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Leadership Lessons: What you should know about force shaping

  • Published
  • By Maj. Jeff Becker
  • 319th Security Forces Squadron commander
The hottest topic for Airmen right now is force shaping and the many programs the Air Force is executing to meet end-strength targets.

As Chief Master Sgt. David Duncan, the 319th Air Base Wing command chief, said during a recent meeting, "When I came in [the Air Force] in 1986, we had over 600,000 Total Force Airmen and now we're a little less than half that," so arguably we've continued to trend downward. In the Security Forces Squadron, our own Chief Ernest Jepperson explained it to one our Airmen this way: "You remember cell phones when they came out how they were in big bags, then they were the size of a brick, then the flip phones, then the candy bar size phones and now a smart phone can do almost everything a computer can. As technology improves, things get smaller and as an Air Force we need to get smaller too."

The Air Force Personnel Center is in reality a "weapon system." When you think about it that way you quickly realize that Airmen are the "ultimate weapons." Airmen make everything happen, and like any weapon system, must be as effective as possible. Because AFPC is responsible for these "ultimate weapons," it is imperative that care be taken to avoid second- and third-order effects when shaping the force.

I remember the drawdown in the early 1990s. Even though I was an airman first class in the Reserves, I still felt the impact of force shaping. It seemed to me most of the people targeted then were staff and technical sergeants.

In retrospect, I can tell you the impact I've seen as a lot of my active duty peers were thrust into positions of responsibility sooner than they were probably ready for due to that drawdown. On the back end, there were a lot of high-year-tenure technical and master sergeants who retired in the past decade (Hint: They were A1Cs during the same period as I was) and this was, in my opinion, a tertiary effect of the way this last huge drawdown was done.

But it seems like the Air Force is doing it smarter this time. The enlisted force structure is a pyramid, so it doesn't make sense to take a chuck out of the middle as we saw two decades ago. Nor does it make sense to constrain the bottom and risk losing out on gaining talented new Airmen or creating manpower bubbles in the system as we saw when basic training classes were being postponed a few years back.

As Gen. Paul Selva, Air Mobility Command commander, aptly put it during a recent visit to Grand Forks AFB, "If you pick a target that's too close, you wind up repeating the process over and over."

Instead, the approach is to try slicing the side of the pyramid across the entire force structure. Ideally, we will see fewer disruptions over the long run by having put more thought into the process.

It's also important to remember that this process is not going away anytime soon.

There is always a possibility that force shaping will continue in future years. As Chief Duncan pointed out, this is basically a twenty-year cycle. We saw this in the early 90s with the Cold War Peace Dividend, we saw this in the early 70s after the Vietnam War drawdown, and we saw this in other services after the Korean War.

I am very glad our Wing leadership mandated face-to-face meetings between commanders and all Airmen affected by force shaping. Many Airmen have expressed their thanks for this personal approach and hopefully this is happening all across the Air Force.

Let me close by pointing to the things that I would tell any Airman potentially affected by force shaping:

1. Don't panic! As I just mentioned we have done this before and many Airmen have been through this process over the past decade in smaller targeted groups (i.e. for retraining). It's not about you; it's about ensuring we are still the best Air Force in the world for generations to come.

2. Don't take it personally. If you are on a retention board for demographic reasons (e.g., your time in grade, time in service or Air Force specialty code) it's because the Air Force needs to shape itself correctly for the future and it is no fault of your own. If you are on a quality force review board, it's about keeping the best people.

3. Talk to the Military Personnel Section before you do anything. In fact, when and if you decide to do something, have them walk you through the process. You should also look at the MyPers website, but MPS will have the most updated information. Don't assume you have nothing to do if have to meet a retention board. It's up to you to ensure your records are correct as nobody knows your duty history better than you. Make sure any eligibility codes in your records for reenlistment, grade status, assignment availability and promotion eligibility are correct (MPS can help you here as well). You may also submit a one-page memorandum to the board, and I highly encourage anyone being looked at for retention to do this as it communicates that you have skin-in-the-game and are earnestly interested in your Air Force career.

4. Plan for the future. Think about your goals and what you would do if not in the Air Force. Frankly, military service is a great opportunity for some people to mature and think about what they want to do in their lives. I personally always wanted to be a civilian cop and never thought the Air Force would be my career (just one enlistment to get training and pay for college) but here I am, and I can't imagine doing anything else.

5. Remember that as the Air Force shrinks, we are becoming increasingly "performance based" so Airmen can control their destiny by performing as professionally, passionately and proficiently as they can. When it's time for a board to evaluate the individual they will look at past performance when evaluating their future potential. I know this sounds like a lot of P's, but the goal of shrinking the force is to retain the best Airmen, and each of us has control of our destiny in this area. As a young lieutenant, I had to get on my squadron commander's calendar for each First Term Airman who did not elect to re-enlist to debrief him why, as the mantra was "retention, retention, retention." In the future, it will not be enough to just show up to work on time and expect a "Firewall-5" performance report.