The Air Force’s top officer recently paid a three-day visit to Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, seat of Air Combat Command and home to more than 8,000 airmen and their families. The purpose of the visit, according to official coverage, was for Welsh and his wife, Betty, to conduct a base tour of Langley as part of a “comprehensive assessment of Air Force needs, requirements and investments.”
Welsh’s visit included an “All-Call” at a Langley hangar. Such mass formations have become standard itinerary stops during Welsh’s base visits in the last few years. The idea is to connect as personally as possible with as many airmen as possible, sharing with them the view from the top and, at least in theory, hearing their concerns and questions from “street level.”
I wrote recently about how an All-Call during a visit to Creech Air Force Base actually exposed a severe disconnect between those perspectives. But it’s not unreasonable to expect that a leader with Welsh’s responsibilities would continue trying to bridge the gap, even if it doesn’t always work.
But, as I’ve documented here for the last couple of years, it’s also fair to question whether base visits reflect a valid leadership premise. Do they yield enough organizational value to justify their costs?
It’s not just the threshold costs of transportation and accommodation that must be counted to make this determination. It’s also the tangible and intangible disruptions to productivity. While these can be hard to measure, sometimes clear examples emerge. According to some familiar with the Langley visit, Welsh’s recent All-Call carried a price tag well beyond what has been publicly chronicled (and if my experience is relevant here, most likely beyond Welsh’s own awareness).
According to credible but unverified reports, the hangar where Welsh conducted his All-Call — regally adorned with a 50-foot American flag and packed to capacity with Langley airmen — was in the middle of contracted maintenance when the visit was to take place. That maintenance had to be suspended so the All-Call could be held there.
Given that we can assume getting this hangar repaired and open for (actual aircraft-related) business is important, the scheduling conflict should have meant that the All-Call would be moved to another location. Instead, someone made the decision to interrupt the contracted work in order to spruce up the facility, giving it an appearance deemed suitable for a four-star, and host Welsh’s presentation there.
Those familiar with how such contracts work have noted a red flag by now. Stopping a contract in progress is almost never free. Depending on how the contract is written and the duration and circumstances of the interruption, the cost to the taxpayer can be considerable, running into the thousands of dollars in an instance like this.
If the Langley report is accurate, it almost certainly means the American taxpayer is going to pay additional contract fees so a formation briefing could be held in a hangar instead of a theater, club, or one of Langley’s many other suitable facilities.
The Air Force’s own “Inspector General Guide to Fraud, Waste, and Abuse Awareness” defines “waste” as:
“The extravagant, careless, or needless expenditure of government funds, or the consumption of government property that results from deficient practices, systems, controls, or decisions.”
If the Langley report is correct, what occurred there fits neatly within this definition. Determining whether that’s the case is something an Inspector General should pursue.
This doesn’t mean General Welsh is directly responsible for any waste that may have occurred. Whoever made the decision that the All-Call just had to be held in that particular hangar is directly responsible.
But nor does this sever CSAF from indirect responsibility for creating or at the very least failing to prevent a climate where unethical or improper things happen and everyone goes along — usually for fear of reprisal if they speak up, but sometimes because they spoke up and were ignored.
Rampant reliance on first-hand visitation in lieu of a viable chain of command feeds this climate, as people trip over themselves — but not the rules — as they seek to construct positive impressions for the viewing pleasure of senior officials. The failure to denounce those who criminalize disagreement also enable it.
Standing against waste when it becomes manifest is one way reverse such a climate. Will we see such a response in this case?