Accelerating Reform Efforts, Air Force Leaders Vow to Slash Written Rules

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein testify before the Senate Appropriations Committee for Defense June 21, 2017, in Washington, D.C. The subcommittee hearing was held to discuss the FY2018 budget request for the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash)

As I’ve been saying recently, the Air Force is seriously getting its act together. Now we have another example supporting this proposition.

It’s often said that turning around an organization as vast as the Air Force is like turning an aircraft carrier. What’s always struck me about that metaphor is how it acknowledges big directional change can only originate at the very top, with those who have access to the master controls.

For years, the Air Force couldn’t turn itself around because those with access to the master controls refused to make any inputs. Gen. Mark Welsh’s tenure as Chief of Staff was marked by continual denials that the Air Force had any problems … and by claims that any issues in the field were not coming as a result of anything being done at the Air Staff. This denying, indifferent attitude persuaded airmen that the service was on a collision course with institutional ruin, driving them out the door in droves.

The attitude at the very top has now changed, and the inputs to steer the Air Force back on course are now being made. Since Gen. Dave Goldfein took over as Chief — joined not long after by CMSAF Kaleth Wright and later Sec. Heather Wilson — a steady stream of change initiatives designed to restore the heath of the service has bolstered the confidence of airmen and begun a modest renewal of faith in senior leadership. While a true turnaround is still a long way off, the inputs are unmistakable.

While the levers pulled for squadron revitalization, reductions in additional duties, and PME reform are huge, the latest initiative from USAF Headquarters is the most fundamental and substantial yet, carrying the greatest potential for lasting reform and buoyed morale.

In a memorandum addressed to all airmen and released August 3rd, Wilson and Goldfein announce a comprehensive review of all directive publications with the stated goal of considerably reducing the number of rules airmen are required to follow.

The memo:

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The substance of the letter is important, but the real story is in the tone, which reflects and acknowledges the frustration felt by airmen in the field. They’ve been tasked with lethality and innovation while simultaneously weighted down with excessive rule structures stifling these very things.

For years, we’ve argued here on these very pages that wars can’t be won nor morale lifted with rules and policies. Even as we made these arguments, Goldfein’s predecessor was signing into effect cookbooks for conduct and leadership … blunt instruments that sapped mental and moral resource while frustrating the judgement and creativity of warfighting professionals.

Off-Target: Air Force’s Command Cookbook a Recipe for Mediocrity

It seems Goldfein was watching carefully, and that he and his senior leadership teammates are prepared to use their authority and growing influence to reprogram the service. This is a breath of fresh air after years of watching senior leaders do little more than exalt themselves.

The Air Force remains extremely unhealthy as an organization. There are deep-set issues with its legal system reflecting a misapprehension of the limits of authority. The toxicity fostered by years sealed into an unthinking compliance culture festooned with too many self-important generals will take a long time to purge.

But this is a start, and more importantly, a signal. For months, it’s been argued that the most serious issue facing the service — a pilot shortage that threatens the core mission — is not about money, but about the culture and direction of the service.

That being the case, a move like this one is far more likely to stem the shortage than anything else yet pursed, especially when combined with parallel initiatives to revitalize squadrons and develop stronger leaders.

This is a strong and encouraging move made with enough detail for airmen to hold their leaders to account. If is followed through with swift action, the payoff for airmen and the USAF will be exponential.

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