March Air Reserve Base: A Glimpse into a Fiscally Responsible Future

  • Published
  • By Col. Samuel Mahaney
  • former 452nd Air Mobility Wing commander
With the gloom of negotiations in Washington, D.C. over budget and fiscal policy issues, our nation could sure use a shining example of how to conduct government business in a fiscally responsible way. Such an example exists right here in the Inland Empire at March Air Reserve Base (ARB), Calif.
March ARB functions with a fiscal efficiency that few installations can match. Our military units fly more than 31,000 hours per year at a fraction of the cost of air bases that use a more traditional model to fly a similar number of hours. That is because our model is far from traditional. Rather than having a traditional reliance on personnel serving on continuous Active Duty orders, our model relies almost exclusively on Reserve and National Guard personnel. The 8,500 men and women of March ARB are by-in-large NOT full-time Department of Defense (DOD) employees. Even so, they flawlessly carry out Global Reach, Nuclear Deterrence, Homeland Defense, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance operations. These operations are conducted by an Air Force Reserve wing flying and maintaining C-17 airlift and KC-135 air refueling aircraft; a California Air National Guard wing and detachment flying and maintaining the MQ-1 Predator and F-16 fighter aircraft; an Active Duty flying squadron operating and maintaining KC-135 air refueling aircraft; a worldwide deployable combat camera squadron; Homeland Security operations; and a deployment center that has deployed and re-deployed more than 378,000 Marines from Camp Pendleton during the past seven years.
The problem with the traditional model used at other air bases is that personnel serving on continuous Active Duty orders are paid 100 percent of the time, even when not training for, or executing, the mission. The lack of a "fiscal-switch" to flip when a military member's mission requirements are reduced makes the traditional model ripe for reevaluation. I believe tighter budgets and fiscal austerity warrant a closer look at the March ARB model to develop an even greater cost-effective reliance on Reserve and National Guard forces.
This is not to say that long-term Active Duty status should be a thing of the past. Many missions require large numbers of personnel on continuous Active Duty orders. The blend of Reserve, Guard, Active Duty, civilian and contractor personnel at March ARB, however, demonstrates that Active Duty personnel need not make up the majority of an operating base. At March ARB they account for less than 20 percent of the total force.
I call this cost-efficient blending of Reserve, National Guard and Active Duty statuses the Reserve-Led Total Force Enterprise (RTFE). The overriding reason RTFE works is simple: our Reservists or Guardsmen are (1) executing the mission, (2) are training for the execution of the mission, or (3) are off the federal payroll. It is no wonder a January 2013 report by the Reserve Forces Policy Board determined the cost of a Reserve component member is roughly 78 percent less than his or her Active Duty counterpart. While Reserve forces account for 39 percent of military end strength, they consume only 16 percent of the total Department of Defense budget. It goes without saying that in today's fiscal climate, savings matter.
Fiscal responsibility is just one benefit of the RTFE. Air Reserve and Air National Guard forces are generally more experienced than their Active Duty counterparts. They maintain the same readiness level as military members in a long-term Active Duty status. These experienced and fully trained Airmen consistently rotate in and out of our nation's military missions. They are capable of short-notice execution of the mission in less than 72 hours, providing maximum flexibility and responsiveness when called to duty.
As military action in Afghanistan draws to a close, there is talk of reducing DOD spending by reducing the number of military members serving our nation. While this approach could potentially produce savings by reducing personnel costs, it would also degrade the nation's operational capability and strategic surge capacity by reducing the overall size of our military. This is not the answer. Instead, we should preserve the overall size of our military while being fiscally responsible by transitioning to the blend of forces offered by RTFE bases like March ARB where the future TRULY is now.

(Colonel Samuel "Bo" Mahaney is the former installation commander of March Air Reserve Base and the 452d Air Mobility Wing commander. He has taught as an Adjunct Professor of Fiscal Law at Georgetown University Law Center, is a former Harvard National Security Fellow and is a former Air Force Legislative Fellow. The opinions expressed above are his own and do not represent the Air Force or the Air Force Reserve.)