What the Air Force Can Learn from FedEx

Over the last year or so, there has been increased chatter about the Active and Reserve Component—or AC/RC in military lingo —mix of the U.S. armed forces. This has happened, in large part, because as the defense budget shrinks, the components feel compelled to compete for diminishing resources. Hence, the AC/RC mix hubbub which generated a Congressionally mandated National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force (NCSAF), and which may soon generate the same for the Army, if not for all the other military services. NCSAF released its report to the President and the Armed Services Committees earlier this year, after conducting an analysis to identify a structure for the Air Force that will achieve “an appropriate balance between the regular [or active] and reserve components of the Air Force, taking advantage of the unique strengths and capabilities of each.”  Finding the right “AC/RC mix” is offered as the holy grail of military force management. I would like to suggest that we are on the wrong quest.

Despite all the talk, truly mixing the military services’ ACs and RCs is impossible, because each component in each service is an institution unto itself, with its own constituency and political support. In fact, NCSAF was established primarily because of the National Guard’s support in Congress, not because Congress was so deeply interested in the details of Air Force structure. Instead of talking about mixing the Regular Air Force, Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard, we should be talking about integrating the components by mixing a labor force of full-time and part-time help, labor which only currently and unnecessarily resides in separate institutions called the AC and the RC. We can no longer afford the Air Force’s current complexity and inefficiency, political and otherwise. My proposal: the Air Force should be more like FedEx.

The Christmas Lesson

According to Title 10 United States Code (USC) § 8075, the Regular Air Force, or Active Component, is, “the component of the Air Force that consists of persons whose continuous service on active duty in both peace and war is established by law.” According to Title 10 USC §10102, “the purpose of each reserve component is to provide trained units and qualified persons available for active duty in the armed forces, in time of war or national emergency, and at such other times as the national security may require, to fill the needs of the armed forces whenever more units and persons are needed than are in the regular components. ” This means full-time/part-time. Like FedEx.

To wit: FedEx has a permanent full-time staff in the FedEx “Active Component,” but only as much as they need every day, all year long. They also have a “Reserve Component,” which consists of part-time help (akin to drilling “one weekend a month and two weeks a year”) and temporary seasonal full-time help (similar to being “activated”). Some of FedEx’s RC help first served in the FedEx AC, and then separated and transitioned to the RC—a nice return on AC investments. Some of that RC help is right off the street at Christmas time, especially where the tasks require little or no training. These we can call non-prior service RC accessions. And some of that RC help has FedEx experience they got after coming right off the street last Christmas—a nice return on RC investments.

We can no longer afford the Air Force’s current complexity and inefficiency, political and otherwise. My proposal: the Air Force should be more like FedEx.

Or consider this: If 1) the shipping demand were high enough, 2) the labor supply low enough, and 3) FedEx could get away with it, the company might even choose to get seasonal help with a “draft”. No recruiting expenses, no labor shortage. In the absence of politics and all kinds of other constraints in the real world, a draft would provide FedEx with the perfect kind of just-in-time part-time help, especially if they could be choosy about those they drafted. But, even then, the only important labor force distinction at FedEx would still be the simple difference between full-time and part-time help. In fact, these two portions of the FedEx labor force are not currently and never would be separate components at all. That would be unnecessary complexity.

What I’ve called FedEx’s AC consists of those persons whose continuous service on active, full-time duty in both holiday and non-holiday periods are established by good business practice. What I have called FedEx’s RC adds to the company’s full-time labor force by providing qualified persons available for part-time and temporary full-time duty, in time of national holiday or business emergency, and at such other times as customer demand may require, to fill the needs of FedEx whenever more persons are needed than are in the continuously serving full-time force.

Sound familiar? It is full-time/part-time, much as Title 10 envisions it applying to the Air Force.

Imagine On-Call Pilots

FedEx would like to live in a world where it needs all kinds of permanent full-time help to meet sustained Christmas-like demand all year round. But none of us wants to live in a world where we need permanent, full-time military help all the time. In fact, if the strategic situation allowed, especially, but not only in times of fiscal constraint like the current day, our national leadership should rely on a draft and no standing military, either full-time or part-time.

