CSAF: Time to Revitalize the Squadron as the Core of the Air Force

Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein presents his coin to Technical Sgt. Adam Vera, a cyber-operator assigned to the 91st Cyber Operations Squadron during a visit at Joint Base San Antonio, Texas March 3. Goldfein also received briefings focused on 24th Air Force – AFCYBER’s command and control of cyber forces and took the opportunity to personally thank the cyber warriors as well as to stress the significance of cyber in today’s multi-domain operations. (U.S. Air Force photo by MSgt Luke P. Thelen/Released)

Just a couple weeks ago, JQP invited airmen to fantasize about what it might be like to have a new Chief of Staff attack his leadership role with a passion for people and a laser focus on airpower.

New Air Force Boss Shocks, Inspires Airmen with Incredible Message

That piece of tantalizing fiction was ultimately a recipe for heartbreak for many who remarked that it had them reconsidering the choice to separate or retire … right up until they realized it was a fugazi.

But in the time since, we’ve seen a few signals indicating that Gen. David L. Goldfein might just be closer to that fictionalized version of himself than we dared hope. The fact that his first public overture as the service’s new boss acknowledged the crisis of pilot retention and committed to measures beyond just throwing more money at the problem was an auspicious beginning.

But his second major move is even more promising. It shows he has a firm grasp on one of the root issues troubling the institution: the desperate need to return squadrons to a healthy and sustainable operating baseline.

Settling into his role, Goldfein has distilled his initial assessment of the service down to a select inventory of issues he intends to discuss and work through with his senior team. At the very top of his list, first out of the gate, is how to build a roadmap for the revitalization of what he calls “the beating heart of the Air Force” … its squadrons.

In preparation for a July 25th conference with commanders, the general penned a thoughtful and at times inspiring three-page memo fleshing out his thoughts on the general disrepair of squadrons across the force along with some of what he believes must happen to return them to the health necessary to sustain the service’s strategic momentum. He closes his memo by asking his fellow generals to consider a number of poignant questions … the answers to which he believes hold the key to the service’s future.

The tone, structure, and content of this memo persuade me that Gen. Goldfein has a clear grasp of what has become of Air Force squadrons … and how to heal them. The fact he chose to give this issue primacy and emphasis further persuades me that the Air Force has its best chance in a generation to fundamentally reorient … to restore the basic, mission-focused value stream required for it to operate effectively. If it comes to pass, this will also improve morale, retention, and readiness … things that tend to travel together, wherever squadrons carry them.

Read for yourself — we were able to obtain a copy and to verify its authenticity with someone who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

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There’s plenty to admire here. A few key excerpts are worthy of closer visitation.

“If we are to achieve the aspirations laid out in [our strategy documents], I believe we must have a solid foundation organizationally.”

Too often over the last two decades, Air Force senior leaders have relied excessively on leader-directed human behavior and value alignment (at least rhetorically if not actually) to constitute the basic operation of the service’s day-to-day system. This is a flawed approach. While relying on leadership and individual behavioral choice is unavoidable, most of an organization’s fate is determined by the basic structure and sturdiness of the sub-organizations comprising it. When organization is wrong, all the “can do” in the world won’t make up for the deficiencies introduced.

Goldfein obviously gets that, and it’s heartening to have him make his belief explicit. He then cements it by reminding everyone that squadrons are the basic building blocks of the Air Force. This is a critical point. If you’re looking for something like a root cause of the manifest dysfunction and drastic decline of the service over the past decade, look no further than the crumbling of squadrons … which, left un-remedied, leaves everything standing on a cracked and unreliable foundation. As that foundation has given way, everything it holds up has been noticeably crumbling as well. Do we now have a Chief of Staff who sees the need to renew and reinforce that foundation? Sure looks that way.

But here’s maybe the most important passage of all:

Visit one of our CONUS main operating bases and you’ll often find manning hovering between 60-70% with many key supervisors and leaders deployed, remaining Airmen working double and triple shifts, and units managing parts and equipment shortages. On top of this, our squadron commanders, squadron superintendents, first sergeants, and Airmen feel first-hand the pain associated with increased mandatory recurring training, challenging do-it-your-self programs in place of Airmen who previously provided these services, and growing additional duties. The resultant effect of these challenges is we degraded many of the core fighting units in our Air Force where Airmen live and breathe, where we generate combat capability, and where our culture resides the squadron.
Holy smokes. This guy understands the problem, and it’s obvious he’s been talking to the right people … and more importantly, listening to their assessments. He’s not going to follow the trail his predecessors trod out … fooling himself and everyone else about the pain level in the field as a way to maintain budgetary and rhetorical latitude. He’s tying himself to a stated problem that he will now be responsible to correct on pain of being seen as a failure.

That … if you’re looking for a crystalline example … is leadership at the general officer level. Communicate honestly about the nature of big problems, establish a vision to correct course, achieve buy-in to that vision, and marshal resources to bring it into being … or go down swinging in the earnest attempt. The first step is being willing to risk something professionally to lay down a marker on an issue you believe is critical. CSAF has taken that step. It’s not everything, but it’s not nothing.
And he’s also moved forward toward gathering buy-in on his view of the problem, drilling his colleagues with searching questions about how they together will fix all of this. The questions he chose implicate just about every factor in the problem of broken squadrons: manpower, organic support, task saturation, and even senior leadership. Goldfein hints that generals should be judged based on how their actions impact squadrons. That’s a sea change in thinking at the top … a shift from political to operational orientation. It’s the core reason for optimism in this memo, and everything else grows from it.

There’s plenty to like here, but lest we get too giddy, there’s some stuff missing too. A big problem in squadrons is chronic stress on NCOs, much of it caused by the mangled implementation of new enlisted promotion, evaluation, and development programs. That doesn’t get direct mention. Nor does the issue of military justice, which is a major threat to the morale and viability of squadrons going forward, and something long overdue for reform.

Still, it’s definitely a new day. Just a few months ago, people were beating down the door to get out of an Air Force led by a man who, for all his virtues, grossly misled Congress about the state of morale … which has been basically subterranean and getting worse for years, largely because squadrons have suffered from institutional neglect. Much more of this kind of leadership from Goldfein, and many may start reconsidering their futures. But most will proceed with caution … have been emotionally scorched by four years under a boss who told them he’d die for them but refused to wade into the issues making their lives miserable. Goldfein will have to sustain this trajectory to win them over … but they are winnable. 
As squadrons go … so goes the Air Force. Heal them, and you go a long way toward healing everything. How do you heal them? Start by admitting it’s necessary, and making it the primary focus of the big boss for his first year.

Time will tell, but this guy just might be the real deal … and this memo about squadrons is potentially the most important document from a CSAF since Ron Fogleman reintroduced a common value system. 

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