Over Iraq

While the Army fights on in Iraq, the Air Force is resuming its peacetime schedule and trimming back its size.


ontinuing ground operations in Iraq are taking a toll on the Army. But with the skies secured, the Air Force is catching its breath, reducing the time its personnel are deployed and remaking and thinning its ranks.

After more than a decade spent grounding Saddam Hussein's planes in the no-fly zones, then meeting a demanding schedule during the Iraq war, most of the Air Force has returned to normal rotations: Service members will deploy for 90 days and then return home for a year of training. Just before the war began last March, the Air Force had scrapped that schedule. At the height of operations, 54,995 Air Force personnel were deployed, nearly eight times the 7,250 airmen who had patrolled the no-flight zones over northern and southern Iraq before the war. Today, the Air Force has 4,000 people serving in Iraq, most flying cargo planes or maintaining air bases.

"The whole idea is that in peacetime you have a rotational force; when you go to war you bunch up and do what it takes to win the war," says Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper. The Air Force's typical rotation schedule calls for dividing the service into prepackaged combat units known as aerospace expeditionary forces. Each contains 12,600 service members, plus a complement of combat, refueling and cargo aircraft. Every 15 months, AEF members spend 10 months training and two months preparing for operations. They are available for deployment for three months during the cycle and then get a short stand-down period. At the height of the war, the Air Force deployed the better part of eight AEF units to meet commitments in Iraq, the United States and the rest of the world.

Jumper says the AEF concept, instituted in 1999, performed "very, very well" in its first wartime test. To make the leap from peacetime to wartime and back again, the Air Force created two AEF units from forces that did not deploy for the war, and used them to serve 120-day rotations last summer. Those units bridged the gap between forces called up for as long as necessary during the war and the service's traditional 90-day rotation cycles. Bridging has paid off, allowing the Air Force to return to a normal schedule in March with most pilots and airmen deploying for no more than three months at a time.

Despite that success, Jumper says AEF units still are short on people in key support jobs, such as security forces-engineers who set up and maintain air bases and guards who protect them. These shortages are particularly apparent in Central Asia where, since Sept. 11, 2001, the Air Force has opened 36 bases. Fourteen are still in use and require guards, engineers and other support staff. Because the Air Force is short on security personnel and civil engineers, many of them have served 180-day rotations in Central Asia and the Middle East. And with much of its active-duty security force tied down for so long in Central Asia, the Air Force is relying on Army National Guardsman to provide security for air bases in the United States. Jumper says the Air Force was short about 8,000 security personnel at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Jumper says the Air Force must rebalance its forces to avoid extended deployments and to meet the changing nature of threats. He'll begin by scrapping the Air Force's recent practice of keeping more airmen on the payroll than authorized by Congress. Currently, the Air Force is about 16,400 airmen above its prescribed end strength of 359,000. Lawmakers have approved the extra personnel since the late 1990s due to the service's high operational tempo. By the end of 2005, he'll have cut the ranks back to size, Jumper says.

He also intends to cull administrative positions and other overstaffed occupations. Some jobs will be eliminated, others will be shifted to civilian employees or contracted out. Jumper emphasizes that he's taking a more disciplined approach to managing the Air Force. Eventually, he says, he might ask Congress to permanently increase the size of the service.

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