As John Lennon sang: Imagine there’s no countries. It isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too.

I am glad to do away with the things to kill or die for, but let us keep the countries for now. In this imaginary world with countries, but with all the people somehow living life in peace, we’d expect some strategic warning before things got bad enough for us to need a significant military force. We’d also expect the pop-up fights to be low tech, with tasks that require little or no training. As a result, we could draft most of our military labor force right off the street when we need it, and we could quickly release that drafted force when the need expired. Because we all have other things we’d rather bankroll with our shared national treasure, we should have as small a military as practical—and none would be nice. Even if the strategic situation requires a standing military, as much of our military as practical should be part-time/on-call—and all part-time or on-call would be ideal. This would be the militia as America’s founding fathers intended to be, with volunteer warfighters serving like a small town’s volunteer firefighters. The kind of world that would allow such a thing would be awesome.

Now Back to Reality

The strategic situation in the real world, however, clearly requires the U.S. maintain a standing military and limits how much of that military can be part-time/on-call, mostly based on mission types and the associated predictability, response times, duty locations, and training requirements. Some missions can be all part-time/on-call. For example, those with low or no steady state demand; predictable periodic demand; short duty duration; long response times, even in emergencies; local duty/no overseas presence; and low or no tech, and/or close parallels to civilian skillsets. Returning to our FedEx analogy, think of this as the warehouse handling of Christmas packages.

Some missions should be mostly or all full-time, such as those with high steady state demand; unpredictable exigent demand; long duty duration; short response times; no local duty or enduring overseas presence; and high tech with demanding training currencies, and/or no close parallels to civilian skillsets. Think of this as daily global priority delivery by air. Missions where demand periodically spikes over and above steady state should have a full-time/part-time mix, with the appropriate mix determined by the size of the spike over steady state, and the associated predictability, response times, duty locations and training requirements. Think of this as domestic Christmas package delivery by ground.

The greater the steady state demand, the larger the full-time labor force needed. The greater the difference between steady state demand and surge, the greater the appropriate part-time/on-call shares of the total labor force can reasonably be, assuming the part-timers can be ready to go on time for their share of the mission. But the greater the size of the part-time labor force—and the greater the complexity of the work the total labor force has to do—the more full-time management you need to lead the force, even if much of the labor can be done part-time/on-call.

Speaking of management takes us back to the military’s institutional separation of its AC/full-time labor force and its RC/part-time labor force. This is something FedEx would never do, because, like spending money on military force structure we do not need, institutionally separating FedEx’s full-time and part-time labor would be a poor decision. All the military services currently integrate their full-time and part-time members to some extent, but everyone does it primarily via partnering separate AC and RC organizations, with lots of management overhead within both the AC and RC institutions. The Air Force has taken this a step further by creating AC and RC organizational partnerships called Total Force Integration Associations. These associations eliminate some of the local overhead, but the institutional “reachback” to separate AC and RC headquarters is still there.

We have justified this reachback by saying part-timers are fundamentally different from full-timers, and that each component of the labor force therefore needs dedicated managers/commanders who understand what makes their portions of the labor force unique. FedEx does not divide its management and human resources programs between professionals who understand only the part-time labor force and others who understand only the full-time force. If the law allowed, neither would General Mike Hostage, the Air Force’s four-star General in charge of Air Combat Command (ACC). ACC is responsible for organizing, training and equipping combat-ready forces for air combat operations. Think primarily fighter jets and bombers, which, as it turns out, both have a healthy mix of full-time and part-time personnel.

