KULIS AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Alaska -- With one of the most eventful years in 176th Wing history behind us, the Air Guardian asked Wing Vice Commander Col. Chuck Foster for his thoughts. What followed was a wide-ranging discussion on the issues facing the wing, and how senior leadership has been grappling with those issues.
Q: At the end of 2007, you flew the Wing's final C-17 up to Alaska. What's next for the C-17s?
We have all eight airplanes now. The first arrived in June, right after the conference for the Adjutants General. The others arrived every few weeks after that. In late summer, when our fifth jet arrived, we picked up our first Transportation Working Capital Fund mission; those are Title 10 missions, usually carrying things around to support the Army and Navy. And now we're flying in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the world.
Now that we have the planes, our focus is on the aircrews. We have about a dozen crewmembers now, and more waiting for manpower positions to come available. We are recruiting, and stacking people in training in anticipation of them finishing, because it is a lengthy process.
We planned to build the C-17 over a period of years, to a total of 201 positions. We still expect to do that, yet as time goes on priorities can change. So we are always mindful that we might get some different direction, and it will be important to stay flexible.
Q: What kind of impact has the Air National Guard Reset had on manpower
considerations at Kulis?
Reset is huge. Let's say you're tinkering with your computer, trying to get it to work right. You know it could run better, and at some point you say, "You know what? Let's just hit the reset button, and start over."
That's what ANG Reset nationwide is designed to do. For two decades or more we've been fixing the force by tinkering with one wing, optimizing another, maybe changing missions a little bit. Gen. McKinley recognized -- I think correctly -- that was no longer the right approach. We had so many changes happening so broadly that we needed to kind of step back and say, "Let's rebuild this from scratch."
Well, that was a great idea, but one problem is that NGB does not have the staff, expertise or resources to do that kind of work. The Air side of the NGB is more or less staffed to simply keep things running, which they've been doing successfully for a long time. So to throw this load on them -- to say "Let's design a whole new Air National Guard specifically fitted to the missions we're being asked to do today" -- well, they don't have the people for that, and there were a lot of problems with the results.
Don't get me wrong; I think nationwide, the results were worth the effort. They're not perfect, but they're better than what we had before. And the parts that aren't perfect can be fixed.
Q: What does that mean for Alaska?
Alaska is in a state of flux, but it's important to understand that we are in flux as a matter of choice, not a matter of being forced. Other states were told: "You're changing missions." Or, "We're taking away your wing." Alaska, wisely I think, got in the driver's seat early on, and said "We want to get into the C-17 business; we want to establish an associate with KC-135s. We want to move to Elmendorf. We want to have the follow-on CSAR-X platform. We want to have an air control squadron; we want to have a space warning squadron."
So Alaska is unique among all the other states and territories in that we very aggressively pursued future opportunities. That's not to say no one else looked ahead, but Alaska really put that out in front. And we were largely successful; we got the space warning squadron, we got the C-17s. We didn't get the KC-135 associate, we got a C-130 associate [instead]; but I would consider that at least a partial success.
Q: Why has Alaska been a sticking point for the Reset?
At the senior leadership conference at the end of 2006, the results of the Reset were released. What came out for Alaska was significant because it was unfinished. Major General Scoggins, a two-star from Washington state, was in charge of drawing this thing up. He showed a set of slides detailing how manpower would be changed within each state and territory. And a lot if it made sense to me.
In our case, for example, it showed Combat Comm would close, because the ANG had more Combat Comm squadrons than the Air Force wanted. It was unfortunate, but I can understand it.
But there was a big problem, stemming from a line in there that said, "Remove deployable expeditionary combat support." It seemed as though NGB couldn't solve all the variables, so they made an assumption. They said to us: "We only want you to deploy operators and maintenance -- you don't have to worry about deploying POL, Vehicle Ops, CE, that kind of thing. Remove deployable ECS, and boom, we're done."
The problem is, that's not really a solution; it's an assumption. Set aside for a moment the question of whether it's healthy for a Wing not to be able to deploy its combat support. The plan would have required us to lose quite a few full-time positions because, it assumed, the only reason they're there is to train the deployable guard members. But that's not the only reason they're there. If we got rid of our deployable positions, we would lack adequate resources even to do our home mission.
