Air Force Overhaul Plan that Brings Back Warrant Officers Draws Scrutiny from Capitol Hill

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall
Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall gives closing thoughts on reoptimizing for great power competition during a fireside chat with Air and Space Forces Association President Bruce Wright at the 2024 Warfare Symposium in Aurora, Colo., Feb. 14, 2024. (U.S. Air Force photo by Eric Dietrich)

The Air Force's much ballyhooed plan to restructure its forces to better compete with China is facing congressional scrutiny.

A bipartisan agreement to fund the Pentagon for the remainder of this fiscal year that was approved by Congress early Saturday morning included a demand from lawmakers for more answers from the Air Force about its proposed reorganization.

Specifically, in the report accompanying the Pentagon spending bill, lawmakers called on the Air Force to answer an array of questions before it spends any money on the reorganization effort and directed the Government Accountability Office to study the proposal. While bill reports are technically non-binding -- meaning they don't have the force of law -- defense officials typically abide by them.

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"To date, the Department of the Air Force has not provided thorough justification for this reorganization, a comprehensive implementation plan or detailed budgetary information necessary for the subcommittees to assess this plan," the report said, referring to the House and Senate Appropriations subcommittees in charge of Pentagon spending.

In one of the most sweeping changes in their history, Air Force and Space Force officials announced last month at the Air and Space Forces Association's Warfare Symposium on Feb. 12 that they are renaming, reorganizing and rethinking their services' structures so airmen and Guardians can be ready for competition with China.

The announced changes included bringing back warrant officers for cyber jobs -- a plan first reported by -- as well as changes to training, and renaming and reorganizing many of the structures of the Department of the Air Force, which Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has said is necessary as China prepares for war in the Pacific and, potentially, against the U.S. military.

Overall, 24 different changes were unveiled: 16 for the Air Force, five for the Space Force and three for the entire Department of the Air Force.

Some of the changes announced were specific and short-term goals aimed to happen within a year, while a majority were vague renaming and rebranding efforts aimed at "great power competition," Defense Department terms for escalating defense spending, operational strategy and overall resources against other nation-state adversaries.

The congressional report designates funding for the reorganization as a "congressional special interest item," meaning lawmakers are asking for any effort by the Air Force to shuffle around its fiscal 2024 funding to pay for the reorganization to trigger a notification to Congress so relevant committees can give their approval before the funding is moved.

The notification should answer how the changes differ from the Air Force structure right now; what each phase of the plan is and the cost estimates for each phase; whether new offices will need to be set up with a strategic basing process; how the changes will affect military and civilian jobs, broken down by location; and whether moving the money affects other Air Force programs, according to the bill report.

Department of the Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek did not directly respond to questions Monday asking whether the service planned to reprogram any fiscal 2024 funds for the reorganization plan, if it needs congressional approval to go ahead with the plans, or if it changes the implementation of the new warrant officer program.

"As the Department of the Air Force develops implementation plans, leaders will continue to share information with congressional staffs," Stefanek said in an emailed statement Monday.

Kendall said last month when announcing the reorganization that most of the changes are being done within the existing structures and were created to "minimize cost," adding that there's nothing in the 2024 or 2025 budget right now to assist with the new strategies and offices.

"We have nothing in the '24 or '25 budget for any of these changes," he said at AFA last month. "There's a possibility that we'll have some funds in '26."

In addition to requesting answers from the Air Force, the bill report also directs the Government Accountability Office, which is essentially Congress' in-house nonpartisan watchdog, to study the planned reorganization.

The GAO investigation should take 180 days and look at, among other factors, cost estimates; how long it will take to implement the plan; what success will be defined as; whether feedback from combatant commanders was considered; and how the reorganization could affect joint and coalition forces, the report said.

While relatively low on the menu of actions Congress could take to dial up pressure on the Air Force or pump the brakes on the plan, the bill report signals that lawmakers in both parties have outstanding questions about what would be one of the most significant overhauls of Air Force structure in the service's history.

The reorganization has already received some criticism, namely in response to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Allvin stating that the plan is "not best optimized" for the Middle East, reported.

Related: In Major Overhaul, Air Force and Space Force Will Roll Out New Ranks, Training, Structure to Compete with China

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