What Could an Army National Commission Learn From the Air Force?

US Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. Cathy Miller talks with Dennis McCarthy, chairman of the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force, at Mansfield-Lahm Air National Guard Base, Ohio. (US Air Force Reserve Command)

When the Senate Armed Services Committee summoned members of the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force to an April 29th hearing, it marked the official end of the Commissioners duty. But even as one service’s fight between the active and reserve/guard components seemed to be winding down, another is brewing.

Let’s recap: the Air Force’s 2013 budget request contained large cuts to the guard and reserve – cuts that the states felt were unfair and disproportionate. A large fight broke out in Congress, with the reserve component forces gathering Congressional allies to defend local bases and units. There’s always some tension over priorities between the service leaders in Washington and those in the states, but this was both notably ugly and notably public.

As a result, Congress demanded the creation of the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force. To go along with it, the Air Force created its own, internal structure to look at the problems. And while the Commissions’ findings don’t line up exactly with what the Air Force has concluded on its own, on the whole, the Active, Guard and reserve components all seem to be getting along much better.

So if things are settled, why is this worth talking about? Because Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno seems to have his service heading in the same direction with his most recent budget plan, which cuts tens of thousands of Guard and reserve soldiers and claims eight Guard AH-64 Apache attack helicopter battalions for the active service.

All indications are that the Army is flat against the idea of setting up an outside group to advise Congress on its force structure, but that doesn’t mean it’s off the table as an option.

At the April 29th hearing, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and Secretary Deborah Lee James were asked by Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana what lessons a similar commission in the future (for an unnamed, yet patently obvious, service) could learn from how the Air Force commission operated.

Both James and Welsh were quick to note they aren’t recommending a future commission for any potential service in the future, but did one big suggestion.

“Certainly the close coordination [between the Commission and the service] has been essential,” James said. The presence of the Total Force Task Force inside the Air Force, “which was the liaison, which was supplying certain expertise, which was receiving requests for information, getting it staffed out so the commission could get answers to its question – that sort of association has proven to be excellent.”

“The two working together are very helpful,” Welsh noted.

After the hearing, I asked Dennis McCarthy, the chairman of the commission, whether he had any thoughts on what a hypothetical commission for another service could look like.

“First of all, a number of our recommendations, the ones dealing with duty status and statutes and homeland defense and so forth, probably cut across all of the services,” McCarthy said. “But the recommendations dealing with the Air Force are very particular and focused on the Air Force, and everyone recognizes that there are significant differences between the air forces and the land forces or naval forces.”

“So you can’t take the Air Force recommendations on force structure and apply them to other services,” he continued. “I think part of the success of the Commission was the congeniality and intellectual openness of the commissioners and if there was another commission I think getting a group like the one we had here in terms of their openness would help it be successful.”

So even as the Commission shuts its doors – as of noon on April 30th, its offices in Virginia were closed up – there remains lessons to be taken from its work.

Aaron Mehta

Aaron Mehta

Air Warfare Correspondent at Defense News
Aaron covers the Air Force for Defense News. In his spare time, he tweets about the Air Force for Defense News. Follow him @AaronMehta
Aaron Mehta