CSAF’s Awesome 2013 Speech … and How it Foretold the Two Years Since

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The video posted below is just flat-out awesome. It hearkens us back to a moment when it still seemed like General Mark Welsh might be the leader to break the Air Force out of its institutional tailspin.

This was before the mangled drawdown, before Welsh refused to step in and police toxic leadership, before he abdicated an active role in the “treason” debacle, before the service countenanced internal corrosiveness and external misrepresentation in a vain bid to trash the A-10, and before the service’s public relations arm snapped its leash and ran amok with a communications campaign portraying America’s Air Force as little more than a band that also flies a few airplanes.

Welsh hits so many high notes in this presentation that it’s easy to understand why expectations for his tenure as Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF) grew to be so expansive. He rails against headquarters staffs demanding support from wings. He reminds wing staffs they support squadrons. He understands airmen are frustrated. He embraces the need to melt self-licking ice cream cones under the heat of common sense, and believes airmen have the ideas to generate that heat.

Looking back, it’s heartbreaking to see just how overstated those expectations proved to be. Welsh’s tenure has left many wondering how the service could have regressed so much under the guidance of such an obviously capable leader. The clues to decoding that riddle are not hidden away in the arcane scrawlings of academics. They’re right there in the same video. Welsh, without realizing it, started leaving a trail of bread crumbs … a trail through a wilderness of institutional turbulence that now ends at the edge of his own desk.

In his presentation, CSAF does three things that, in retrospect, are quite remarkable.

He Acknowledges a Fundamental Communication Problem. Around 1:20, Welsh makes a curious claim: that the “Every Dollar Counts” program run by the Air Force was really just a ruse to flush out a problem with bad communication between airmen and headquarters staffs. As if this is either at all mysterious or a valid reason to mislead airmen and taxpayers about why they’re participating in and funding something.

What the service noted in that gambit should have set off alarm bells. If, as Welsh implies, airmen are not comfortable speaking candidly to their supervisors about ways of improving business at base level, that’s an acute problem ripe for further diagnosis and decisive reform. Telling them to speak up when they’ve shown they’re not willing to do so is useless. What Welsh needed to do in 2013 was to empower junior commanders to elicit suggestions, to incentivize those leaders able to successfully cultivate a climate of open upward communication, and to proclaim his base-level commanders worthy of confidence.

What he did was preside over an Air Force where people interested in keeping their jobs kept their mouths shut, knowing their livelihoods and careers were fragile in a no-mistake, no-evidence-required system that regards difference of opinion as nails to be hammered back in line. It was only a few months after Welsh gave this presentation that Lt. Col. Craig Perry was fired for daring to express ideas that ran counter to his boss’s philosophies. Welsh refused to intervene in that case despite obvious abuses of power highly corrosive to open communication. It was one of many such instances during his tenure, yet he has never spoken publicly about the need for leaders to tolerate dissent. In fact, his thinly-veiled recalcitrance during the James Post fiasco recommends to suspicion that Welsh isn’t really a fan of healthy differences, and that at least on some issues, he himself prefers the kind of unswerving obedience Post’s “treason” comments exemplified.

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In an Air Force where minor differences and tiny mistakes can have disproportionate consequences, it’s no wonder people have taken to keeping their heads down and mouths shut. It’s no wonder they avoid official surveys, refrain from unscripted questions, and often comment on social media under aliases. 2013 Welsh seemed to have an important intuition about all of this. 2015 Welsh doesn’t seem to be doing anything to address what is now obvious and what he has repeatedly lamented in recent months: the Air Force’s fundamental communication process is broken, and with it, the chain of command.

He Does Some Shirking Under the Guise of Empowerment. Around the same point in this speech (and in many others since), Welsh implies that the problems faced by the Air Force are unconnected to headquarters decisions and policies, and mostly driven by bad leadership at base level. This of course flies in the face of the common sense Welsh had invoked just moments before: the Air Force is a hierarchy and ultimate authority for its administration flows from the top, where ultimate responsibility must therefore also reside. But beyond just being silly, this is bad leadership. This is finger-pointing. It sets up a circular firing squad. No squadron commander worth his salt would blame his flight commanders or NCOs for problems with the overall functioning of the squadron. Such a commander would start looking for the source of the problem by searching in concentric circles starting at his own desk.

