The National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force, seen here Oct. 24, is considering a proposal to merge the Air Force Reserves and Guard. (Aaron Mehta/Staff)
WASHINGTON — The National Commission of the Structure of the Air Force is weighing a proposal to merge the US Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard, but hasn’t found much support from the leadership of either branch.
An Oct. 24 hearing was focused on a proposal from five retired Air Force major generals, two from the Reserve and three from the Guard, which would essentially combine the duties of the two arms of the service into one command structure. A white paper outlining the group’s ideas has been circulated around the Pentagon since 2011, but the commission represents the most likely chance it could be adopted.
The five retired generals — Tommy Dyches, Bugs Forsythe, Andy Love, Dick Platt and Frank Scoggins — submitted testimony to the commission in August in support of their white paper.
“We believe the new organization will provide greater safety for the people of America in their homes and communities, significant cost savings through the elimination of redundancies and a more efficient vehicle to fulfill the needs of the USAF, the combatant commanders and the nation,” the men wrote in their August testimony.
Supporters of the plan say it could save the service money, eliminating redundancies without a loss of capability. But opponents contend it would lead to a lesser force and argue that the duties performed by the Guard and Reserve are simply too different to successfully integrate — and that real world politics in Washington would render such a suggestion dead in the water.
Testifying at the commission, Lt. Gen. James “JJ” Jackson, chief of the Air Force Reserve, dismissed the concept as out of touch with political and Air Force realities.
“I believe the nation benefits from the synergistic value of the three-component Air Force,” Jackson said. “A merger of the two Air Force components, in my opinion, would be detrimental … and adversely affect the Air Force’s ability to provide forces to the war fighter and the combatant commanders.”
As to the “Five Guys” behind the merger plan, Jackson quipped, “I think they’re better serving burgers than they are writing white papers,” a reference to a popular DC-based hamburger chain.
Putting out a recommendation to merge the two components could have potential damaging effects, Jackson warned after his testimony.
“If you’re going to take [Reserve duties] and give it to another component, you’ll have to change the law to allow that to happen,” Jackson said. “You’d have to align congressional delegations that would support this, and we have strong support to not merge the two. So you would end up driving a wedge between the two components and also between different delegations with this kind of recommendation.”
"A Bridge Too Far"
Following Jackson’s testimony, Lt. Gen. Stanley Clarke, director of the Air National Guard, made it clear he also views the merger option as politically unlikely and potentially troublesome.
“Could we do that? Yes sir, we could do that,” said Clarke in response to a question on the proposal. “Will we ever get rid of one component or the other? I’m not so sure.”
Asked directly by commission Chairman Dennis McCarthy whether he would favor merger, Clarke said he did not. McCarthy, a retired general and former commander of the Marine Forces Reserve, followed up later in the testimony.
“I have not heard you talk about any significant difference between the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard from a capability, capacity, accessibility standpoint,” McCarthy said. “So what’s the sense of keeping two separate components if the two components that we have are essentially indistinguishable?”
In response, Clarke highlighted both the Reserve’s Individual Mobilization Augmentee (IMA) program, where reservists train with active units to be prepared for rapid mobilization, and the “classic associations” between the Reserves and active units. While that program has great value, Clarke said, it differs deeply from the Guard model, where members are attached to their units. Both models have value in different places.
The white paper recommended maintaining both the IMA and Air Reserve Personnel Center (ARPC) program as part of the new merged organization.
“In Washington, no one ever gets rid of anything. I don’t think you’re going to make the Air Reserve Command go away,” Clarke said after his testimony. “That’s just a bridge too far. And honestly, I think it eliminates the strengths I was talking about that the Air Force Reserve has.”
“So from a realities piece and a capabilities perspective, you want to stay with the three-component structure so you can enhance those strengths, not destroy those strengths,” he added.
Change From Outside
While not at the hearing, Dick Platt, one of the five retired generals responsible for the white paper, raised several concerns with Jackson’s written testimony, which he said in an email “contains both inaccurate information and disinformation which can only be attributed to poor research on his staff’s part.”
In particular, Platt highlights Jackson’s written statement that the Guard only serves under Title 10 when mobilized or as a volunteer, with the consent of the state, as “totally incorrect and somewhat concerning if that indeed is how the Commander of the Air Force Reserve Command views the Air National Guard as a member of the three-component Air Force.”
Platt did find himself in agreement with both Jackson and Clarke that moving toward a new structure for the Air Force would not be easy.
“Change of this nature will not come from within the Pentagon,” Platt acknowledged. Instead, the commission should “recommend the Congress amend the United States Code so as to direct the Secretary of the Air Force, with the advice and assistance of the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, to timely establish a new and unified Air Reserve Component.”
The good news for Platt and his colleagues is that the proposal is likely still on the table despite the negative feedback from Jackson and Clarke. There were no signs in the commissioners’ comments that they intended to stop consideration of the merger.
The commission was mandated by the fiscal 2013 National Defense Authorization Act 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.