In order to live within its budget while modernizing and fighting multiple wars, the Air Force is reluctantly drawing down to the smallest size in its history. This is a tough administrative task, and it shows. For the service and the Air Force Personnel Center (AFPC) — the human commodity exchange charged with conducting the drawdown — the past year has been a continuous chain of blunders. Airmen caught up in this mess have been misinformed, misdirected, and misled.
The latest belly flop actually occurred months in the past, with its waves only now crashing over hapless victims. AFPC issued incomplete guidance on how to coordinate contract buyouts for several thousand airmen. The guidance, like all AFPC policy, had been centrally developed without input from field commanders, which left it starved of refinement and grossly lacking in clarity. As a result, base agencies improperly counseled roughly one thousand airmen, leading them to believe they’d receive 180 days of medical coverage for themselves and their families when in fact, they were not entitled to it (or so says the current interpretation, though this could change). In some cases, agencies didn’t just counsel wrongly, but issued ID cards granting coverage and emboldening families to seek or continue treatment.
Transitioning families trusted this guidance and made irrevocable plans on the basis of it. Then, in late September, on the eve of the official separation dates for thousands, AFPC summarily revoked coverage without notice, instructing base agencies to withhold ID cards and tell airmen they were never really entitled to medical insurance in the first place. This left thousands in limbo, including scores undergoing treatment or scheduled to receive it for themselves or their family members. The issue is acute for those families with late-term pregnancies or chronic illnesses. Adding insult to injury, AFPC communicated to the field, and commanders re-transmitted to impact individuals, that benefits incorrectly extended that had been used for treatment would be subject to recoupment. AFPC unabashedly wanted airmen to understand that they would be stuck holding the bills for their treatment, even in they’d had every reason to believe was covered.
Separating airmen immediately began raising alarms in official channels and were ignored, instructed to wait, given conflicting guidance, and in many cases instructed to stop using their insurance even if they’d been issued documentation entitling it. Unsatisfied, they took to social media and eventually caught the notice of major media outlets. Only then did the Air Force begin to respond. This, unfortunately, has been the pattern with the service’s force management programs. But what’s more disheartening is the particular form of the response in this case.
On October 9th, a spokesperson told Air Force Times:
“[t]he Air Force is researching the specific impacts and will issue guidance to ensure airmen and families are not unfairly impacted.”
Sounds reasonable. The next day, an elaboration was given to the effect that:
“[t]here have been no changes or adjustments to this policy during the FY 14 Force Management program.”
This rekindled anxieties that the previous day’s statement had tried to lay to rest, because it signaled that the service must be badly out of touch with the issue if it truly didn’t believe airmen had received conflicting guidance. In the same response to a piece in USA Today, Air Force spokeswoman Rose Richeson went on to note that:
“benefits are reviewed with the member at Airman and Family Readiness Centers during congressionally mandated pre-separation counseling.”
This statement was not accurate. Not all members received the counseling they were mandated to get, and not all who did were given reliable information. I wrote about the issue in this space later that same day, attempting to give voice to deeply frustrated and isolated airmen and families. They were being directed to sit tight, without medical coverage, and hope for a solution from senior leaders who clearly hadn’t yet grasped the basics of the problem.
But the worst was yet to come. After another week of inaction and stonewalling while scores of families faced medical decisions that could mean financial ruin, the service trotted out another “representative” to yap in lieu of a senior leader to be accountable. This iteration resulted in one of the more lamentable public statements in recent memory. In response to inquiries about the online responses of frustrated airmen, spokesperson Lt. Col. Chris Karns said the following:
“From inception, the multi-year strategy for force management programs was complex and dynamic in nature as the Air Force undertook broad measures to meet mission and budgetary needs. However, given the complex nature described it would be unrealistic to expect perfection.”
Two linguistic sleights of hand here. First, Karns expands from a specific problem to broad generalizations, pretending general themes can explain specific failures. Second, he shifts the burden to victims, blaming them for having unrealistic expectations. This is exactly the kind of cowardly drivel that vindicates critics who say our military has become unduly politicized.
But that really gives this too much credit. It’s actually just pure, military grade bullshit. Airmen don’t want to hear excuses from or on behalf of support agencies that fail. They just want and deserve for leaders to step in and fix the situation. They don’t need lectures on complex and dynamic circumstances. They’re veterans of the most complex and dynamic phenomenon known to mankind, and they know better than to utter “war is hard” as an excuse for failing to accomplish the mission. When you fail, you own it. You learn. You recover. You make amends and you don’t repeat the failure.
This situation has nothing to do with the external pressures placed on the Air Force by Congress, which is where Karns’ statement gestures. This is a much simpler matter.
AFPC hatched a policy in isolation, wrongly classified it “For Official Use Only” in order to limit access, and stood idle while the confusion it created resulted in thousands of people being improperly counseled. It then took months to recognize the error and failed to act on it until the eleventh hour, when it was too late for those impacted to do anything about it. AFPC and the Air Staff then sat idle for two weeks before caving to public pressure with an emotion-brimmed copout rather than substantive action. They now waste time evaluating the costs and benefits of doing the right thing, not realizing the moral train already left the station. Doing the right thing would be quicker, easier, and probably cheaper in the long run, even if some of the costs are intangible.