CSAF continually insisting that problems are someone else’s problems and that the headquarters isn’t causing them is unbecoming. Whoever or whatever is causing them, if they’re important enough to be on CSAF’s radar, he owns them, and his language should be about fixing them rather than hanging them around the necks of subordinates. What Welsh might not realize, having never been an NCO himself and probably having worked directly with very few members of the service’s spinal column, is that as far as a Staff Sergeant is concerned, wing commanders and CSAF are one and the same. They’re all part of upper management. For them to blame one another for problems just does not compute for the average airman, and it will generate nothing by a casual head shake and a “whatever” as a response.

But the worst part: it’s not cool to foment a “peasant revolt” by encouraging people to stop doing things and tell their bosses after the fact. That’s not empowerment. It’s just shirking under a false premise; the real work of building a chain of command people will utilize is much more arduous, but cannot be rightly avoided. The “peasant revolt” approach not only gets airmen into trouble or disfavor when the principle gets misapplied, it undermines confidence in the chain of command. If the message is that base level commanders are only listening to airmen begrudgingly because CSAF said they had to, that’s pretty close to a public vote of no confidence for those commanders.

In the 22 months since this speech was rendered, Welsh and other senior officials have made a habit of cutting mid-level commanders out of the loop, eroding confidence in them by construing them as inept and blameworthy for whatever goes wrong. The ongoing mess that is the Enlisted Evaluation System (EES) rollout is just the latest example of direct DV-to-airman interaction that ignores the need to place supervisors in the driver’s seat.

He Protects His Own Staff. At 1:47, CSAF says that about 85% of the 11,000 suggestions provided by airmen in the first 30 days of the “Every Dollar Counts” programs implicated things at base level and below. This assertion is at the core of his pitch, which is that airmen and their local commanders — and not senior officials or their policies — hold the keys to better efficiency and less frustration. It’s also a way of avoiding tough questions about unresponsiveness to suggestions that did involve the headquarters.

Rephrased, his assertion is a way of saying roughly 1,650 of the suggestions made by airmen did indeed implicate the Air Staff. That’s a huge raw number and a key fact, because anyone who has commanded in the modern Air Force understands that getting adjustment, dispensation, and relief from limitations imposed by functional managers and the Air Staff is the key to unlocking the latitude to solve even more problems with greater agility at base level and below.

Wing commanders can’t stop following instructions unless they want to be fired. Airmen can’t stop following instructions unless they want to be disciplined and possibly cashiered. Air Force instructions have to be changed by the Air Force, and to suggest they can be selectively ignored not only invites anarchy, but ignores centuries of lessons about military hierarchies dating to the Greek Phalanx. 

Without the resources or the authorities, base level commanders have little ability to re-structure administration or operations to be more efficient. When shops are undermanned, no one even has time to think about how to fix things or what authorities to seek relief from. When deployments are constant, no one has the continuity or stability in the workcenter to put together a change proposal. They’re paralyzed by task saturation, which is why staffs are supposed to do this kind of work.

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In September of 2013, Welsh was playing with the question of what frustrates airmen. He railed against nonsense and clearly wanted to make the service a more fulfilling and less exasperating place to work. This was at once the recognition of a problem and at the same time an exhortation to send solutions up the flagpole to solve it. But in the nearly two years since he spoke these words, he himself has done too little to re-make the service in a common sense image.

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Squadron commander support staffs have begun to see bodies, but they don’t have the permissions necessary to support commanders without seeking constant approval from centralized sources on and off base. AFPC controls those permissions and refuses to grant them.

The PT program remains a thorn in the side of many. No one quarrels with the idea that basic physical fitness should be a requirement to serve, but the test has come to mean too much to a career, managing the program absorbs too much focus, unhealthy misappropriation of the program is making superficial appearance more important than duty performance in some corners of the service, and amid all this, Welsh himself has outlawed mention of reforming PT in any policy proposal. Commanders can’t give people time to work out during the duty day without harming other objectives, and commanders lack the authority to manage the consequences of a failure driven by wellness rather than disciplinary shortcomings.

Getting paid correctly is a constant issue. Meanwhile, Welsh’s staff is conducting a rolling series of manpower studies designed to further gut base-level finance support and create even more reliance on centralized financiers in South Dakota who hide behind a Byzantine calling tree and have a poor service record. At the same time, his staff puts pressure on commanders to police overdue travel card balances, many of which are the result of a molasses-laden processing system holding everyone’s money hostage.

Community service and “voluntoldism” remain baked into evaluation systems, giving lesser performers a non-mission path to a promotion edge over their higher-performing peers. A new enlisted evaluation system two years in the making is allegedly designed to address this problem, but leaked versions of new assessment and feedback forms tell a different tale, and several existing instructions make volunteer activity a paradoxical obligation and a prerequisite for advancement. There’s nothing sensible about legislating how airmen spend their off-duty time. Welsh hasn’t even spoken about this.