We certainly wouldn't have the available resources to do our home mission and deploy our operators and maintenance folks. So the assumption the initial proposal was based on was wrong.
From one little line in a presentation, this assumption then took on a life of its own, even though our Adjutant General had never said "Yeah, that's a good plan for Alaska; we can make that happen." In February we received a spreadsheet that showed manpower changes that we immediately recognized were absolutely unworkable.
Q: How did AKANG respond to the proposal?
First, I should clarify that, if we must eliminate pieces of our mission, we should focus on the pieces that don't fly and fix airplanes before we eliminate the pieces that do. That makes sense but only so far. What we didn't agree with is the kind of drastic reductions in our ECS areas that would make it impossible for us to do anything, including flying and fixing airplanes.
So naturally we immediately let NGB know the proposal was unworkable. The initial response was: "This is what it's going to be. You make it work."
I was working on it a great deal as Mission Support Group commander, and the bulk of deployable ECS fell under that. Frequently what I heard from NGB was "Look, we're very busy here. We have 54 states and territories to work with," which is true. So a lot of our problem was trying to get traction with the Guard Bureau to pay attention to our stuff. That is the kind of thing that requires developing relations and connections, which is tough for us here in Alaska. You have to get in a jet and fly across the country to mingle with the folks who make the decisions, and get to know them. It is just human nature that people work better with those they know and have developed a relationship with. That's a challenge for us in Alaska. We spent an inordinate amount of time developing credibility.
Q: How successful were we?
Both Wings worked to put together a counterproposal. Essentially, our approach was: "Look, wing commanders know best as to the proper composition of their wings; let the wing commanders take a swing at this."
In June, we met with the new deputy director, Brigadier General Sid Clarke. Both wings explained to him our vision for meeting the end state of about 2,000 people in the Alaska Air National Guard. We took the Reset approach, saying: "If we had 2,000 people in the AKANG -- so many officers, and so many enlisted -- how would we distribute them and what would we be able to do? How many full-timers and how many traditionals do we need to meet our UTC requirements to deploy and also to make the home station work?"
After the meeting, our proposal then went back to the staff, where it did battle with the unworkable vision we had been presented with.
Q: So it met with some resistance?
Remember, NGB staff have the big picture to think about. They're working not only with Alaska, but also West Virginia and Florida and Texas, and they have to fair in addition to being "right." They have to make the manpower balance nationwide. Our task in June was to convince General Clarke that this was the best possible solution. If it is, then he can go back to General McKinley and say "You know, sir, this is the best possible solution. Even though it's different, we can explain why Alaska is being treated differently than the other wings. It's because Alaska is different."
Ultimately, we were successful in making the case that we are a unique case that merited a different approach. Because it's true! What other wing has an air control squadron, rescue squadrons and a couple of airlift squadrons? We are unique. Now we face the challenge of developing a plan and approach that takes that into account.
Q: What about the mission side of the "missions vs. manpower" equation?
Statewide, the Alaska wings have 2300 positions, but 300 of those are vacant. We can't fool ourselves into acting like we're a force of 2,300 people when in fact we're a force of 1,970. We can't spread an additional 330 positions worth of work around. We'll hurt our people by working them too hard and spreading them too thin.
General Hart's priority is to ensure that the size of the force matches the missions we're being asked to do. What pieces of the mission might we have to give up so that we can be fully successful -- and part of that means fully manned -- at the things we do? That's what General Hart, General McManus and General Campbell are working out with NGB, moving the focus from rightsizing manpower to rightsizing the mission.
Q: General Hart considers recruiting and retention a top priority. How did we do in 2007?
The successes are easy to see. We have a very good retention rate, which speaks to the fact that we're a healthy wing. By and large, when our people have the opportunity to re-enlist and extend, they do, and that's great news. We also have a great recruiting team: award-winning, high producers. One thing we've done that's been very productive is to establish offices out at Elmendorf, so that when active-duty airmen separate, they can very easily talk to our recruiters.
