A fascinating exchange took place during Thursday’s Air Force posture hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) asked “how is morale?”
An incredibly important question not often posed in a Senate chamber but directly relevant to the service’s posture and squarely within the four corners of the hearing, which touched repeatedly on issues of undermanning and mission overstretch.
Gen. Mark Welsh’s answer would (and likely will) come as a shock to most airmen and their families. With a straight face, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force responded:
” … morale is pretty darn good. They’re a little tired … “
… before digressing into a jumble of falsely flattering insistences about curious, stressed, yet unfazed airmen. Click here and scroll to 1:47:00 to watch for yourself (apologies for the clunky interface — we’ll post a native clip as soon as possible).
For extra fun and a remarkable parallel, watch this old chestnut. It’s worth the 12 seconds.
To borrow from the lexicon employed by Sen. John S. McCain at several prior points during the hearing, Welsh’s response “flies in the face of reality.” I know thousands of airmen and interact with many of them on a daily or semi-daily basis. Only those who have managed to feather themselves comfortable nests safely removed from the punishing circumstances of direct mission contribution would characterize unit morale as “pretty darn good.” Perhaps Welsh has been spending too much time with such specimens and not enough with mission hackers. But even those rare creatures happy with their own lots in life would be unlikely to impose such a ridiculously unreal assessment on their fellow airmen … because it’s simply not true.
By the time Welsh made the remark, he’d spent the majority of the previous 107 minutes lamenting the service’s lack of personnel, lack of budgetary tradespace, and mission overload. He was willing to engage McCain in an embarrassing, bloodying, and ultimately self-defeating melee about the A-10, to push hard for the F-35, and to defend cost-plus contracting in pursuit of the LRS-B. But when it came time to fight for his airmen, Welsh gave up the ghost. He buried the truth behind a deeply misrepresentative statement made credible by the stars on his shoulder and the trust they engender with legislators.
But here’s what’s really going on, and hopefully what those legislators will eventually discover: Welsh will never admit there is a morale problem. Whether it’s because it would make him and his senior leader posse look (deservedly) bad or because it might cause Congress to fund more manpower at the expense of modernization initiatives, CSAF has not and will not stipulate to a morale problem — even if it’s obvious.
Check out this link from 2012.
“Morale is good … our people are tired … “
This is the exact same assessment, almost word-for-word, Welsh advanced as the service’s new CSAF four years ago. What the hell kind of assessment remains a copy of itself as everything feeding into it changes (almost entirely for the worse)?
Two possible conclusions follow from this. Either CSAF hasn’t refreshed stale thinking about the state of the Air Force through the four disastrously turbulent years he’s sat in the seat … with the service now smaller, busier, more anemically manned, and less ready for war than at any time in history. Or, he’s not actually providing an assessment so much as mouthing a talking point.
Either way, the fact ’16 Welsh is basically lip-syncing what ’12 Welsh said on the subject of morale means he’s either clueless or dishonest. Either way, airmen would be just as well off with Milli Vanilli lip-syncing on their behalf in the Senate.
When CSAF was later asked by Sen. Lindsey Graham whether Air Force families are feeling the strain, he basically dissembled and said the service was protecting family “programs.” Sadly, programs don’t inspire airmen to serve. Programs don’t provide meaning in the lives of airmen or make them oatmeal in the morning. Programs don’t walk out or justifiably threaten divorce after several consecutive years of profession-driven dysfunction. Programs do not supply or comprise the key relationships in the lives of airmen.
Protecting “family programs” falls well short of actually taking care of families. The former is a bureaucratic function. The latter is about leading, creating a sustainable work/life model, and being involved enough to genuinely assess and continually address well-being. That CSAF either doesn’t know the difference or misrepresents the fact that he does is distressing. It might have something to do with how little time he himself has spent downrange in morale-strangling hellholes laden with morale-poisoning rules and manned by morale-crushing fun police … all while supporting a war no one believes can succeed, to the extent they’re aware it exists at all.
Notice, Welsh is not saying “morale is pretty darn good” based on a study or a survey or the learned observations of his commanders in the field. He doesn’t cite discussions with fellow 4-stars or a meta-analysis of unit climate assessments.
What, then, is his authority for this statement? If you watched the clip, you’re probably still recovering from the vomiting induced by the answer to this question.
Base visits, of course. CSAF can attest morale is “pretty darn good” because of his starring role in dozens of canine-equine exhibitions and the unimpeachable, immutably accurate observations he drew from those interactions with a tiny slice of airmen wheeled out for his observation by base commanders who have been indoctrinated to put their best foot forward.
Base visits. Those perniciously constructed engines of institutional dishonesty designed to keep base commanders from getting fired while allowing senior officials to avoid doing their jobs in Washington, DC. Those time-sucking contrivances that provide Welsh with the recurring opportunity to continue re-living his squadron commander days by telling airmen how much he loves them and how readily he’d die for them. Of course, they don’t want him to die. They want him to show his love by fighting for their well-being. He just electively passed on the opportunity to do so.
CSAF’s statement to Sullivan is the equivalent of saying “I have visited Potemkin Village, and everything looks wonderful.”
But Welsh is not just saying this to Joe Citizen. This isn’t a casual utterance. This is sworn testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee. These are the people who make decisions that shape the service budget. They enact legislation that largely determines the character of daily life in uniform. They advise and consent on nominations for senior leadership positions, to include impending replacements for both Welsh and James. It’s tough to imagine a more damaging context for this particular untruth.
How can airmen expect any fundamental improvement in the conditions of service when their leader is telling the Senate that morale is “pretty darn good” … ? How can they expect change when their boss, whose job it is to fight for them, passes on opportunities to argue for improved manning and less mission activity — the only paths to improved morale? How can they trust anything else he says when he doesn’t even acknowledge the pain and sacrifice Air Force families are facing?
The answer: they can’t.
If you’re waiting for Gen. Mark Welsh to fix the Air Force or enlist the help of Congress in fixing it, you’re going to be waiting until hell freezes over. Thursday’s events make it clear he’s not going to acknowledge — let alone address — a morale problem in the Air Force … now or ever.
If you’re an airman or family member reading this and you disagree with Gen. Welsh that morale is “pretty darn good” despite historically low manning, poor leadership, and mission overload, I encourage you to email your legislators in both chambers and give them a more accurate assessment. Your communication is protected under Title 10, Section 1034 of the US Code.
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