U.S. Air Force downsizing is a sensitive issue

F.E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyo -- May 10 was a tough day. We had to tell 11 young officers they would not be continuing their career in the Air Force and will be separated by October.

As a wing commander, I’d like to add a senior officer’s perspective to this sensitive issue.

These officers have served their country honorably. Losing them is like losing members of my own family. I know them, I have served with them, and I understand the sacrifices they have made to serve our country. However, we have to look beyond our individual loyalties and ultimately do what is in the best interest of the Air Force and American public in order to be the most efficient stewards of taxpayer’s dollars, while guaranteeing ironclad security of our nation.

Every year, the Air Force is required by law to meet Congressionally-mandated end strength numbers — a total number of people authorized in service. Based on that end strength number, we are given a budget, and we are required to stay within our budget.
The fiscal year 2006 budget limits the active Air Force to 357,400 Airmen, and we anticipate an excess of 4,000 officers and a deficit of 6,000 enlisted Airmen as we start the fiscal year. This imbalance, if left unresolved, will strain our readiness and operational effectiveness. The officer overage, especially in the ranks of lieutenant through captain, limits the full development of these officers. Too many officers means limited or no access to training, to key career development jobs and to opportunities to learn, to lead and to manage Airmen.

To fix the imbalance, the Air Force began asking for volunteers to leave early or to retrain. Not enough people voluntarily separated, and in October 2005 the Air Force announced it would begin the force shaping process.

By November 2005, all officers in the year groups and career fields affected were told their records would meet a board and that they would potentially be separated involuntarily. Throughout the process, affected officers still had the option to leave voluntarily or to enter the reserve. Several officers took advantage of these opportunities and secured jobs in the U.S. Army.

The end result of this year-long process was the force shaping board results released May 10. It was a very difficult day for me and for my subordinate commanders as we called in each officer and told them they would no longer be able to pursue their dream of service to the nation in the active-duty Air Force.

I know the sacrifice each of these young men and women made to serve, and I value their service here. The Air Force values their service.

Because we cherish their contributions, each officer will be personally assisted by the family support center. The family support center will help them build a resume, search for jobs, and apply for civil service and Air Force civilian jobs - in short, to pursue an alternate career path.

Each officer may still apply for the Reserves, and there are many opportunities through the “Blue to Green” program to transition to a career in the Army.

The officers will be assisted and supported to the very end. It’s our obligation, and it’s just the right thing to do. I don’t want to lose a single person, but if we have to do it, I want to be able to look myself in the mirror every morning knowing we are setting each individual up for success in the future.