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IMA Best Practice Drives New Leadership Initiative

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Shannon Mann

The Individual Mobilization Augmentee portfolio has ebbed and flowed through 75 years of the Air Force Reserve’s storied history. Today, more than 7,500 IMAs are spread throughout 200 Department of Defense organizations globally. These part-time Reservists adapt to each active component’s organizational culture while still responding to the nuances of the Reserve world.

Communication and administration in one organization can look completely different from another and lends itself to multiple leadership chains. One consistently found best practice rolled out as an official prototype in May, and offers a new model for IMA leadership, support and development.

The IMA Strategic Review team, founded in 2021 to identify issues with the IMA portfolio and make recommendations for improvement, researched and analyzed the portfolio’s long tenure, governing law and policy, relevant systems and member readiness. The team, comprised of officers and enlisted members from various career fields, but mostly IMAs, noted many IMAs serving today faced the same challenges usually stemming from a disconnect between active and Reserve administrative processes, database access and career development. One initiative that quickly rose to the forefront is the practice of a senior IMA leading other IMAs within their respective organization.

Col. Samantha Dawson, a 19-year IMA currently assigned to the 363rd Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, has been part of the IMA Strategic Review team since the start, initially focusing on IMA readiness and resources. She now spearheads the IMA administrative control effort to prototype a new IMA ADCON model.

“IMA ADCON is about Reserve leadership and codifying what units with successful IMA teams already do – empower and rely on Reserve leaders to make decisions, advise, integrate and advocate for IMAs,” said Dawson. “IMA ADCON is not going to fix strategic level challenges of pay and systems, but it is a foundational cog in the wheel of our IMA Strategic Review initiatives.”

Dawson engaged several organizations with an appetite for innovation and existing Reserve leadership. Partnering with the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Joint Intelligence Operations Center, she led a 41-person, joint, total force team in researching manpower, personnel and legal constraints impacting both active and Reserve administrative control. Collectively, the team developed and analyzed five different solutions that led to a concept the INDOPACOM JIOC could prototype.

After months of meetings and legal reviews, the concept of an active-duty Air Force commander designating an IMA as a section commander went into official prototype status. In May, the USINDOPACOM JIOC became the first organization to establish an IMA section commander. Col. John Cherry became the first IMA section commander with G-series orders. The IMA section commander collaborates closely with mobilization assistants, Reserve advisors and senior enlisted advisors.

Cherry, whose IMA career spans three decades across an impressive list of organizations such as U.S. Air Forces in Europe, European Command, Pacific Air Forces and Space Systems Command, said the active component just wants rapid access to the incredible talent pool of IMAs, but IMA portfolio nuances present some inherent hurdles.

“Serving in the Reserve is a calling and for most of us it is a parallel career with a civilian profession,” Cherry said. “This juggle is often difficult. The intent is to create a seamless and holistic total force governed by the same interchangeable policies and procedures as the active component. As the IMA section commander, I help eliminate some of these hurdles.”

Cherry explained that his experience and command authority enables the active duty to meet their core intent and rapidly access IMAs unique skillsets.

“I am amazed at the level of experience and depth of full-spectrum knowledge the IMA force brings to the table,” he said. “My role is to effectively incorporate and integrate these skills.”

For Cherry, achieving this level of integration means that his position leads the Reserve administrative functions so that his active-duty counterparts can focus their assigned IMAs on mission delivery.

Cherry shapes resiliency as an IMA’s first touch point. He holds all-calls, reviews performance reports, awards, decorations and advises his regular Air Force counterparts on issues concerning IMAs. Prior to prototype, the USINDOPACOM JIOC IMA leaders already advised on Reserve-specific administration, advocated for stratification, helped with job placement and career development, and assisted with many overall issues specific to the Reserve.  However, the transition to an official leadership position empowers and equips Cherry to streamline these processes. The initiative is working.

Dawson views the new IMA section commander as not only a best practice to be shared, but a way to transform for the future.

“We need to make this an official role – written into policy,” Dawson said. “IMAs deserve a leader at their unit who is accessible and understands IMA life. Policy will establish the standards and expectations of the position and enable an IMA career development path.”

USINDOPACOM’s progress and success are closely monitored as the IMA Strategic Review team continues to advocate for an IMA section commander or IMA section director leading subordinate IMAs within active-duty organizations. Dawson is working with several other organizations to establish additional prototypes, further informing the way-ahead. Dawson emphasizes IMA ADCON has foundational elements, but implementation is adaptable to the organization, and not intended to change the rating chain or IMA’s senior rater.

As the first IMA section commander, Cherry has established goals for himself and his formalized position. Tactically, he hopes to steer the pilot program from its initial operational capability to a fully operations capable command section, but he knows the larger impact comes at the strategic level.

“I think USINDOPACOM taking the lead in this initiative is both poignant and timely,” Cherry said. “I hope this serves as a beacon for the larger Total Force to enhance their unity of effort and actualize the immense talent of the Airmen we call IMAs.”

(Mann is a member of the IMA Strategic Review Team)