Uninformed people can be easily manipulated -Dr. Ben Carson

Parable: a short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson

Pick a job or career that requires a leader of a team to function. Let’s say, for example, you manage a retail business that sells sporting goods. You are not the CEO, just the manager of the store. You have a large preponderance of part-time employees to save on health insurance and a few full time employees that have been there for several years. The CEO of the company calls you and says he want to try something. He wants to cut you back to part-time but still run the store to show others that it could be done. He says he will secretly compensate you the same salary you’ve been getting but you are not to spend more than 16-20 hours a month at the store. He wants to try this experiment for six months. You see no downside to the request and agree. The first couple of months go by well. You don’t feel too far removed from the daily operations yet and have a beat on your sales, costs and employee issues.

The next month a series of unfortunate events crop up: some employees are caught stealing, your supplier of paddle boards had to raise the price 150% and cut back on shipments due to a natural disaster, and your sales are down almost 60% due to the Amazon effect. You try to adjust your part-time schedule so you can block out an hour a day not to exceed your 20 hour monthly quota but many of the people you need to talk to are not available during that hour. The employees who stole were terminated, and you don’t know anything about the hires that took their place. You try and find a new supplier of paddle boards while you are at the store but cannot match the work hours and various time zones of the suppliers to your mandated part-time schedule. Your customer base is demanding price matching from your store or you will lose their business to Amazon. Your health insurance renewal period is coming due and you have six companies wanting to give you bids. Finally, your 401(k) manager retires and passes your business off his 24-year-old son whom you never have met.

After about two months of this turmoil, you call the CEO and tell him you cannot do this anymore. You feel disconnected and uninformed. The CEO suggests you find a full-time employee to run the day to day operations of the store and you stick with the “big picture stuff.”

Your two choices to help you are employees that have worked at other stores up until the last few months. You don’t know either one of them very well and have to base your delegation of responsibility on a small sample size of interaction you’ve had with them. You pick one your as your Director of Operations and ask the other to assist in any way that they can to get the job done.

Initially, things seem to go well. Some of the issues that have burdened the store over the last few months get resolved. However the relationship between the two employees you have delegated managerial responsibilities to have become strained. They have had multiple disagreements over the discipline of employees and merchandising and marketing the store. To make matters worse, you find out they have been making some strategic decisions without your knowledge or consent. You call in your Director of Operations and ask why you weren’t informed on some of these events and they simply say they don’t want to bother you with the little things. They do ask that the other full time employee be terminated due to insubordination and proceed to hand you a file of documentation. You read over it and decide to confront the other employee about the allegations. He proceeds to produce a file of his own with emails and witness statements that contradicts everything your Operations Officer said.

You start interviewing other witnesses but don’t want to erode the morale of the staff by dragging them into the mess. After exhausting almost all of your allotted hours on this one problem, you decide to fire both of them and move an impressive part-time employee into the Operations Officer position. For the next two months, things run smoothly. You still feel disconnected but at least the store seems to be in good shape temporarily. The CEO allows you to go back to work full-time. You are relieved.

However, the first two weeks back, every problem or big issue that you used to deal with before you went part time was being handled by your new Operations Officer. He was doing such a good job, and had grown as a leader that now you felt like you were really confusing the situation with your full-time presence. You went back to your CEO and told him you considered his experiment an abject failure.

He replied, “Sorry son, it was a great success. You are my best manager out of 23 stores. You are the benchmark for all things others strive for. You, in fact, are the person I most needed to see try to make this work. Because, son, I am a part-time Wing Commander in the Air National Guard and this entire exercise was concocted to validate that I was not crazy and weak!”

Your Part-time Air force: the Air National Guard

History will be kind to me as I intend to write it.  -Winston Churchill

The war was over. The greatest generation was coming home. But unbeknownst to most of them, a new war, and a new era, was starting. Also, unbeknownst to most of them, their call to duty was far from a fading muffled thing of the past.

When the Air Force was created in 1947, out of it came the entity known as the Air National Guard. Now, the National Guard had been around in some form or another for years and years prior – state militias, governor control, etc. – but the new organization saw an entirely different vision. Take advantage of the great experience of our pilots (and maintainers and weaponeers) gained in World War II and use those airmen as both a strategic and operational reserve, according to the National Defense Act of 1946. Many of these combat veterans found work in the airline and aircraft industry and defense spending, while cut since the war was not going away.

