Over the past several years the Defense Department has seen an unprecedented reduction in force. Twenty years ago when I was a young Airman learning the Air Force ropes, our active-duty force was more than 421,000 strong. Today, our end strength stands at just over 323,000 Airmen, a reduction of roughly 100,000 personnel. Because of this, we have continued to do more with less. Yet, the “less” only refers to our manning numbers because our responsibilities have continued to grow. We are nearing our 13th consecutive year at war and the nonstop deployment cycles have kept our streamlined force busy.
Arguably, the biggest impact the Air Force has seen in manpower since the post-Cold War drawdown of the mid 1990s has been the enlisted retention board process. Initiated at the outset of 2014, the program is one of 18 force management programs aimed at reducing the budget. Once completed, this five-year plan will have cut an additional 25,000 Airmen from the ranks. Many of our most experienced and outstanding people will be phased out if sequestration persists. Now more than ever the Air Force must emphasize retaining the absolute sharpest personnel. In order to ensure this happens, leaders at every level must strive to mentor and develop the best Airmen possible.
Back in March of this year, the 56th Medical Group hosted the Air Education and Training Command surgeon general, Col. Thomas Miller and the AETC chief of Medical Enlisted Force, Chief Master Sgt. Lawrence Blake. During a Q&A session, an Airman stood and asked Chief Blake what advice he could give to those wanting to survive and thrive in the Air Force during this time of manning reductions and fiscal uncertainty.
The chief gave a very profound answer. He said, the best way to ensure success in this or any era is to come to work every day and “knock it out of the park.” He went on to explain that knocking it out of the park means to strive for excellence each and every day instead of simply going through the motions of your work. Chief Blake ended by pointing out that those who put forth an outstanding effort on a daily basis would be the ones who would be recognized ahead of their peers, the individuals whom leadership would fight to keep under any circumstance. It is this embracing of the core value “excellence in all we do” that will prepare our personnel for the uncertain future of DOD budget cuts, manpower reductions and any other challenges they may face.
In the early 1990s, the manning requirements were far greater and this overabundance of Airmen made it possible for average performers to slide by more easily. They could blend in and often make a career out of punching the clock without putting forth an outstanding effort on the job. In that timeframe, like the times before and since, the Air Force has produced many stellar individuals who have helped to defend our nation and keep our force flying, fighting and winning for the past 66 years. Yet, the sheer volume of people on active duty, coupled with the antiquated Cold War structure that was still in place, provided more time and money to develop marginal performers. Those days are long gone. It is safe to say that for the foreseeable future, only the absolute best of the best will get to make the Air Force their permanent career. Accountability and responsibility are keys to developing and retaining Airmen who operate in excellence and who knock it out of the park.
Leaders must take responsibility for molding high-quality Airmen through training, mentorship and empowerment. Pushing them to advance their education, improve their fitness, and tackle increased responsibility are just a few principles that we must engrain into the hearts and minds of our people. We as leaders must set the example by enthusiastically fulfilling our duties because our subordinates are always aware of the effort we put forth and they will often emulate that effort. It is also our responsibility to rate personnel fairly and to have the courage to discipline and recommend discharge for those who fail to provide quality effort. Subsequently, subordinates must take responsibility for their own career path and seek out opportunities to excel. No longer can they sit back and wait to be told what to do, whether it is in their daily duties or in the extracurricular opportunities, such as education and community involvement, which separates the average from the outstanding.
There is no denying that our armed forces are becoming more streamlined and efficient, valuing proficiency, versatility and resourcefulness over sheer quantity. Streamlining generally involves cutting away that which is unnecessary or impedes progress. Adopting the knock it out of the park attitude with every task, workday and assignment is the most important thing we can do to become elite and efficient, both as a force and as individual Airmen.