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Citizen Airmen provide fifth-gen capability on a budget

  • Published
  • By Maj. Carla Gleason
  • 477th Fighter Group, Public Affairs

Citizen Airmen provide the nation with combat power, at a reduced price, with increased experience and greater longevity; and they’ve been doing it since the beginning of total force integration.

Nowhere is that more apparent than the fifth-gen TFI fighter squadrons at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. JBER is home to more than 75 Raptor pilots and 18 of those are reservists with the 302nd Fighter Squadron.  

The experience 302nd pilots bring to the table is unmatched. Four of the 18 have 1,000 hours of F-22 flight time, and three more are expected to reach that target this year alone. In fact, since the F-22 was introduced, JBER has produced eleven 1,000-hour pilots, and more than half of them are reservists. This handful of Air Force Reserve pilots has nearly double the career flight-time hours in the F-22 Raptor as their active duty counterparts. 

Let that sink in. Here our Reserve pilots, on average, have fifth-gen fighter jet experience at a rate of nearly two-to-one. That’s what longevity can do for a force.

“It’s more difficult to ‘grow’ an inexperienced pilot in the F-22 because you get, maybe, 120 hours in a year,” said commander of the 477th Fighter Group, Christopher D. Ogren. “Compared with the 180 in the F-16, for example, and it is just harder to provide that hands-on flight time that breeds great pilots. The more experienced pilots become invaluable in instructing and training. You could say while active duty produces the knives, the Air Force Reserve sharpens them.”

Despite all of its challenges, JBER’s TFI construct has benefits that often go unnoticed. One of those benefits is cost savings. Traditional reservists are cheaper to employ; a reservist averages about one-third of the cost of an active duty pilot. In fact, the entire annual salary of one traditional reservist F-22 pilot is less than the cost of a single Raptor sortie. Traditional reservists are Citizen Airmen who have private-sector jobs in addition to their service commitment. They do not work full-time for the Air Force and are not entitled to full-time benefits including housing or COLA. The retirement deferment alone, which can be upwards of twenty years, is an undeniable taxpayer price break.

Brig. Gen. Samuel C. Mahaney, who serves as the Air Mobility Command Deputy Director of Operations, Strategic Deterrence, and Nuclear Integration, calls this cost-efficient blending of statuses the Reserve-Led Total Force Enterprise.

“The overriding reason RTFE works is simple,” he said. “Our reservists or guardsmen are (1) executing the mission, (2) training for the execution of the mission, or (3) off the federal payroll.”

“Total Force Integration may not be the ideal combat power construct we want, but it is what our nation can afford,” said Ogren. “We are insurance for the Combatant Commander, President of the United States and the nation because it’s cost-prohibitive to keep a ready force capable of achieving all the things we may be called to do at the drop of a hat; the Reserve helps us get there.”

For nearly 70 years, Citizen Airmen have been the cornerstone of the successful defense of our nation by providing combat-ready forces to meet the needs of combatant commanders. Despite their civilian commitments, reservists must maintain the military operational proficiency, flight hours and standards that make ours the greatest Air Force the world has ever seen.

Arctic Reservists from the 302 FS have a dual mission. First, like any pilot, it is to become, and stay, combat-ready. At the end of the day, that is why the Air Force Reserve exists – to provide combat-ready forces to the combatant commander. Second, our reservists provide training and experience to pilots and aircrew across the board, teaching, mentoring and increasing capabilities to the total range of flight operations. They sit alert, instruct and train both active duty and Reserve members, participate in active duty exercises and training events and plan combat operations right alongside their active duty counterparts. And they deploy. A quarter of the pilots from the 302 FS chose to deploy in 2016 and two of them were traditional reservists volunteering to put their civilian lives on hold in order to serve their country.

Though it’s not possible to distinguish reservists from active duty members out on the flight line, there are differences in how the Reserve world works. Because reservists are not a 24-7 pool of manpower, mobilization activities require long-term planning in order to execute properly. Citizen Airmen who work fewer days a month learn to do more with less, become more efficient with administrative tasks and maximize training hours to get the job done. The Reserve was not designed to be a steady-state force, but a weapon of choice for combatant commanders on the front lines. Though it was established as a “break glass if needed” force, the Air Force Reserve has been employed continuously for more than a decade. Despite that ready-force commitment, everything reservists do is voluntary. That means viewing reservists as you would full-time Airmen or as an additional pool of manning will not work.

In a recent article, Chief of Staff of the Air Force General David L. Goldfein said, “Air and space superiority are not American birth rights and they must be fought for and won. Our challenge is ensuring we always win at a time when the Air Force is the oldest and smallest it has been in history, all the while accepting that airpower is in great demand and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.”

Total Force Integration and maintaining a pool of highly-trained fifth-gen reservists becomes more critical as we move into the era of the F-35 Lightening. There are 181 operational F-22 Raptor’s in the Air Force today. There are plans to bring aboard more than 1,700 F-35s. Fifth-gen Airmen are not created overnight, it takes years to develop competence both on the operations and maintenance side. The integration efforts today will play a vital role in our ability as a total force to move forward with the next iteration of fighter aircraft.

“We’re the smallest Air Force we’ve ever been, and the oldest Air Force we’ve ever been in terms of 27-year-old air planes,” Lt. Gen. Maryanne Miller, commander for Air Force Reserve Command, said in an article for Task and Purpose. “When you take into account that we’re the smallest, we’re the leanest, [and] have old aircraft — we’ve got to get this right.”

Allowing experienced reservists to sharpen the tools of those around them, planning and integrating them into strategic operations and taking advantage of their voluntary participation when you need it will result in unmatched combat power every time. The steep learning curve of TFI gets flatter and easier to manage each time integrated operations are put into practice.