On November 7th, Colonel Donald Grannan published a commentary exploring the failure of the Air Force to retain a bright young NCO with a promising future and impeccable record. Over the next 48 hours, the piece registered an estimated 300,000 views and racked up more than 18,000 votes of approval on the official page of Wright-Patterson Air Force base. It was shared, forwarded, and emailed hundreds of thousands of times, spurring energetic commentary on dozens of social media sites frequented by airmen up and down the chain of command. The reach of this article is without circumstantial precedent, and it reflects Grannan’s skill and candor in touching a nerve by surfacing widely held frustrations. Airmen are dying to be ably led. Grannan spoke that truth aloud and shamed his own service for failing to see to it.
Some of the strong response is keyed to the Air Force’s flawed and distracting approach to physical fitness. The article highlights how an airman who failed a single test — but quickly rebounded — continued to work under the looming shadow of this minor setback years later, suffering permanent career consequences. This level of absurdity offends common sense and infuriates airmen. It’s demonstrative of a warped culture that has grown up around the physical training (PT) program – one that judges a single failure as a reflection of poor character or low discipline rather than a statement of individual wellness or a temporary lapse in prioritization.
The Air Force PT program is judged by most of its participants to be a complete failure, and this is a reasonable position to take. It hasn’t made the service any better at fulfilling its core functions for national defense. It’s given judgmental leaders an irresistible tool for sorting subordinates into neat categories reinforcing the leader’s biases. Worse yet, it’s provided a handy non-duty discriminator for use in culling the herd during a drawdown. Boards can dispense with critical thought by pulling the lazy lever of imperfection-seeking, behaving more as jewelers than responsible officials. This is, of course, bad for the service. Booting a strong performing NCO because of a failed PT test years in the past paves the way for a lackluster but physically fit NCO to be retained. In the aggregate, this explains the tendency of the service toward mediocrity. Airmen are passionate about excellence, and they know being physically fit has very little overlap with most of what it takes to make airpower happen. They are rightly resentful of a program that is corroding the value chain that holds everything together.
But the frustrations uncapped by the Grannan piece are also, as he suggests, to do with leadership. Airmen are tired of being led by politicians with great records and no heart. They’re tired of getting elusive, nonsensical, or uninformed answers to important questions. They’re tired of the lack of candor. They’re tired of poor communication. They’re most of all distressed that their leaders have stopped trying to build relationships with them. They feel commoditized, and they blame the service’s command element for it.
The problem with this thread of Grannan’s thesis is that it doesn’t explain the problem completely. He bemoans absentee leaders but doesn’t directly acknowledge the systemic explanations that are just as explanatory as individual failures. Commanders, especially at squadron level, are no longer capable of meeting the expectations of their own airmen . . . because the Air Force won’t let them. They don’t have administrative support. They don’t have time. They don’t have a stable supply of airmen that they can train and lead because deployments and assignments are centrally managed and don’t include coordination with a commander, let alone permission. They don’t control the most important aspects of life and career for their people; promotions, assignments, separations, retirements, medals, and special selections – all of these are controlled and delivered to airmen by external actors with little more than a perfunctory and oft-ignored recommendation from the implicated commander.
For squadron and group commanders in today’s Air Force, life is a continuing matter of constantly re-shuffling priorities and rendering non-negotiable responses to staff work passed down from headquarters. The viral response to Grannan’s article is partially a reflection of how commanders feel inadequate, having let their people down because of factors they couldn’t control. With each passing day in this dysfunctional arrangement, they fall further short of what their airmen expect of them, largely because the Air Force has done nothing to explain to the rank and file the way it has drained resources, authority, and time from commanders without relieving them of any responsibility. The distance between commanders and their people is growing. Nothing is more dangerous to the cause of military victory.
The most poignant takeaway from Grannan’s article might be the obvious inversion of incentives that has gripped service culture. As Tom Ricks outlined in his recent work “The Generals,” it’s common in the modern military for a general to retain his job after losing a battle while a low-ranking private loses his job for misplacing his rifle. In the modern Air Force, failing a PT test can carry greater consequences than being horrible at all other aspects of your job. Leaders can be absent, incompetent, or serially abuse their authority while remaining free from discipline, while airmen are permanently marked as damaged goods over small errors. That has to change, or airmen are going to disconnect, starting with the best ones first. NCOs like the subject of the Grannan article won’t waste time in an organization suffering from obvious cranial-rectal inversion.
They also won’t serve in an institution that is obviously less committed to them than they are to it. The Air Force tells airmen they’re joining a family. It tells them to take care of each other. But when airmen make minor mistakes, familial love is often nowhere to be found. Should a superb performing Senior Airman with five years of impeccable service who volunteers constantly be professionally abandoned because she failed a single component of the PT test a few months after delivering a child? Should a knuckle-busting maintainer with a reputation as the most reliable troubleshooter in the squadron have his career irrevocably crushed because he wore a tan t-shirt and combat boots when he performed the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge? Should a top 1% Lieutenant Colonel be reprimanded and punitively reassigned despite a terminally ill family member because a few of his remarks were perceived unfavorably? Should a Staff Sergeant loadmaster who won a quarterly award at group level and voluntarily extended his deployment to allow a teammate with family issues to go home have his promotion test cancelled for the year because he made a mistake copying down the date?
These things are happening in your United States Air Force. They reflect a culture of hyper-accountability and lazy modernist management run amok. Grannan is right to wonder where the leaders have gone, but his implied question applies well above base level. When a one-mistake culture grips squadrons, no one will learn because everyone will cower from mistakes rather than leaning into getting the job done. When enough people stop leaning in, the mission fails.
One thing’s for sure. Grannan’s resonant work is a nightmare for the propagandists who’ve been fighting to maintain the false premise that all is well. This is a story that cuts against the party line, written by a senior leader and published on an official page to boot. It casts a light on a profoundly broken service culture more concerned with identifying and punishing imperfection than championing excellence, training and developing people, or building teams to fight and win wars. Together with another recent viral piece on Air Force service culture, this work and the response to it demonstrate that airmen are desperate for their service leaders to recognize and act on the issues impacting them.
Let’s hope someone is listening.