At the start of their legacy, the ANG received lousy equipment from the Air Force and even lousier funding. With the Cold War becoming colder, the underlying premise was that the ANG would be a strategic backfill when the Air Force left to fight the big one and would only mobilize when absolutely needed to fill a wartime shortfall. Several heroic missions were carried out by ANG airmen in both Korea and Vietnam, but mobilizations, due to the “back burner” operational requirements of the ANG, were slow moving and guesswork because of broken equipment. The “Total Force” concept, introduced in the late 60’s was a result of the drawdown of active duty troops which was a result of the political pressure and public weariness of Vietnam and the draft. The Total Force was in theory an all-volunteer Air Force with smaller numbers and a surge capacity from the Reserves and Guard if needed. Again, the same model applied during the Total Force build up that was appealing to the Air National Guard startup in the late 40s: Capitalize on the experience of the pilots, maintainers and support troops from Vietnam and keep them in a position to serve. The bulk of the senior officers were part time and many were airline pilots with somewhat flexible schedules. These senior officers became leaders in the ANG and with the mission being primarily a surge capability for the active duty, the operational requirements were not taxing enough that a full time force of senior leaders were necessary, only a small number of folks to keep the planes running, the bills paid, and the grass mowed at the Wing.

As the country progressed into the 70s and 80s the focus of the country’s strategy was clearly the Soviet Union and the regimes that it supported, but unlike Viet Nam, the firepower coming from the Reagan administration was in the form of defense dollars. The DoD budget became a sword not a shield, the Air Force became more powerful than ever before, and the Air National Guard’s identity as a strategic reserve was promoted in marketing and advertising.  The structure was satisfactory for operational emergencies when an entire Wing had to support the Active Duty or backfill deployed Air Force personnel, but the focus was on the Soviet Union was the enemy with no other adversaries really heavily planned for.

The Air National Guard and the End of the Cold War

Mr. Gorbachev, tear down these walls.-Ronald Reagan, 1987

Between citizens and countries clamoring for their freedom from the Soviet choke hold and a defense spending frenzy that gave the United States a leg up in the arms race, the Soviet Union disbanded slowly over the late 1980s and as a result, the active duty military began their downsize process. Focus was on smaller attacks and campaigns and not a large conventional war. The ANG was still held back as a strategic reserve, however, their role going forward was still somewhat undefined.

In 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the strategic implications of threats to US national interests became too great to ignore. A conventional war was in order and the active duty drawdown had already chopped bases and personnel. Thus, the reliance of ANG and Air Force Reserve forces was extremely high to become operational in a very short order. While the war was prosecuted in a swift and successful manner, the subsequent buildup was an eye opener on how many glitches there were in the current state of readiness. ANG units, first and foremost, had to gather their part time airmen from the far reaches of every state in the land, while simultaneously making sure the equipment being used to support Operation Desert Swarm was adequate and modernized to the maximum extent possible. The training that occurred in preparation of the conflict involved previously ignored principles, such as desert warfare, and thus, was slow and cumbersome.

All of the above aside, the bigger picture of concern for ANG part-time forces was the loss of their civilian jobs and their rights to get them back. As the buildup took more and more time, those concerns became a bigger issue in that some employers were not sympathetic to reemploying their airmen.

After Desert Storm, the focus to drawdown more DoD installations and personnel continued under the Clinton administration which led to a new paradigm for the ANG—become operational at a much faster rate as a savings for the taxpayer. In order to accomplish this, the out of date law protecting Guardsmen from being discriminated against and not allowed to return to their employment was rewritten. In 1994, the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, by one stroke of the pen, gave the president and congress the political capital necessary to change the way reserve personnel were used in that it turned all reserve forces into “active duty” light at a moment’s notice subject to involuntary call up with no legal implications. Timely communication mandates with their Air Force brethren and the gaining units was never higher and the concept of the Air Expeditionary Force, while making deployments more predictable also made them more certain. This microwave version of the former Air National Guard had to now become more focused on the training, leading and equipping airmen and doing it quicker and more autonomous than ever before. The money savings of the ANG as a predominately part time force still held in theory but the responsibilities and decision making skills of the small full time force were now at a record high demand.

As a result the ANG national level leadership called for more full time senior leader positions at the Wing Level. The drill status or part time leaders (DSGs) were still a viable force, but now started to heavily rely on the full time decision makers to keep them informed on decisions and actions that couldn’t wait until the first weekend of the month.

Small contingencies were responded to with mainly active duty personnel but some ANG were tasked for support. Often the mission was centered on response medium scale terror attacks and humanitarian relief/regime change such as Kosovo. The operational tempo was higher than during the Cold War but nowhere near the level it was about to be.

is owning air defense a part time position?