Our challenges are a reduced population with many people off the road system. We don't have the kind of recruiting reach that the Army Guard does, because the Army has armories in many smaller communities. Frankly, it can be difficult for someone who lives in King Salmon to be a member of the AKANG. It's not as hard for them to be a member of the ARNG.
That said, tradition also plays a role. Many Alaska Natives want to be part of the Alaska National Guard, and they have a family tradition directing them toward the Army Guard. We see that as a positive: Doing more and better outreach efforts to people in these communities is an area where we can improve recruiting results. But these things take time -- decades, if we're talking about changing family traditions -- to deliver results.
Q: And now we face competition from the Air Force Reserve.
The F-22 program over at Elmendorf will have an Air Force Reserve associate, the Reserve's first serious presence in Alaska. This represents a real change for our recruiters, because the people we would like to recruit not only have the Army Guard as an alternative; now they have the Reserve as well. And let's face it: Working on an F-22 can sound pretty sexy to a recruit. It's not an insurmountable challenge, but having a Reserve component in town is not going to make it easier for us in the recruiting arena.
Q: Speaking of our future neighbors, how is our BRAC process coming along?
Something that's been a real success for us, and a pleasant surprise, is the MilCon
aspect -- which is to say, the money for military construction -- of the BRAC process. Typically, MilCon projects kind of scrape along in fits and starts, with Guard Bureau releasing a little bit of money here to get you started, and a little there for other phases of construction. This makes it difficult to plan because you're always wondering: "If we don't get the next payment, will we need to adjust the project?"
It's different with BRAC, and frankly it's been great. We got our design money -- more than $9 million -- and almost $144 million in construction, and that money is available to us on schedule. That's allowed us to move at a terrific pace, not only planning and surveying but actually moving dirt and preparing for construction. With the onset of winter, of course, construction is limited, but we're doing a lot of work focusing on design. The engineering team has spent a tremendous amount of time talking to the Maintenance Group, for example, about designing their facility, because it is huge -- and immensely important -- and they want to make sure they get it right.
Q: What impact will BRAC have on our Guard identity?
We have a great culture right now. When we look at moving to Elmendorf, we'll have to determine what it is we're doing right, and what as a culture we're leaving behind. Quite frankly, we've been very good about improving our culture as we've faced significant challenges. We care for each other. We're the best at what we do. We're a professional organization that gets things done. We feel good about that.
When we get to Elmendorf, the kind of identity we want is: "We are the pros. We are the people with the experience, knowledge and skill. We get stuff done. We do with five people what it takes any other organization 15 to do." And what we've found, in talking with other units in similar positions, is that achieving that kind of reputation is absolutely doable. What we don't want is to be perceived as a "tenant." We want to be partners. And that's going to require specific attention from the senior NCOs, especially the chiefs; and from the senior officers, especially the Wing command. We're moving on to their turf, and we want to quickly dispel the idea that it's "their" turf.
Q: Ultimately, what will integration look like?
We are a more adult force than the active component. The things that motivate our people -- being older and more experienced -- are different than the things that motivate theirs. We need to have our "old guys" respect the youth and ingenuity of the active component; and in turn, the young, hard-charging airmen in the active component will very quickly recognize our skill and expertise. A healthy rivalry is fine; it engenders a competition that makes us all better.
Functionally, we'll be just fine. We are the Guard; we get stuff done. You put us in tents in Khandahar, or in shipping containers at Bagram, we get it done. Getting along with others is the part we have to adjust to.
Q: Between the C-17s, the Air National Guard Reset and BRAC, 2007 was a big year. What about the things that didn't make the news? What are you most proud of?
That despite all the big stuff - or I should say, in addition to it - we've done so well on the little things. We had a great Operation Santa; the Air Control Squadron dealt with a bunch of Russian muscle-flexing; we hosted a conference for all state TAGs; and we did well on inspections and a variety of other things. Every single day our people got up, went to work and made the donuts: flying and fixing airplanes, saving lives, taking people to and from the war zone. And they're very good donuts.