Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson has been dead honest about the Air Force’s unfolding human resource crisis. There are not enough pilots for the core service mission, and this acute shortage reflects a more broadly felt gap between mission and manpower.
This isn’t a new problem and it isn’t a surprise. The Air Force’s human resource bureaucracy has been actively, deliberately manufacturing this situation for years. Generals have ignored callouts from the field and blacklisted commanders who vocalized on this issue when the worst of it was still preventable. Gen. Mark Welsh, who now makes his living hocking wares to the same understaffed Air Force he weakened over his four-year tenure as Chief of Staff, told pilots if they were unhappy with the situation they should just leave. They’d be replaced, he told them.
He was wrong, of course … and engaged in leadership malpractice that has endangered the nation’s defense. But we’re now in the season of honesty, with Wilson admitting these issues exist and even admitting why. Among the many drivers: an unsustainable tempo and the burnout that comes with it.
But if she gets it, her generals don’t. At least not those in position to directly actions to curtail deployments. Still too many people deploying with too little to do. Still too much manpower overkill, reflecting a deeply risk averse leadership culture inclined to bring multiples more resources to bear on a problem than are necessary … not so much because they rationalize the added resources are adding value, but to ensure no one can point the finger of blame at them if anything goes wrong.
We’re still deploying entire groups when we need squadrons and squadrons when we need detachments. Even as a mission unfolds and it’s clear we have too many airmen and aircraft deployed, no one is proactively flexing down, sending people home to preserve them for the next fight. They are left to languish, underemployed and robbed of the sense of purpose that drew them to military service in the first place. Adding insult to injury, they’re being forced to work 72-hour weeks so no one can accuse generals of under-employing deployed airmen.
With a few exceptional and short periods of time, this has largely been the story of Air Force service since the first invasion of Iraq in 1991. The letter below, provided to JQP by a reader of the blog, could have been written a quarter century ago. Nothing has improved in that time. No reprieve. And no matter how honest and knowing the rhetoric from the top, no fundamental change in the structure of how deployments are established, resourced, and conducted. It is still in the interest of general officers to plant too many airmen in the desert, and generals will always act in their own interest.
Read this and weep, because if we can’t correct this kind of behavior even when we have the right leaders at the very top, there is truly no hope for recovering our ailing Air Force.
I am currently “deployed” to Al-udeid and am supporting the B-52 mission here as part of OIR. I would say we are fighting the war on terrorism but the sad fact is that war died a while back and now I fear we live in a perpetual state of wash, rinse, repeat. I am writing you today so that someone somewhere of some rank and importance will see this and maybe do something I cannot do. We (myself and 69 other ammo troops) have been at al udeid for almost 3 months building bombs, delivering them and supporting the “mission.” Unfortunately the mission itself it somewhat of a joke. The average expenditure rate per week is about 82 bombs over the last four weeks. Now that may seem awesome unless you do the math and know that each bomber carries 22 bombs each time it flies and they fly 20+ sorties per week with 6 aircraft.
We are “working” 12 hour shifts 6 days a week per AFCENT instruction. The truth and reality is that we maybe do 10 hours of real work per week total as a group. The expenditure rate is near abysmal compared to other deployments I’ve been on and on average I spend 3 hours out of 72 doing actual work. The rest is spent looking for ways to make the next 5 months go by.
The ridiculous amount of money being spent on this bomber mission is redundant compared to what actually accomplished when these planes fly. 82 bombs per week is considered peanuts to what we were doing in the late 2000’s when the war was still being fought purposefully. For the length of time we are here the Air Force is expending $175k in fsa, per diem and hazardous duty pay alone. And that is for just the 70 of us. I can’t imagine what it would be if the maintenance crews, pilots, ops groups people all got added into the equation. Then of course the food, lodging and other things that are paid for in order to keep us here might be somewhere in the millions.
And for 82 bombs a week.
The frivolous spending of American tax dollars in this mission can’t be ignored. We get told daily the usual Air Force lines of were doing a purposeful mission with a real outcome but I cannot see how and don’t understand how the expenditure of these dollars can be justified based on the mission we are performing.