You can be sure the American Spirit will prevail over this Tragedy. -Colin Powell

The events of September 11, 2001 brought the full weight of our military down on those responsible for the attacks as well as those who enabled and harbored the terrorists. Public and political outcry would accept nothing less than to use every resource (both in equipment and personnel) in DoD to wage the fight against Al-Qaeda and all of its accomplices. The Air National Guard was an engaged partner, with an operational tempo that was unprecedented in its history. The ANG now owned the air defense mission over the United States in addition to the deployments of its personnel overseas.  Add that to the second front of battle in 2003 when the United States invaded Iraq and ousted Saddam Hussein and nearly 40% of the ANG deployed between 2001 and 2004. With the size of the active duty Air Force remaining essentially the same, the trend has continued over the last 13 years. Today the ANG still performs 30% of the Air Force worldwide missions each day to include not only in the air domain, but also the growing fields of space, cyber, and dynamic intelligence collection and analysis. The Reserve Component percentage of the Total Force end strength has increased by 10% since 1990 and the amount of aircraft flown and maintained by the Reserve Component has increased 5%.

In addition, many missions such as convoy movement – primarily an Army function in the past – was transitioned in part to the Air Force because of the intense stress for troops still engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq. More man days, short tours, and active duty Title 10 temporary positions have been available to the ANG over the last ten years than in its preceding 60 years combined. What does that all mean? The part-time leader, the true citizen airmen who has command authority over a squadron, group or wing as was envisioned in the Cold War era has become a dangerously close extinct breed of the past in today’s ANG world.

The Future of the Drill Status Leader

We get to the peak together, or we don’t get there at all.     -Al Harrison, Hidden Figures (2017)

Given the landscape now and into the future, what is the prognosis of the Drill Status Leader?

That is the question for future generations of leaders to resolve. There are three potential courses of action (and maybe more) that immediately come to mind:

  • Create an operational reserve force and a strategic reserve force with just in time operational capabilities. There has already been movement to look at this option. The OSD has a Reserve Forces Policy Board under their guise which is composed of many retired Reserve and Guard flag officers. Studies have shown that if the law is changed, the term “operational reserve” will have more teeth as an entity of its own, with basic things such as statuses, benefits and transitions becoming more uniform and seamless between active duty and the reserves. There will still be part-time positions in the operational force with more focus on missions such as cyber and homeland defense but only for those committed to the rigors and stresses of continued operational missions. The strategic reserve, formerly the IRR, will become a more coherent, organized plug and play entity with readiness obligations and opportunities for promotion but only to be used if operation forces are stretched too thin. While this has been a interesting concept of change there has been no real teeth or political will behind it but that could soon change There would also be difficulty in rolling this concept into a state militia in that how ready would the strategic force really be for a domestic state response that they may not have trained for, instead spending their readiness spin up time on the federal mission?
  • Remove DSG senior leaders from the equation. This in and of itself sounds like a terrible option, especially for those of us that want to be viewed as equals with their active duty and full-time ANG counterparts. Leadership skills from the civilian sector would be left on the table if these positions were available for full-time only. The only saving grace that would make this a palatable option is the ability to promote and advance as a staff officer or Subject Matter Expert. This would capitalize on the skills needed to oversee programs involving interagency or civilian partnerships or introducing organization management concepts novel to the Department of Defense and create a great source of expertise for the governor of a state to use. In a holistic view, it may be a more satisfying career as well for the officer as they would have feedback from a more objective determination of whether “they really mattered” to the organization they were serving.
  • Leave the system as the status quo. This is not great option by virtue of the reasons mentioned in the proceeding paragraphs in this article, but it is the only game in town right now. If in fact this is the foreseeable future for the DSG leader, using the highly sophisticated technology to increase virtual real time awareness to guide effective decisions has to be put on the forefront of every policy maker’s to-do sheet. Also, the overarching spectrum of the DSG’s full time job must encompass a way to reward, and not just threaten, employers for their cooperation. While the possibilities are endless, one thing that comes to mind is extensive tax breaks for those who choose to hire reserve component members. This in turn may make a system a little less harsh for those who have turned their DSG jobs into “full-time lite” positions.

Progress Impossible if We’re standing still

It’s not easy for me to admit that I’ve been standing in the same place for eighteen years! – Troy

Well, I’ve been standing with you! I gave eighteen years of my life to stand in the same spot as you! – Rose

-Fences (2016)

This article is not going to solve the problems we face in determining how to make the DSG leader a strong, worthwhile piece of the Air National Guard without running them into the ground in the process. It does, however, serve as a fundamental base and though provocateur as to how we arrived at where we are at today and why the future leaders of the organization must solve this problem before it becomes too far in disrepair. Hopefully, you will at least start the dialogue in achieving that solution.

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Jason spent 23 years in USG service conducting defense, diplomacy, intelligence, and education missions globally. Now he teaches, writes, podcasts, and speaks publicly about Islam, foreign affairs, and national security. He serves on the Board of Directors for 2 non-profits and aids conflict resolution in Afghanistan.