For the past couple of years, General Hostage has been talking about how he believes the full-time and part-time portions of the ACC labor pool should be organized for their shared missions within integrated squadrons with one shared boss per squadron, group, wing and base. In military terms, General Hostage wants his organizations to operate not just with the benefit of “unity of effort,” but with the added advantage of true “unity of command.” Air Force doctrine explains it this way: “Airpower’s operational-level perspective calls for unity of command to gain the most effective and efficient application. Coordination may be achieved by cooperation; it is, however, best achieved by vesting a single commander with the authority and the capability to direct all force employment in pursuit of a common objective.”

Pushing to this ideal end-state would integrate full-timers and part-timers who would be directed to work together as needed, without any institutional component divisions or the associated management challenges—like FedEx.

A Better Future

We need to reinvent the Air Force to look a lot more like FedEx, as a fully integrated combination of full-time and part-time airmen who are all simply either on-duty or off-duty. They should be managed within the same integrated organizations, where the full-time and part-time shares of the labor force are determined by how full-time and part-time labor fits each mission type and that mission’s demand. From a Total Force management perspective this integration would come with all kinds of benefits. Consider only the value in being able to augment stressed squadrons with direct-hire “seasonal” help like FedEx does, but with the incredibly rich part-time talent pool currently in the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard. Today we can address this kind of stress only by activating entire RC organizations.

We can no longer afford the Air Force’s current complexity and inefficiency. The U.S. armed forces need to move past the inflexibility and dysfunction designed into their current multi-component frameworks, because, at the end of the day, we are not talking about delivering on-line purchases like FedEx. We are talking about delivering national security.

Returning to John Lennon: Imagine there’s no components. It isn’t hard to do

[Photo courtesy of Beverly & Pack via Flickr Commons]


After retiring as an Air Force colonel in 2013, Eric Jorgensen served the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force as a Senior Research Analyst. In his final military assignment, Eric was Chief of the Total Force Enterprise Management division in the Air Force Directorate of Strategic Planning in the Pentagon. He is a pilot with more than 4,000 military flying hours in aircraft including the F-111F, the F-15E, and the KC-135R.



  1. LtCol Thomas 6 August, 2014 at 12:27 Reply

    The idea that an entire unit has to be activated is long dead in practice. Many people volunteer as needed on a request basis. I currently sit in Germany on AD but am a “traditional” (that term is laughable too) guardsman from a unit in the SE CONUS.

    • Eric A. Jorgensen 7 August, 2014 at 01:00 Reply

      I’m curious if LtCol Thomas is augmenting an AC unit or a headquarters. Headquarters augmentation by individual RC members happens all the time with good effects. Unit augmentation happens on occasion, but it is far from standard practice, with all kinds of impediments standing in the way.

  2. James Brown 6 August, 2014 at 19:45 Reply

    So is the Congress changing the U.S.C. Title 10 and Title 32 to support a different relationship or are we going to continue with this sine wave of adhocracy that dances around law until one party or the other doesn’t get what they want and complains?

    • Eric A. Jorgensen 8 August, 2014 at 11:33 Reply

      By definition, everything any of us ever does begins as “ad hocery,” until we standardize it and codify it. But that is not reason to cast stones or cause for despair. The thousands and thousands of lines in the current US Code are proof that Congress knows how to codify and recodify, even to a fault. And the Air Force leads the way among the military services in experimenting with and then standardizing and codifying new and improved Total Force policy. An even brighter future awaits.

    • Mike M. 20 August, 2014 at 18:41 Reply

      Comparing the Air Force to a delivery company really is a poor analogy, because the issue is much larger than part time and full time status employees. If you really want to use a business analogy it would be more appropriate to compare the Department of Defense to a large International Conglomerate such as GM, that needs to be restructured to streamline their operations.

      It’s also time we stop looking at one service only and consider reform across the entire Department of Defense. We need to look from the top down at every organization and eliminate the waste and redundancy that has built up over the last 70 years since the end of World War II.

      It would be a long process and involve shutting down a number of organizations and eliminating many facilities and personnel, but it needs to be done.
      These are some questions our senior leadership needs to address include:
      •Do we actually need to be structured the same way we have been since the end of World War II?
      •Do we really need all the organizations under the DoD umbrella that are often performing the same function?
      •Do we need separate services?
      •Do we need separate active and reserve components and the national guard?
      •Do we need all the supporting organizations?

