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Research Questions

  1. How does the Air Force determine unit manning levels?
  2. What methods do other organizations use to do this, and what lessons do they have for the Air Force?
  3. What can the Air Force do to determine manpower needs more accurately and efficiently?

Determining manpower requirements is an important function of Air Force personnel management organizations. The Air Force has long had a detailed and complex process for accomplishing it. The Air Force asked RAND Project AIR FORCE to examine this process and to identify and evaluate options to increase its efficiency. The authors compared the process with equivalent processes in other services, local government, and industry, examining the literature and conducting interviews with practitioners. They also evaluated Air Force data and observed Air Force workshops and other activities. For example, the authors examined how manpower standards are set and applied to determine manning for various units, including such issues as availability and the effects of deployments. Among their findings were that the process lacks feedback loops to determine whether the standards are adequate and that the management engineering workforce is mostly nontechnical, with limited analytical education and expertise. The authors also found that manpower standards have minimal effect on resource programming, being applied mainly when first set but, even then, applying mostly to authorizations unlikely to be funded. The report also offers suggestions for ways to improve modeling of manpower standards, endorsing a survey approach similar to the one the Navy uses.

Key Findings

There are opportunities for improving the Air Force process for determining manpower standards

  • Multiple sources of measurement error and modeling deficiencies may cause imprecise estimates of manpower requirements.
  • Workshops for developing manpower standards have drawbacks, including the difficulty of obtaining a representative sample and the tendency to misestimate the time to complete a task.
  • Manpower studies in many cases are led by individuals without experience in the specific activity and who are often not in their positions long enough to gain expertise.
  • The standards that result from these studies mainly affect authorizations unlikely to be funded, but even then, changes to these authorizations are not always effected.
  • There is a lack of systematic feedback for determining whether manpower is adequate.

The best examples from other organizations were from Army force support functions and Navy shore installation functions

  • Collecting task time and frequency data virtually rather than in face-to-face workshops enables larger sample sizes, provides clearer instructions for estimations, and offers an opportunity to seek clarifications on outliers.
  • Holding functional managers responsible for their standards as observed in the Army and Navy could realize several advantages.


  • Professionalize the management engineering workforce by shifting more positions to civilians within the analytic job series.
  • Establish feedback loops to sense excessive overtime or underperformance.
  • Establish a dynamic pool of authorizations to draw additional personnel to units experiencing deployment rotations.
  • Adopt practices such as heavier reliance on virtual data collection.

Research conducted by

This research was commissioned by the U.S. Air Force and conducted within the Manpower, Personnel, and Training Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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