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Research Questions

  1. Did the Air Force achieve the 20-percent reduction in management headquarters cost and end strength planned for fiscal year (FY) 2015?
  2. What are some opportunities for additional saving and staff reduction?
  3. How does the methodology and approach used by the Air Force to make headquarters reductions compare with government and industry best practices?

The U.S. Department of Defense is one of the world's largest employers, with more than 1 million men and women on active duty and hundreds of thousands of civilian personnel. To control costs, the government has implemented several initiatives over time to adjust personnel levels, reduce spending outright, and streamline management. In this report, RAND researchers analyze several issues related to direction from the Secretary of Defense in 2013 to reduce headquarters spending by 20 percent and to strive for 20-percent reductions in headquarters staff authorizations. Specifically, they assess whether the Air Force achieved a 20-percent reduction in headquarters spending and personnel end strength by fiscal year 2015 (when compared with plans for fiscal year 2018); compare the Air Force's methodology and approach to reductions with practices from literature and industry, focusing on organizational design, process improvement, consulting practices, and sound management practices; and identify opportunities for further reductions.

The authors conclude that the Air Force did indeed achieve its planned 20-percent reduction in spending and end strength, and that all major commands contributed to those savings. In addition, they found that the Air Force's approach to reducing its headquarters management functions included many sound practices, such as identifying improved business processes that streamline information flow and eliminate work, eliminating or combining redundant organizations, and ensuring that work is conducted at an appropriate organizational level.

Key Findings

The Air Force Achieved Its 20-Percent Reduction Goal and Used Sound Practices

  • We determined that the Air Force did achieve the 20-percent reductions in spending and end strength when using a technical count of positions coded with program element codes ending in 98. And all major commands contributed to the reductions.
  • The Air Force approach to reducing its headquarters management functions included some examples of sound practices, such as identifying improved business processes that streamline information flow and eliminate work, eliminating or combining redundant organizations, and ensuring work is conducted at an appropriate organizational level. However, sound practices were not applied consistently across the Air Force; different major commands employed different strategies with differing results.
  • We found that while additional opportunities to reduce major headquarters activities may exist, no areas stand out as immediate targets. Major commands have already eliminated low-priority activities and are currently addressing the residual adverse effects from those reductions. Process reengineering and other efficiencies identified during previous reduction efforts can provide targets for future reductions, but they will take time and detailed analyses from the Air Force.


  • Looking to the future, core organizational design principles may offer targets of opportunity for future Air Force reductions. If the Air Force were to focus on consolidating like missions and using a matrix management approach to achieve economies of scale, several opportunities may be worth further evaluation. In addition, if the Air Force were to focus on opportunities to eliminate duplication and non–value added processes, it may find more opportunities for savings.
  • Any initiative to reduce or streamline Air Force functions should be based on maintaining focus on the Air Force's strategic goals to ensure that organizational, process, or other changes do not lead to inefficient or ineffective processes or organizational structures.
  • Before the next round of reductions, Headquarters Air Force should specify the strategic direction and approach to be used in the process. Whatever the approach may be, detailed process reengineering and analysis of options takes time. And there needs to be a senior leadership governance council appointed to oversee the process. Transparency of process and strategic communications will be essential to the success of any reorganization or reduction.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was prepared for the United States Air Force and conducted by RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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