While Karns is correct that it’s unrealistic to expect perfection, he (or more accurately, those for whom he speaks) must be either aloof or dishonest to believe “imperfect” is the appropriate adjective for this situation. As for the execution of the drawdown more broadly, it has been, to paraphrase a social media comment from a particularly articulate former airman, “like an episode of pigs on ice.” Nonsensical as that quip may sound, it’s more poignant and accurate than the prose-addled dissembling and excuse proffering of the unfortunate Karns, whose statement went on to say that the Air Force would:
“assess each situation and always meet our stated commitment to our airmen through the most fair and equitable means. The Air Force’s approach in all such cases is to work directly with impacted airmen and their chain of command prior to issuing general public guidance.”
In other words, there’s no solid commitment here to make airmen whole. The Air Force gets to decide what constitutes “fair and equitable” and won’t subject its judgment to public accountability by issuing transparent guidance that might be scrutinized. The service is keeping its options open and promising nothing — not even a date certain for resolution of this time-critical issue. This is an absolutely shameful dodge. It’s beneath those impacted and beneath the service itself.
There’s a grotesque double standard on display here. Airmen are routinely subject to catastrophic disciplinary and administrative actions for minor mistakes with far less impact. Temporarily misplace a wrench, get reprimanded. Fall one push-up short on a fitness test or one point short on a career development test, get a report that says you’re a terrible performer. Grow an unruly mustache or fail to tuck in your PT shirt, get publicly castigated and officially counseled. Drink one more beer than permitted in a 24-hour period, lose a stripe and be permanently stigmatized. In today’s Air Force, any of these are, by default, career ending errors. But leave a thousand families in medical coverage limbo during the most stressful professional transition of their lifetimes, and the service will make excuses to protect you, resist admitting you did anything wrong, and try all manner of legal and moral gymnastics to perceptually minimize your error, even if it did violate a federal statute.
How can the Air Force advance such a brazenly unsatisfactory narrative? Airmen are wondering about that. They’re also wondering whether the service is devolving into little more than a collection of arbitrary outcomes guided by power unmoored from reason.
There’s another way of looking at this situation, and it’s worth a glance. I’ve counseled for years now that if the Air Force is given an operational warfighting problem to solve, it’ll find the most direct path to the target at highest velocity. But given an administrative problem to solve, it’ll quickly find the most inefficient way to fail miserably. This holds true partially because of the sharp differences in standards and expectations between these two worlds. Operational squadrons know what matters. They know what is expected of them. They prioritize and succeed where it counts, leaving lesser-included stuff for last. Administrative support agencies lack this skill. They work on a rote production basis, averse to the setting and shifting of priorities. They see their operational customers as nagging sources of obligation, when in fact these obligations form the entire reason support agencies exist. These are generalizations, sure. But they’re accurate.
These organizational tendencies are natural, and must be continually held in check. The Air Force’s traditional countermeasures have been two-fold. First, it has occasionally reviewed its organizational structure and cleared bureaucratic undergrowth to streamline operations and ensure operational primacy. This last happened in the early 1990s and is long overdue. Unfortunately, the current trend is full-throttle in the other direction, with continual efforts to centralize and consolidate making operational life more difficult than ever. Second, the Air Force has traditionally sought to develop and select leaders who understand what it takes to get operational results combat, so that the naturally disparate motivations of support and operations will converge at the level of decision-making. This trend has also been abandoned. Wing commanders and base commanders (increasingly not the same person) are increasingly drawn from non-operational career fields. The current commander of AFPC is a career administrator with one deployment in 26 years. In a sense, the results she’s producing are a product of her perspective and the structure of her organization, and in that way, these poor showings should come as no surprise. But that doesn’t make such results acceptable.
When leaders fail to bring support agencies to heel, the support mindset jumps the divide and infects operational culture. This is extraordinarily dangerous for an organization that fulfills its duty by sorting and killing targets. Support world is a place governed by a first-in-first-out, no one is special, nothing is sacred, nihilistic, commodity-driven, follow the cookbook, modern management science mentality. If that mentality is superimposed on the airpower business, big time failure becomes inevitable. Warning signs reflect this as an incipient reality for the Air Force. The chief warning sign is corporate acceptance of the fallacy that operational excellence is possible on the basis of mediocre support.
Airmen and their families aren’t dumb. They’re observant and intolerant of foolishness. The Air Force cannot defend the country effectively if it abuses its people, orphans families with unaccountable mistakes, or makes excuses for massive blunders that impact them. Not taking care of people on their way out the door is a huge deal, and not just because it’s a moral violation. It also causes people to lose faith that service will do right by them, and this drives self-interested behavior. This of course threatens the selflessness needed for the service to thrive.
Without further elaboration, it’s fair to say Operation Revoke has showcased a failure to affirm two of the service’s core values: Excellence and Integrity. But the Air Force’s rattle-tossing public response failed to make a firm commitment to stand by the counseling given to airmen, and this disturbs the balance of mutual commitment needed to underwrite Service Before Self, making this debacle a rare “triple failure” to live up to the standards expected of everyone in a blue uniform.
It’s not every day you see the service defile all three of its core values in one blaze of incompetence. But airmen are watching, and they’re drawing the lesson that the Air Force no longer forgives small mistakes, only big ones. That’s not much of a bumper sticker for the world’s best air service. “Take care of each other” works much better, but it can’t just be rhetoric. Time for General Welsh and Secretary James to make those words real.