictable: Restructuring and Revitalizing USAF Readiness
By Capt Kristy Leachman
Here’s the scenario. All communication capabilities are inoperable. The few generators not destroyed provide the last remaining volts of electricity to light the night sky. Radar is down. Most vehicles are destroyed. Alarms deaden your senses. You do not know if the aircraft are destroyed or not. You do not know if the cratered runway is being repaired, or if it can be repaired, or if there is a reason left to repair it.
You do not know how to get your communications back up, or how to communicate without technology. You have no experience operating in this environment. You try to remember your training…only to remember hours spent wearing a gas mask, laying under a desk, and waiting for the moment you can take it off. Based on the current global climate, the aforementioned scenario is well within the realm of possibilities. Yet, as also previously described, we are neither adequately prepared nor are we best preparing for this fight.
In October 2017, then-Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis, outlined three lines of effort that would enable the United States Armed Forces to remain the world’s preeminent fighting force; the first of which called for the restoration of military readiness. The memorandum’s core message of increasing readiness to restore global security and stability was not revolutionary; however, it concluded with a charge to DoD Personnel and its leaders, demanding the immediate, active pursuit of lines of effort toward this end. As tensions grew with North Korea, the Armed Forces’ individual services took this charge seriously, and the USAF began actively pursuing readiness restoration.
By October 2017, the term “Full Spectrum Readiness” began circulating within Air Mobility Command (AMC) after the Command’s Phoenix Rally conference emphasized preparation for both current and future conflicts and charged tactical and operational level leaders with upholding Full Spectrum Readiness (FSR). Soon after Secretary Mattis’ 2017 memorandum, the USAF modified its requirement for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and High Yield Explosive (CBRNE) specific training from a 3-yr requirement to an 18-month requirement, presumably in response to the CBRNE threats of North Korea.
However, it took at least another year, in the January 2019 Vision document from AMC, to define FSR as the “right amount of Airmen, properly led, trained and equipped, to accomplish the mission in support of the Joint Force.” Problematically, despite the initiative’s intent to be all-encompassing and the new definition of FSR from AMC, many Airmen view FSR as solely CBRNE-related training due to how Wings have tactically implemented the program.
As an example of this disconnect, one Air Mobility base implemented a “Warfighter Wednesdays” program to bolster FSR, with an initial intent of encompassing all aspects of the “high-end” fight in its training plan. However, out of Warfighter Wednesdays’ 24 areas of focus, 16 have become CBRNE-centric. While the CBRNE threat must be acknowledged and trained for, there is more to assuring readiness and Airmen’s ability to deploy, survive, and operate in contested environments.
Not only has the focus of FSR training become myopic, but lack of guidance on how to implement FSR training has also created confusion and strained manpower at lower levels. Currently, the Higher Headquarters (HHQ) guidance that outlines what a “Full Spectrum Ready” Airman looks like is loose, at best; available only to the few Airmen with access to classified information. There is no easily accessible, widespread HHQ direction that defines the specific expectations of FSR.
Wings must figure it out for themselves, while balancing the many competing priorities for types of War for which to prepare. Certain Wings assign Points of Contact (POCs) at each level from Wing to Section to conduct and implement training, and, at the Squadron level, a good number of Airmen dedicate additional man-hours (above and beyond normal duties) to being FSR POCs.
HHQ expects Wings and Squadrons to innovate and create individualized training to best suit the unit’s needs. However, HHQ does not clearly define those needs, as a unit may be required to support multiple Operational Plans (OPLANs) or Geographic Combatant Commands at any given time. This lack of clarity and resourcing creates additional work, confusion, and ambiguous requirements for Airmen at the lowest levels.
According to our top leaders, efforts to revitalize USAF readiness, from a strategic viewpoint, are working. Then-Defense Secretary Mattis cited shrinking gaps in aircrew and skilled maintenance personnel, and the USAF getting more aircraft in the air as evidence of that revitalization success. However, individual readiness is still struggling and the effects of the additional requirements damage retention.
Reclama rates, which excuse military members from deployment taskings due to personal readiness issues or unit manning limitations, are currently higher than deferment rates by civilians drafted for the Vietnam War, with approximately 34,000 Airmen meeting the definition of “non-deployable” in the fall of 2018. The implementation of FSR aims to restore readiness and increase our ability to survive, fight, and win against a determined, high-end adversary, yet the current mandate with a lack of standardized guidance creates unnecessary work and breeds ambiguity, confusion, and unstandardized requirements.
To streamline the FSR message and standardize requirements, the USAF should further define what a “Full Spectrum Ready” Airman looks like. Functional managers at HHQ, in close coordination with tactical-level leaders, can identify and consolidate specific requirements that outline job-specific knowledge and experience required in high-end confrontations.
To streamline the FSR message and standardize requirements, the USAF should further define what a “Full Spectrum Ready” Airman looks like.