      The toughest challenge for the DoD is to admit that the Cold War has been over for over 20 years, the Korean war ended over 60 years ago and it’s been 70 years since the end of World War II, which means it’s time to reconsider our roles in NATO and our overseas bases and deployments to Europe, South Korea and Japan. It’s time we let Europe, South Korea and Japan stand on their own as sovereign nations should. That doesn’t mean we can’t be allies or continue joint training, but there is no rational reason to have US military facilities in Europe, South Korea and Japan in 2014.
      To that end the units overseas can be deactivated with personnel transferred to other units. Shutting down overseas operations would be part of the overall restructuring and reduction in force, the bases and support facilities can be handed over to the host nation or sold if their associated costs were not already being subsidized. Equipment at these facilities that would fall qualify under foreign military sales, could also be sold to the host nation and incorporated into their active/reserve units or put into long term storage. A separate issue is that the members of NATO need to re-evaluate the organization’s purpose in 2014 and beyond and whether or not it needs to be reorganized, reduce its operations or be shut down all together.

      Our bases in the Middle East and Africa also need to be reevaluated and while it is in our global interests to promote stability in both regions, it may be time to take a back stage and let our allies lead that charge, while we provide assistance as required.

      On the home front, It’s time for a top down review of every organization that falls under the prevue of the DoD.

      Many people are not aware that the DoD is more than just the service components Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corp(which includes active, reserves and national guard) and includes four national intelligence services: the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the National Security Agency (NSA), the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), other Defense Agencies including: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute (AFRRI), Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA), Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA), Defense Contract Management Agency (DCMA), Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS), Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), Defense Legal Services Agency, Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) , Defense Security Service (DSS), Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC), the Pentagon Force Protection Agency (PFPA) as well as the National Defense University (NDU) and the National War College (NWC) just to name a few.

      We’re a joint integrated force now and the services generally do not act alone in military operations anymore so perhaps it’s time to consider a new organizational model

      Maybe it’s time we eliminate the separate services and simply have the United States Defense Force (USDF) or United States Military (USM), I don’t really care which name/acronym that’s chosen, but the point is, it’s time to reduce the waste of having 4 separate everything from entry level training , technical training, support functions and everything else that is replicated 4 times over, with separate services.

      Just for the record I served in the Air Force for 15 years, (Active, Reserve and Air National Guard) and support my service, but it’s time for some serious changes on how we do business.

      If we went with the USDF model, we could simply have two missions 1) Homeland Defense, 2) Overseas Operations

      We would have a small active force and large reserve component consisting of traditional reservists who do drill once a month and annual training, but also an inactive force that has completed basic training as well as job specific training, but would only be called up in times of crisis, they would check in once a year to ensure they are still fit for duty. We’re eliminating the national guard.

      We still need naval units, air units and ground units, however we’re eliminating the services and redundancy.
      The Navy and Coast Guard would merge
      The Marine Corp and Army would be eliminated, we would simply have infantry and special operations
      There is no need for an air force, naval aviation, marine corp and army aviation units, there will be an air branch
      There will be one defense intelligence branch
      There will be one military service academy and war college
      There will be one defense research lab
      There will be one common military entrance and processing facility and recruiting as well as basic training
      Supporting functions, supply, medical, legal, law enforcement, all merged from the separate services into a support branch, some functions such as finance and services could simply be contracted out, there is no need to have military personnel in these positions. The same with Legal and Medical fields, these would be reserve positions, were attorney and doctors, etc could work as needed and maintain their civilian practices.

      all space launch facilities would fall under NASA, there is no need to run duplicate facilities for military and commercial use.

      Instead of single service bases, we can simply have joint facilities, eliminating the need for several hundred bases in the US and overseas

      While we will have a much smaller active force, there will be a large reserve component, creating more opportunities to recruit the best talent for each position.

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