Air Force Judge Advocate Corps streamlines operations

WASHINGTON (AFPN) -- The Air Force's Judge Advocate General's Corps has a plan to optimize their operations for the 21st century, and move out on Air Force Smart Operations 21.

In a recent interview, Maj. Gen. Jack L. Rives, the Air Force's new judge advocate general, said the service's JAG Corps will begin transforming their own legal operations to better meet new Air Force requirements -- JAG Corps 21.

"The Air Force is making dramatic changes to posture itself for the future," General Rives said. "As part of that process, the chief of staff challenged the JAG Corps to redesign itself to complement Air Force initiatives and to transform legal operations to better align with new Air Force requirements.

"We can do this because the secretary and the chief have enabled us to be as agile as the most innovative private sector business," General Rives said.

One of the biggest JAG Corps changes will be development of field support centers in a number of key areas, including claims processing; education and information; operations and international law; labor law; contract law; contract litigation; and environmental law.

The most visible field support center for Airmen will be the claims field support center.

"Throughout the history of the Air Force, people have gone to the base legal office to file a household goods claim," General Rives said. "Currently, two or more claims specialists work at bases all across the Air Force. We will transform to one claims center to handle the personnel claims for Airmen throughout the Air Force."

Modeling the best practices from private industry, the general plans to consolidate claims expertise at one location, provide support 24 hours a day, and develop Internet-based claims processing programs with toll-free telephone access to better serve Airmen in the field. This will make it easier for Airmen to file their claims and ultimately, they will see payments in their accounts that much sooner.

General Rives expects the claims field support center to be fully operational as early as 2008.

The other field support centers will be located a various places throughout the Air Force and will be staffed by experts in particular legal fields.

"The FSC concept will enable us to move from a model where every wing legal office had to have experts in complicated areas of the law, to a model where base JAGs reach back to an FSC for tailored specialized advice," General Rives said.

The wing's chief lawyer -- the staff judge advocate -- will still have responsibility for providing legal advice on all matters to the wing commander and commanders in the field. His or her ability to provide this advice, however, will be enhanced by an immediate reachback capability to field support center manned with subject matter experts.

Legal experts at the centers will provide advice to lawyers at local JAG offices throughout the Air Force. As needed, they could also travel to bases to provide additional support on-site.

General Rives said the Air Force will begin work building the centers immediately.

Most of the changes planned under JAG Corps 21 will be invisible to Airmen and commanders, General Rives said. But all the changes will streamline and modernize the way Air Force JAGs do business.

One example is the elimination of the five field judiciary circuits, regional boundaries within which prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges try cases. Three circuits are in the United States and the others are in the Pacific and Europe. The geographic boundaries present unnecessary obstacles and overhead for the court-martial process. The JAG Corps 21 initiatives will eliminate these obstacles.

"We are doing away with the circuits because they are artificial boundaries," General Rives said. "Without those boundaries, we can use the judges and prosecutors where they are needed, in a more timely and efficient manner. We do it to a limited degree now, but by eliminating regional circuits, we can do it much more effectively."

Today, base JAG offices have a court reporter whose primary duty is to record court-marital activities. It is demanding and highly technical work. But if a base goes several months without a court-martial, the court reporter's specialty skills are not used.

The general said he believes the JAG Corps can better serve Air Force needs by consolidating the court reporters under the field operating agency that is aligned with the trial judiciary instead of individual wing legal offices.

"By centralizing control of court reporters and standardizing training and processes, we can get cases to trial sooner and speed up post-trial processing," he said. "The overall result will be faster resolution of cases, which is always in the best interests of both an accused and the Air Force."

The JAG Corps 21 process is also examining its role in supporting new and evolving Air Force missions such as stability operations and cyberspace operations, and identifying areas that will better support the deployed commander.

"As with the basic concept behind the field support centers, it's all about providing better support to commanders in the field to give them the legal effect necessary to perform the mission," General Rives said.