Major Commands (MAJCOMs) with specific OPLAN requirements should layer in related readiness requirements as well, but should identify and provide credit for overlapping areas of readiness training (i.e. Pilots practicing landings satisfy readiness requirements for executing many different OPLANs—pilots have to be able to land effectively no matter the fight).
The notion of HHQ pushing requirements down the chain of command may seem counter-intuitive to the USAF striving for innovation at the lowest levels. However, setting expectations through a clear, concise and complete message from a centralized authority, while also delineating priorities for funding, allows units to focus resources toward meeting requirements rather than attempting to define what the requirement actually is.
Furthermore, Wings should create a branch under the traditional Wing Plans (XP) structure dedicated solely to restoring and sustaining readiness. This branch would be a cross-functional group of handpicked individuals, scaled to the size of the Wing, at ranks commensurate with its scope and responsibility. This team, led by an Airman of equal rank to most squadron commanders to ensure its position of authority, would cut ambiguity and un-standardized practices through pushing a clear and centralized message.
Wings should create a branch under the traditional Wing Plans (XP) structure dedicated solely to restoring and sustaining readiness. This branch would be a cross-functional group of handpicked individuals, scaled to the size of the Wing, at ranks commensurate with its scope and responsibility.
This Wing Readiness Branch would manage and execute training and other requirements on a scheduled basis, meeting unit needs best by working primarily with Unit Deployment Managers and Squadron leadership. To ensure standardization and streamlined effort, this team would work closely with other sections of XP, as well as the Wing Inspection Team (WIT) the Installation Deployment Readiness Cell (IDRC), Installation Personnel Readiness (IPR), Civil Engineering Emergency Management, and Security Forces Combat Arms Training and Maintenance (CATM).
The effects of implementing these changes would be far-reaching. Initially, Commanders may feel that centralized control of readiness tasks undermine their influence. However, centralizing the implementation of readiness tasks will rid countless POCs from FSR-related additional duties and return countless man-hours back to Airmen for their primary duty.
Doing so will not only maintain readiness, bur provide the USAF with a more focused, honed force. With the intended effect of improving overall readiness, there would be fewer reclamas, leading to better deployment predictability, providing Airmen a better quality of life, and work-life balance. In 2015, additional duties and lack of work-life balance were the top two reasons cited by pilots exiting the service. These influences are not unique to pilots, however, and taking steps to improve these areas could ultimately lead to increased retention of Airmen.
In addition to constraining factors, the main risks involved in these changes include the negative effects of change resistance, as well as the lack of buy-in due to the perception that the solution is too much of a blanket approach to accommodate unique mission sets and specific issues. To help mitigate resistance to change, the USAF should identify one or multiple Wings as testbeds.
These Wings would act as prototypes, or models built to test the concept of a Readiness Branch and learn through a constant review to refine the process. Leaders at all levels must emphasize the importance of FSR and its clear, streamlined message, aiding in changing the culture surrounding the initiative. The Branch should invite Commanders, readiness experts, and average Airmen to critique operations through open planning, which aims to leverage multiple perspectives from all levels of authority to create plans understood by the organization.
To mitigate the negative effects of using a large-scale approach to a solve a wide array of issues, the USAF should stress the importance of FSR, explain why it is the chosen path to improving readiness and the reasoning behind centralizing the efforts into one branch, while also giving clear guidance on waiver authority. A rigid one-size-fits-all approach is doomed to fail, but a blanket approach that is dynamic and adaptable in nature ensures both standardization and flexibility to meet specific needs.
A “Full Spectrum Ready” Airmen should be able to conduct cross-functional operations at home station and in an expeditionary role. Periodic in-garrison FSR training should hone these proficiencies, including combat skills and knowledge, operating with degraded communication capabilities, survival skills in a full range of contested environments, and cross-functional education to expand our ability to employ Airmen in various roles. This list is not all-encompassing and will require the involvement of HHQ to best identify what specifically makes a “Full Spectrum Ready” Airmen and communicate those requirements to lower levels.
A “Full Spectrum Ready” Airmen should be able to conduct cross-functional operations at home station and in an expeditionary role.
Readiness is more than the status of equipment or aircraft mission capable rates, and its restoration will take time, funds, manpower, and buy-in from Commanders and Airmen. It is not a temporary surge or timely requirement, and it must be done while still conducting real-world operations. By creating a vision of readiness restoration and streamlining the FSR initiative, the USAF can take steps to improve personnel readiness and Warfighter interoperability while simultaneously enhancing the quality of life and Airmen’s trust in the system.
About the Author
Capt Kristy Leachman is the Executive Officer, 92nd Air Refueling Wing, Fairchild AFB. She is a native of Lawrenceville, Georgia, and commissioned through ROTC at the University of Georgia in 2013. Capt Leachman entered the USAF as a Logistics Readiness Officer at Hurlburt Field, and served at Kadena AB, Japan before her current assignment. She is responsible for the management and delivery of Higher Headquarter taskings and provides executive support and administrative oversight for 4 Groups, 36 Squadrons and tenant organizations, 59 KC-135 aircraft, and 9,800 Total Force personnel.