Oh, and that new evaluation and promotion system? Welsh’s staff refuses to communicate its details to the field and allow commanders and NCOs to implement it. Instead, a deliberate influence operation has been fielded to script and calibrate its rollout. This has injured the trust bond between the headquarters and the field, particularly the NCO corps. Sending senior officials on the road to personally brief airmen is not only a waste of money confounding any notion of efficiency, it cuts leaders at all levels completely out of the loop, showing that Welsh and his team don’t trust them to communicate effectively. This is an odd way to engender common sense or conservation.

Similarly inane is the public relations buffoonery that seems to burden everything the service does. Public Affairs personnel don’t understand airpower. They don’t even know its basic terms. They’re not working for base-level commanders … they’re taking centralized cues from a headquarters staff that tells them when to answer, what to say, and how to say it. They spend more time propagandizing fellow airmen than they spend explaining the story of airpower to the public, which might be a good thing given that America is coming to see its air service as little more than a collection of oddly-dressed and lightly-decorated musicians occasionally accompanied by ornamental jet aircraft.

The vacuum this approach creates all but ensures that the occasional aircraft mishap, errant bomb, or personnel scandal will eclipse any favorable airpower thought in the American consciousness. Eventually, this practice will cost the service budget topline, harming the nation’s defense. But in the meantime, senior leaders in the current generation will have maintained the trappings of their seniority and avoided more difficult conversations that educate the otherwise oblivious as to why airpower matters and is essential to American security.

Today, the service finds itself gripped with an irreconcilable pilot shortage and an unrelenting operational tempo, both outgrowths of a failure to responsibly forecast and audit manpower requirements to align budget and policy with strategic imperatives. That’s not an airman problem, it’s a General problem.

Yet, in spite of its own ineptitude, the service succeeds operationally, and that’s because it has superior, salt-of-the-Earth airmen who don’t know how to fail and often achieve excellence in spite of rather than because of the way their service supports them.

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There’s a complex malady lurking here, and it has to do with not accounting for the way large organizations work, especially those powered by rank-based, formal authority.

It’s not enough for Welsh to say the right things and encourage the right kinds of push-back at base level and below. He’s got to actively remove communication barriers so problems and issues inflicting nonsense and waste on airmen are able to reach the right level – up to and including his level – where resolution is feasible. Most things in the Air Force are centrally controlled and executed these days by agencies that exercise authority over wings and squadrons rather than supporting them. Assignments, deployments, promotions, pay, decorations, separations, retirements, special selections, installation management … all of these and many more have become black boxes commanders can’t manipulate. Sensing their unassailability, minions within these black boxes have taken to ignoring commanders and customers alike.

But this is also about the kind of leadership Welsh has incentivized during his tenure. Toxicity and self-absorption among the senior ranks have gone unaddressed, while base level commanders have occasionally been fired in gestures of political tribute to keep the service in good political and public standing, which is all about preserving its budget and modernization plans. Base visits by Welsh and others atop the chain of command have become virtually constant, obliging wing commanders to erect and present a recurring Potemkin Village, and pulling the focus of airmen away from work and onto senior leaders. These visits give Welsh a false picture of what’s happening at wings while amplifying the message to airmen that he doesn’t trust he’s getting the straight dope from their bosses. This erodes confidence more and more.

The picture that emerges from all of these parallel trends is one of an Air Force where wing, group, and squadron commanders – at their lowest resource and manning levels and highest operational tempos since 1947 – are continually thrown under the bus by their own service, blamed for all of its shortcomings while bands, staffs, show choirs, senior officials, and centralized “support” agencies soak up most of the acclaim for whatever is working well.

Wing commanders are in a game of survival in a no-mistake, zero-defect, whole-person environment. Producing the best operational results will not get them promoted or spare them from firing. The requirement for that is paying constant tribute to the demands levied by staffs while avoiding unobscurable mistakes and seeming to care about whatever is politically faddish…while hopefully, along the way, fulfilling a genuine desire to keep their people safe and upright.

That, my friends, is what we call institutionalized defensive thinking. It has no proper place in the realm of airpower, yet it has a place there today.

Mark Welsh knows this, but he’s not doing enough about it. The CSAF he has become bears little resemblance to the one we glimpsed in 2013. I know many airmen who, given a time machine, would go back and beg him to make good on his words and the philosophies they reflected.

But then again, looking back, the clues were there all along … that maybe General Welsh just isn’t the guy we thought he was. What he does with his final year will tell the ultimate tale.

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