Since Dave Goldfein took over as Chief of Staff of the Air Force, he’s been consistent in his message that the conditions of service are not acceptable for many airmen, and that he’s committed to doing something to address it. In recent testimony before Congress, the Chief once again demonstrated his firm grasp on the root cause of so many of the issues we’ve been illustrating here over the past four years.
Check out this one-minute video produced by Air Force Public Affairs airmen. Despite the clumsy inclusion of an F-35 while describing working conditions at an F-16 base, it does a nice job of capturing some of the most salient and hard-hitting rhetoric we’ve gotten from Goldfein since he took the controls. And best of all, it’s 100% factual.
Think about that. One-third of a tour of duty actually spent at the duty location, with two-thirds on the road. Under any analysis, this is not sustainable. And yet, it’s what the Air Force has demanded of its airmen for well over a decade — not just in the F-16 community, but across the whole of the operational force as well as substantial elements of its support structure.
And in that period of time, the service has voluntarily reduced its own size, continually dialling up the pressure and pace to their current levels. At each incremental step along the way, the cuts have been rationalized as somehow necessary, illogic that has now been exposed as not merely misguided but reckless. Destroying the Air Force endangers national defense, and an unwitting conspiracy to do just that has been painfully unfolding for a long time.
The generals who preceded Goldfein — most notably Mark Welsh and Norton Schwartz, but T. Michael Moseley as well — were too keen to trade human resources for machine funding, or for the political favor they saw as essential to budget protection. They drew no red lines when it came to manpower levels. They drew no red lines when it came to numbers or lengths of deployments. Each contributed to a command culture that punished officers for speaking out about airmen being driven too hard.
Most critically, they and their deputies stopped listening. They didn’t listen to airmen who complained about excessive tempo. They didn’t ask earnestly how well individuals and families were coping. They didn’t notice when airmen began voting with their feet. They weren’t interested in hearing about hardship, likely because having that knowledge might have made them accountable to do something about it, which might have interfered with other dearly held priorities.
This calls to mind a brief but revealing exchange I had with Gen. Ray Johns when he visited Al Udeid Air Base (AUAB) in summer 2011. At the time, he was commanding Air Mobility Command (AMC) and I was commanding an airlift squadron deployed to AUAB on a 140-day rotation. Key personnel were invited to breakfast with Johns and arrayed themselves around a long table for a well-prepared feast that would have been totally foreign to airmen stationed at the base. The cooks even used real eggs.
Johns asked that each commander share a concern with everyone else at the table, so that he could gauge conditions and the group could discuss and find patterns among their most pressing issues. It sounded great during the brief period I considered it a serious exercise.
When my turn came, I said the following (paraphrasing):
“We’ve been at this for ten years and the tempo still feels like the first year, if not more demanding. My crews are on the road an average of 220 days every year and are being kept too busy to think and study and prepare, much less take care of their families and themselves. My concern is that they’re getting really good at this. They’re negatively adapting, and not even trying any more to do the things they would be expected to do on a normal tempo.”
His response … was to stare blankly into my eyes for a brief instant and then move to the next person. He said absolutely nothing in response, neither at that moment nor when we shared a drink at the club later that night. He was more interested in talking to my Captains about their flying exploits, which I found totally respectable … but unsatisfying from a leadership perspective.
Needless to say, when the time came later for Johns to select an executive officer from among AMC’s squadron commanders, my name was not in the conversation despite a record that was, at the time, every bit as strong as any in the command. The two things were likely unconnected, but to me the situation revealed that communicating something inconvenient would not be rewarded in Johns’ command. In our interactions, I tried to escalate to his attention that which I needed him to solve or at least influence. His response was to pretend he didn’t hear me and to pontificate about problems that assumed no change in the overall structure of things. I would have respected him more if he’d explicitly said no help was on the way.
Johns was typical of his cohort and his generation of generals. They just simply didn’t want to hear it, and they couldn’t be convinced they were wrong to downplay or underweight the severity of the tempo their airmen were facing. None of them had any real experience in their careers to open their minds to such perspectives. They were the generation that missed Vietnam and thought a deployment was a couple-week exercise in central Europe or maybe (gasp!) a few months in Saudi Arabia in 1991. They lacked empathy.
Goldfein is different, and there’s reason to believe this difference will influence his deputies and key role players. While it’s not explicit in this short video, he seems to get that asking for the absurd will create absurd retention rates. He seems to get that pushing too many people forward leads to gaps back home that must be filled, increasing home station tempo and impeding rest cycles. He seems to get that squadrons need more organic support now than ever before to deal with this tempo … not the less they were given in the ritual gutting of the past dozen years. He seem to get that operations needs primacy in our Air Force to fulfill its mandate and achieve our mission. He seems to recognize that if operations is #1 (and it is), we need to fight like hell to keep every operator we can … by, among other things, giving them a life pace they can sustain over a career without ending up bitter and alone.
And he’s right. What we’re asking from people now is totally unreasonable. The nation is not fighting for its survival. Its vital interests are not threatened. Therefore, there is no defensible reason to ask people to wave goodbye to their families so often or for so long. None. Money can’t be the reason given how much the service pisses away unnecessarily on other nonsense. Continuity can’t be the reason given how little it matters in an operation that changes with the shifting of the winds and sands. There is no reason, and it’s time we admit it and start the long, arduous crawl back to sustainability. Goldfein’s message is an important opening of the necessary conversation.
Every day we delay creating sustainability, we lose more airmen and become less sustainable as a result. Time to turn that around, and best we do it while we have a leader who is authentic and cares about what matters, even when it’s politically inconvenient.