2016 may well be the year historians glance back upon when remembering wistfully the temporary existence of an independent American air service. Books will be written about how the service lost track of its core reason for being, making itself a valid and irresistible target for reformers looking to save taxpayer cash and simplify military organization.
The latest signal to this effect is Congressional unwillingness to continue humouring ill-conceived Air Force attempts to address its most serious issue: a shortage of pilots so debilitating it is threatening the service’s ability to perform its mission. The shortage has been obvious and growing for years, yet senior generals and politicians have done too little to halt it, leaving the Air Force they’re paid to steward — and the nation it exists to defend — precariously and unacceptably vulnerable.
Endless chatter about the issue has produced exactly one legislative proposal. The Air Force asked Congress to grant authority for bonuses of up to $48,000 per year (privately lobbying for $60,000), which it theorized would lure just enough aviators to stay in uniform. But section 616 of the current version of next year’s defense bill caps bonuses at $35,000, year. It also requires the Air Force to explain how bonuses will increase retention and expects the service to tailor bonuses by weapon system to spend as little as possible to achieve the desired effect.
There are at least two reasons Congress (and more specifically, the Senate) has taken this view.
First, the Air Force hasn’t made the case that it needs the money. In fact, it’s made the opposite argument, with Gen. Mark Welsh commenting earlier this year that morale across the service was “pretty darn good.” A service with good morale can’t really sustain the argument that it needs to double bonus levels to achieve its retention goals. Of course, Welsh was misrepresenting, but the inconsistency leaves legislators doubting that the service has the foggiest idea what it’s talking about, and you don’t throw money at a problem that you’re not confident is properly defined.
But more fundamentally, Congress knows it won’t work. There’s not enough money in this particular compartment of the taxpayer coffer to compete with the airline industry on money terms. Everyone knows this, even and especially the Air Force’s wing-wearing generals. Congressional representatives and staffers know — as the generals do — that the Air Force’s pilot problems are not driven by money and won’t be solved by money — at least not the kind of money available. The generals want to spend it so they can say they tried. Congressmen have to answer to their constituents, and thus take a more careful view.
Basically, this is Congress’s way of telling the Air Force that it’s not going to throw good money after bad, and that it’s time for the service to stop masking a raft of lurking and complex problems by taking a straight commodity approach to retention. It’s just the latest in a long series of legislative bitch-slaps that have thus far failed to knock any sense into an institution that manages to be excessively political about everything without being any good at it.
This is one of those moments in service history when making sense of the way forward requires looking back a bit. In this case, looking back about a decade, to when Gen. Mike Moseley and his wayward personnel chief Lt. Gen. Roger Brady hatched a dumbass scheme to trade tens of thousands of personnel authorizations for additional modernization money. It was a gambit designed to keep the troubled F-22 program afloat in the face of skyrocketing costs, even if it meant sending a false signal that the Air Force could sustain its highest tempo in history at its smallest size.
The move backfired in both the short and long term. The F-22 program was capped three years later by Secretary of Defense Robert S. Gates, who grew tired of Moseley and his confused cabal wishing for a different war and eventually fired the Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Air Force to underline the point. Over the long term, the liquidation of support billets pushed Air Force squadrons into endless self-support, inflicting misery, distraction, bureaucratization, and terminal task saturation across the board. Without organic support, flying squadrons found everything from flu vaccine scheduling to mobility bag inspections competing for a basic focus on professional aviation. A decade down the line, pilots are sick and tired of being set up for mediocrity and failure by being prevented from studying, planning, and executing at the level they know is necessary to win wars. They get castigated for not studying enough, yet they’re not given the time. When they come up short for reasons beyond their control, it still feels like failure, but with an extra layer of frustration. And when they fail enough to realize excellence is impossible, futility sets in. This is how morale fails and indiscipline takes over.
Around the same time the Moseley gang gutted rosters, they also made a sacrificial offering to the joint force, signing up for tens of thousands of deployments that had nothing to do with airpower and everything to do with demonstrating willingness to be “all in.” This was designed to keep the service off the naughty step with Congress and the DoD, but the human and organizational tolls were steep, and continue to the present day. There are too many airmen in too many places doing too little, for too long. Their home units are undermanned while deployed airmen are too often underemployed. This too has gnawed at the fabric of professional aviation.
These circumstances were established and widely recognized by 2008. But two consecutive Chiefs of Staff failed to do anything about any of it, and the negative forces exerting on the Air Force’s organization and culture became entrenched conditions.
When Gen. Mark Welsh took over leading the service 2012, it was plain to everyone (including Welsh himself) that a pilot exodus was a growing danger. Still, Welsh’s reputation as a pilot’s pilot gave rise to optimism. It turned to be unwarranted, and he turned out to be one of the worst Chiefs of Staff in service history. He left the Air Force with a massive manpower shortage, and the pilot crisis accelerated and became likely irrecoverable under his hand.
Welsh took the view that pilots harbouring misgivings about the future of the Air Force were entitled crybabies. He made it clear to them if they left, someone else would step in. He failed to fight for them. He subjected them to toxic leaders. He made decisions that pissed them off. He failed to talk straight with them and became known as a professional bullshit artist. He let the personnel bureaucracy release, eliminate, or alienate them. He allowed a support culture to establish itself in the operational force as a predictable consequence of aviation squadrons relying on off-board support for their administrative survival.
He did all this over the voluminous warnings of his own commanders. I know because I was one of many registering those warnings, both in uniform and out. Many others were marginalized, muzzled, or outright eliminated for taking positions contrary to the party line, which knowingly confuses itself with “good order and discipline” when it is actually sowing disorder and indiscipline.
The Air Force is now in deep trouble, if not doomed. Gen. Dave Goldfein was handed the aircraft in a box canyon with low energy and is trying to climb out of it while the service secretary and her useless kiss-ass coterie of bandsmen and publicists behave like huge speedbrakes. It’s tempting in moments like these to prescribe a calm, methodical recovery. But the time for that was four or eight years ago, while the generals were busy ignoring the problem in between Order of the Sword ceremonies and Lockheed luncheons. Now, Goldfein has no choice but to take radical measures to avoid auguring the whole damn thing in.
How will he manage to do that when even Congress is skeptical he or his colleagues know what they’re doing? It’s anyone’s guess, but one way he won’t do it is with a piecemeal quasi-mercenary approach keyed on bonus payments. No one’s buying it and we shouldn’t be selling it. The one radical thing he might try is what his predecessors were too cowardly to attempt: tell the unvarnished truth about the state of the Air Force and beg, hat in hand, for the resources to fix it.
That truth starts with one simple phrase: without pilots, there is no Air Force.