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As the 1970s unfolded, the challenge then was to find the right mix of forces for mission effectiveness. Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird adopted the Total Force concept in August 1970 with Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger declaring it policy in 1973.

With the implementation of the Total Force Policy, the Air Force Reserve became a multi-mission force, flying the same modern aircraft as the active Air Force. Mobilization planning and operational evaluation were integrated with the corresponding active duty functions. With the same equipment and budget authority, the Air Force Reserve was held to the same readiness standards and inspections as regular Air Force units. Special operations, air refueling, weather reconnaissance, and, once again, fighter missions were added to the airlift, rescue, and mission support roles performed by the Air Force Reserve. The associate concept soon expanded to include the C-5.

Air Force Reserve participation in Air Force exercises and deployments perfected its mobility capabilities as demonstrated throughout the seventies, most notably during the Israeli Airlift of 1973, some 630 crewmembers volunteered for Middle East missions to include flying into Tel Aviv while another 1,590 Reservists performed missions worldwide, freeing up more active crews for airlift.

The 1980s saw the modernization and expansion of the Air Force Reserve program. KC-10s joined the associate force in 1981. Fighter units obtained the more modern A-10s and F-4s, and in 1984, the Air Force Reserve received its first F-16. Operationally, the Air Force Reserve returned American students from Grenada in 1983, performed air refuelings of F-111 bombers during the El Dorado Canyon raid on Libyan-sponsored terrorists in 1986, and acted as a full partner in Operation Just Cause which ousted Panama's General Noriega in 1989-1990. Air Force Reservists also supported humanitarian and disaster relief efforts, including resupply and evacuation missions in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo. The Reserve's continual volunteering allayed the concerns of those who believed the Air Force Reserve would not be available when really needed