Goldfein Starts Strong, Making Pilot Shortage His First Issue

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Ever since Gen. Dave “Fingers” Goldfein was announced as the nominee to succeed Gen. Mark Welsh as Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF), people have been telling me online and offline just how much this guy gets it. Scores of stories and anecdotes have insisted on a central theme: that he’s a consummate leader and airman who, if nothing else, is certain to restore a sense of operational focus and priority to the Air Force … which would go a long way toward getting it back on track as an institution.

I’ve been appropriately skeptical of these insistences, having worked only sparingly and at relative distance with Goldfein during my own career and having been emotionally burned by believing too much in similar assessments of Welsh, who turned out to be a nice and charismatic guy who very nearly drove the service into the ground.

Still, I took the time last week to express, in admittedly manipulative and torturous form, my own aspirations about what might be possible under Goldfein … and to channel the hopes and impulses of many others who want desperately to believe that sterling, moral, impassioned leadership can still exist at the highest level.

The response to that article has been tectonic … a stark indication of the degree of desperation across the force, but an ultimately optimistic signal that given strong leadership, airmen will respond. Comments reacting to the piece demonstrated time and again that many otherwise inclined to detach physically and emotionally from the service would reverse that impulse and double down on their commitment to serving if they believed they’d be capably led.

Yesterday, we got the first indication that Goldfein might just be that leader mission-focused airmen have been waiting for. The general’s first issue out of the gate as new CSAF wasn’t trivial or propagandist or political. He didn’t cheer for the F-35 or promote a service dog to Major or tell everyone he’d be willing to die for them (something he’s already proven at any rate). Instead, he put his cross-hairs squarely on the issue more threatening than any other to the service’s future: the Air Force’s manifest inability to retain enough pilots to fly, fight, and win the nation’s wars.

In a commentary published on Defense One, Goldfein acknowledged the seriousness of the issue, calling it a crisis. He also did something his predecessor refused to do: he admitted that it’s not just about paying pilots more money … it’s also about improving their working conditions and quality of life. “[I]t is our job to remind them why their service matters and give them compelling reasons to stay,” he wrote … indicating to not only pilots but to all airmen that he understands they feel undervalued. Having argued for years that the primary barrier between today’s noticeably ailing Air Force and the one it must become to keep the nation secure in the future is a refusal to admit problems exist, I can’t help but be encouraged that the season of denial may at long last be fading. It was just a few months ago that CSAF’s predecessor told Congress morale in the Air Force was “pretty darn good.” He totally lost airmen with that move. It’s refreshing to see Goldfein steer clear of such delusion.

Now … just to return us from the stratosphere of lifted hopes to reality on the ground, there’s a world of distance between Goldfein’s admission the Air Force must do better and the actual policies and resources to address this crisis. How he goes about implementing change and making it stick will ultimately determine whether this initial gambit turns out to be a harbinger of better times or a quick-fading spark amid persistent darkness. But the fact he was willing to commit to fixing it publicly … to allow himself to be accountable for his thought process and rationale … and to risk being harshly critiqued if he ultimately fails … well, that’s just a hell of a lot more than we’ve come to expect.

Leaders bare their thoughts and allow those thoughts to be criticized and debated. Goldfein did that, and some of his reasoning is suspect. There’s still this stubbornly embedded idea that the Air Force pilot shortage was catalyzed by the recovery of airline hiring, and that it’s mainly about economics. That’s just not the case. While the shortage is exacerbated by the fact that those on the fence between staying and going now have the gravity of an airline career pulling them off the fence in that direction, the shortage in committed, superior-performing pilots started years ago.

It’s not keyed to money. It’s keyed to the way squadron life has been radically changed for the worse. It’s keyed to the removal of administrative and financial support.

It’s keyed to organizational restructuring that has divided command authority at base level and put operators in a position where they must constantly beg the support community for help rather than that help consistently being there as a natural function of the organization. The time they spend begging … they don’t spend operationally focusing. 

It’s keyed to the fact that pilots are expected to tackle 100 hours worth of requirements — most of them having nothing to do with their jobs — in a typical work week … and still somehow carve out time for the study, preparation, and collaborative learning critical to mastering one of the world’s most difficult and dangerous crafts. We force them to abandon the commitment they know is necessary, unsurprisingly catalyzing widespread dissonance that degrades morale over time.

Maybe most of all, it’s keyed to a cultural shift that has devalued operational perspectives in favor of a reckless pretension that everyone and everything is equally important … that operational excellence can still be achieved without focus, emphasis, or appropriate resource allocation.

While Goldfein’s initial argument seems to contemplate much or maybe even most of this, it still relies heavily on an economic basis in defining the problem. He mentions the need for more family time, the need for more time to focus on training, and the need for administrative relief. But the policy prescriptions enumerated in his commentary are mostly about asking Congress to make pays and bonuses considerably larger. Things get more vague when it comes to the other proposals, and insiders tell me this is partially a reflection of the fear of promising too much … together with the fact that the resource equation is too tight to make a truly pronounced change. Goldfein will have to figure this part out, because the structural changes he seems to understand are necessary mean much more than the cash.

In my opinion, money is a small part of the answer. It’ll knock a few people off the fence on the Air Force side, and it’ll make those who have already decided to stay feel very good about that decision. But, as someone else said recently, you never hear an exchange in a bar where one guy says “why did you stop flying F-16s?” and the other guy says “there just wasn’t enough money in it.” You don’t quit doing something you love for strictly rational reasons … and the people we most need to retain are those emotionally invested in flying, fighting, and winning.

Still, I consider this single sentence one of the most remarkably positive signals out of the Air Staff in years:

Right now, we believe it is especially important to demonstrate to the pilot community that we are committed to fixing problems within our control.

Transparently demonstrating commitment goes a long way with people … especially those who want desperately to believe that if they stay in the service, it’ll hear and respond to their concerns and start getting itself back in good health. All anyone has ever wanted is a demonstrable commitment by generals to fixing that which they can fix. This means listening, caring enough to try, and explaining decisions … and it’s quite important that we seem to now have a CSAF who does those things, at least on this issue. 

Those most committed to our mission and value system don’t want to leave. They feel betrayed and take it personally when the service leaves them little choice but to bail out. CSAF has just given those people reason to consider staying. Whether they follow through will hinge on how effectively he follows through … and together these responses will tell the future tale of how the pilot shortage either got remedied or brought the whole circus crashing down.

If I were advising Goldfein, I’d tell him to put less emphasis on money and more emphasis on making squadrons healthy, sustainable, focused organizations. Do that, and you’ll see a response powerful enough that within a few years, you’ll have too many pilots. (Then we can have a debate about what to do in that situation. Spoiler alert: we got it wrong last time). 

As a closing note, I should mention that the piece discussed here was actually jointly written by Goldfein and Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James. I have deliberately omitted mention of her involvement in my analysis because I give her absolutely zero credit for any positive action on this issue. She’s held her job for three years and done nothing to address or even authentically acknowledge the pilot shortage. It’s gotten horrifically worse on her watch, which has been a showcase in how to ruin the focus of a combat organization. She doesn’t really care about the pilot shortage, or at least only cares to the extent it could threaten her other interests. I consider her participation in this article purely ornamental.

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