ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. -- The Air Force Reserve is celebrating 20 years as a major command this month. On Feb. 17, 1997, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman presided over a ceremony in Washington, D.C., that established Air Force Reserve Command as the Air Force’s ninth major command. Prior to that date, the Reserve functioned as a field operating agency or a separate operating agency.
Dr. James Malachowski, Air Force Reserve Command’s historian, said elevating the Reserve from a field operating agency to a major command was a key milestone in the organization’s history.
“Becoming a major command was huge for the Reserve, but if you want to talk about why we became a MAJCOM, you really have to go back to the Gulf War,” he said. “The Gulf War fundamentally changed the way the Reserve operated.”
Malachowski said that before the Gulf War in 1991, the Reserve was primarily focused on organizing, training and equipping its people and units for possible contingencies. With the start of the war, the Reserve began providing combat-ready forces to fly, fight and win directly to the warfighter while still paying close attention to its responsibility of organizing, training and equipping.
“By the mid-1990s, Congress started to see the difference in the way the Reserve was operating and understand that the Air Force needed more reliable access to the Air Force Reserve,” he said.
On Sept. 23, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the fiscal year 1997 National Defense Authorization Act into law. This act included language that directed each of the military services to establish reserve commands. The act further directed the secretary of the Air Force to “assign to the Air Force Reserve Command all forces of the Air Force Reserve stationed in the continental United States” other than those assigned to the unified Special Operations Command.
U.S. Rep. Greg Laughlin of Texas led the call for Congress to grant major command status to the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine reserve components. And while Laughlin lost his seat before this idea became law, it was largely his concept and terminology that appeared in the FY 1997 NDAA.
Since the Reserve had been acting as an operational force for several years before achieving major command status, the transition to a major command had very little effect on the internal organization or the day-to-day operation of the headquarters, located at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia.
In fact, Maj. Gen. Robert A. McIntosh, AFRC commander in 1997, said most people wouldn’t notice any changes.
“The Air Force has always, in effect, treated the Reserve as a command,” he said. “However, this action formalizes in law our role as a proud partner in the total force.”
The law did require realignment of the Air Reserve Personnel Center in the command’s structure. ARPC was realigned from the Office of Air Force Reserve in the Pentagon to AFRC and, in the process, the status of ARPC was changed from an Air Force field operating agency to a major command direct reporting unit.
AFRC did get a new emblem when it became a major command, but the change was minor. The wording on the emblem changed from “Air Force Reserve” to “Air Force Reserve Command,” but the basic design stayed the same.
Before AFRC became a major command, Reservists wore the patch of their gaining major command on their flight suits and battle dress uniforms. Some people hoped that the new AFRC patch would replace those gaining major command patches. McIntosh said no.
“We will continue to wear the gaining major command patch on the front of flight suits and fatigues,” he said. “If we stop wearing the patches of the gaining commands, there will be a perception that the seamless daily operations enjoyed today have somehow changed. Our reputation as unquestionable team players is extremely important as we compete for resources into the next century.”
While the elevation to major command status didn’t have much of an impact on the day-to-day operation of the Air Force Reserve, Malachowski said he believes Feb. 17, 1997 is a seminal moment in Reserve history.
“The whole way of American warfare from Colonial times was to have a small standing army and volunteers ready to fill the ranks during times of need,” he said. “That all changed with the first Gulf War when we became a Reserve force that was operational as well as strategic. We’ve continued to operate that way to this very day. By elevating the Air Force Reserve to major command status, the National Defense Act of 1997 cemented a major change in the way the Reserve operates.”