Movie buffs will recall a scene from “Glengarry Glen Ross” in which a sales manager “motivates” an office full of down-on-their-luck real estate pushers by essentially denigrating their manhood and questioning their commitment.
The subtext of the scene — and the movie — is to comment on a professional code that is unreasonable at its core. One that makes demands without providing resources, pushing its subjects into desperate circumstances and ruinous actions.
This is a decent analogue for what has become of the Air Force’s core values. Championed by former Chief of Staff Ronald R. Fogleman as the key to the service’s health and character, the three principles — Integrity, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do — were designed to give airmen a clear and powerful cluster of signal virtues around which all could be rallied. Policies, resources, individual conduct … all should find their paths according to alignment with these values.
For a period of time, the core values were a constructive fixture of Air Force life, and perhaps even the cultural bedrock they were intended to become. Whether something fit within the construct created by these values was a valid query by anyone at any level and in any direction.
But two things happened that weakened, over time, the Air Force’s commitment to its own core values.
First was the rise of a group of general officers promoted for their political skill and correctness rather than for their leadership ability. This started with the scapegoating of Brig. Gen. Teryl Schwalier for the Khobar Towers bombing — a sequence of events that also broke the camel’s back for Fogleman and hastened his resignation. The Khobar debacle sent a clear message to senior Air Force officers that risk aversion and political alignment were back in fashion. Over the subsequent two decades, a clear pattern emerged of officers making the most senior cut by keeping their names out of the press, speaking when spoken to, and behaving more like publicists than leaders.
But, as it turns out, bureaucratic politics and integrity are fundamentally incompatible. Fogleman knew this, which must have been part of the reason why he took pains to ensure his officers understood in no uncertain terms that the edicts of personal conduct above reproach applied especially to them, and not just their charges.
Second, and related to the ineptitude and serial myopia fostered by promoting feckless generals, the service gutted itself, trading tens of thousands of airmen in exchange for what turned out to be the false promise of more high-tech hardware. Budget actions in 2004/5 drastically reduced end-strength in order to preserve F-22 funding. These actions also committed the Air Force to a substantially increased support role involving tens of thousands more airmen filling deployment positions that were the statutory responsibility of other services, primarily the Army.
This pattern continued for the next decade, with more over-commitment and overstretch coupled with declining manpower, particularly in support disciplines. All the while, politician generals emphasized the importance of the deployed support role played by a small percentage of the service as they simultaneously neglected the health of the operational force, whose performance was basically taken for granted. By 2010, it was much more difficult to get a medal for flying an airplane in combat than for working in an air conditioned finance trailer inside the wire.
From 2012-2016, the Air Force was led by a general many believed was an exception to the political norm that had developed, Mark A. Welsh. His operational credentials and apparent throw-back attitude had many believing he would reverse the topline trends and restore operational primacy across the force.
But the prior 15 years of warping and twisting of the service’s value system proved too much for Welsh to counteract, even if he had been genuinely trying. By the time he left office last year, the Air Force was in obvious tatters, with its lowest manpower level in history conspiring with an unsustainable operational tempo and bullshit-riddled organizational culture to make the service a truly miserable experience for most of its airmen. They started speaking with their feet, creating a retention crisis that is now too far advanced for standard countermeasures to check it.
At the core of all of this is a betrayal of core values. When the service politicized its leadership class and surrendered its hold on a sustainable manpower structure, it put commitment to its core values out of reach.
As it turns out, nothing is free. Just as in Glengarry Glen Ross, if you don’t give people the resources to succeed, you’ll see them fail, and perhaps even self-destruct in the process. The essence of these truths was captured neatly in a recent facebook post, which I’ve lifted for this post without attribution (the commenter may reveal himself as he sees fit).
What he said, with sardonic genius, was that the core values had morphed into:
- Fly What You Can, Log What You Need
- Serve Thyself
- Mediocrity in Everything We Do Because We Can’t Afford Excellence
The first reference is to aircrew “pencil-whipping,” which happens when aircrews are given a choice between signing off currency on a maneuver they didn’t practice but feel confident they can perform if need be. This typically occurs when the choice is between pencil-whipping and seeing a mission fail for lack of a qualified crew. It can also happen when commanders scrutinize the use of training time and question why so-and-so didn’t manage to log such-and-such. The obvious message is that the economy of the sortie matters more than the substance of the training.
Resource abandonment will create integrity lapses. This is an open secret across every Air Force organization. If everyone stopped fudging everything tomorrow and stuck with the readiness levels possible via paltry resources, the service would register its lowest preparedness level in history by sundown.
Serve Thyself refers to the self-service culture that has metastasized across the force, resulting in the standing but unspoken expectation that operational airmen will do both their jobs and the jobs of those who are supposed to support them. Our people are expected to provide every meaningful support function on their own behalf these days, and it prevents them from mastering their craft sufficient to even consider how they might extend that mastery with additional commitment. The Air Force is busily asking airmen to put service interests before their own when the service isn’t equipping them sufficient for them to maintain even modest self-interest in the first place. During my time in command, we studied the time of our people, with the goal of giving them a two-week planning horizon and limiting most of them to 50-hour work weeks at home station. The study was submitted to senior officers who chortled before crossing their arms and watching it fail. This is typical of the senior management attitude toward field commanders who try to win back calendar white space for their people by ridding them of self-support responsibilities.
The not-so-subtle jab at Excellence reflects the simmering frustration of people who signed up to do an important job and want to do it well, but are being held by back misprioritization and resource anemia. Nowhere is this frustration more acutely felt than in aviation, where a profound investment in training and development is necessary to produce the sort of combat execution needed to prevail against competent adversaries.
Our pilots know we are poised to lose an air war, and they are not sticking around to be a part of it. The demands of combat aviation are only worthwhile if winning is the object. If they can’t win, they’d rather reduce those demands and simply fly passengers for competent companies that pay them well at a fraction of the harassment and bullshit fatigue.
The point of all this is that core values are nice, but they are neither free nor supernatural. They can’t be lived without resources and they can’t magically sustain a service that openly betrays them.
If the Air Force wants its values to be relevant again, it needs to develop officers who are more committed to principle than promotion, and it needs to stop trading away red-blooded airmen for fleets made of Iron Sulfide. It must also dispense with the pretension that excellent performance is possible with mediocre support.
Short of all this, we’re just a collection of real estate salesman identifiable by the cars we drive and awaiting the next shift in the market to make us dinosaurs.