A Government Accountability Office report on mobilizing Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard airmen in support of special operations missions found shortcomings in the way that Air Force Special Operations Command handles those mobilizations. The study, released last month, was mandated by Congress in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act.
WASHINGTON — The Hurlburt Field-headquartered Air Force Special Operations Command needs to improve the way it handles mobilization of Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard airmen to support its missions, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office.
But at the same time, the federal report calls the Reserve and Guard to task for not effectively communicating information on the units and individuals available to AFSOC for involuntary mobilization or volunteer service.
Preparation of the report, mandated by Congress in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act and released last month after 16 months of work, included interviews with AFSOC, Guard and Reserve officials, along with representatives of several individual Guard and Reserve units.
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Among the concerns noted in the report is an AFSOC practice of communicating directly with Reserve and Guard units rather than going through the command structure to develop requests for the use of Guard or Reserve airmen. That practice impedes the ability of the Guard and Reserve to manage units targeted informally by AFSOC, Guard and Reserve officials told the GAO team.
In defense of its direct communication with Reserve and Guard units, officials with AFSOC told GAO that “communicating informally with the units to determine the availability of their personnel and capabilities enables AFSOC to expedite the identification of personnel potentially available to meet a requirement.”
But AFSOC officials did concede that informal communication, rather than working through Guard and Reserve command, “is not an ideal approach and could be improved.”
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A major reason for the difficulties between AFSOC and the Reserve and Guard units, noted in the GAO report, is AFSOC’s reliance on those units “to support operational needs and provide strategic depth to meet potential future contingencies.” Over the past decade, according to the GAO report, the Air Force “has increasingly relied on the (Guard and Reserve) to meet requirements for ongoing operations.“
That creates problems for the Guard and Reserve because those units, comprised of people who hold civilian jobs, need more time than active-duty units to train for missions.
In speaking with GAO personnel, Reserve and Guard officials stressed “the importance of having timely and reliable information on demands for their capabilities to ensure that units are fully prepared to meet mission needs.”
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According to the GAO report, one reason for the lack of timely and reliable information for Guard and Reserve units is that AFSOC does not have sufficient personnel dedicated to managing their mobilization.
Currently, according to the GAO report, AFSOC has just “a single individual ... responsible for managing the involuntary mobilizations ... .” Additionally, the single person does that work “as a secondary duty” and focuses on it “about half of one day in a work week,” the report states.
In the report, AFSOC acknowledges its shortfall in managing mobilizations, contending that its increasing reliance on Reserve and Guard troops during the last several years has “exposed the limitations of their capacity to manage involuntary mobilizations.”
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That issue could become more acute, the GAO report notes, “as the number of involuntary mobilizations quadruple by 2021, as estimated by AFSOC officials.”
Conversely, according to the report, the Guard and Reserve simply do not provide AFSOC with complete information on which of its units could support AFSOC’s need for special operations capabilities.
One reason for that, the report says, is that the Guard and Reserve have “historically supported special operations activities using volunteerism, which is more flexible and requires less up-front planning” than involuntary mobilizations.
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In the end, the GAO report recommends that the Secretary of the Air Force, working with the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve, should work to ensure that AFSOC moves toward boosting its ability to coordinate Guard and Reserve mobilizations.
Additionally, the report recommends that Guard and Reserve units develop a way to provide AFSOC with better information on units available for immediate and future deployment of special operations capabilities.
In letters attached to the report, the Department of Defense largely concurred with the recommendations.
The report, prepared for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Armed Services, is being distributed to a number of other congressional committees, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and the commanders of AFSOC, the Air Force Reserve, the Air National Guard and U.S. Special Operations Command.