Note: minor edits have been made to this story to eliminate any possibility of erroneous misattribution. The original version placed quotes around the italicized phrase “suck it up.” While the context and structure of the piece made clear this was analysis rather than a direct quote, the responsible thing to do is to squelch any potential misunderstanding. The quotes have therefore been removed, but the substance is unchanged.
Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, the acting commander of the 101st Airborne during the siege of Bastogne, became a figure of lore when he responded to a German surrender ultimatum with the single word “Nuts!” … colloquial for “go to Hell.” But it’s another McAuliffe vignette that tells us something important about leadership responses to external pressure.
During a visit to the line during the siege, popularized in the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers,” McAuliffe interacts with soldiers freezing, starving, low on ammunition, and lacking medical supplies. His soldiers plead with him for manpower, reporting that the line is so porous it allows enemy scouts to wander through unnoticed. McAuliffe asks questions, seems to listen, and unceremoniously directs them to “hold the line.”
The scene captures the frustration of subordinates forced to entertain visits from officials who make a show of caring but lack either the will or the ability to genuinely address their concerns. McAuliffe knew he couldn’t offer any help and he also knew he wouldn’t learn anything he couldn’t already read in a situation report from one of his regimental commanders. He went to the field to “buck up the troops,” but the effect he created was just the opposite: deepened hopelessness.
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When Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh visited Creech Air Force Base recently, his objective was reportedly to motivate and lift the spirits of Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) crews mired in a chronically punitive operational tempo without adequate manpower or support resources.
He seems to have instead deepened the hopelessness gripping the RPA community in general and Creech in particular.
Notes and first-hand accounts obtained by JQP paint a picture of Welsh working to transmit his key themes and messages on a broad range of topics, but sometimes resorting to uncomfortable, blunt, and even combative language when pushed by Creech airmen.
What follows is a sampling of the topics discussed.
Welsh criticized his own subordinate chain of command, lamenting that he passes along plenty of information about what the Air Staff is doing to improve the lives of RPA airmen, but that somehow that information doesn’t seem to be making it to the field. He went on to gently chide the audience, telling them the burden is on them to push their leaders for information.
His oddly adverse reasoning left some audience members more skeptical and disaffected than before. It seemed the general was both throwing his own juniors under the bus as poor communicators and at the same time implicating airmen as being somehow at fault for being under-informed.
The Future of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR).
In touching on the challenges plaguing the RPA world, Welsh told Creech airmen to think of themselves as the “Wright Brothers” of their part of the “ISR enterprise” and reassured them of an eventually bright future.
But he also told them in no uncertain terms that it would be a long time before they could expect to “live normal lives.”
This knocked the wind out of many airmen approaching decisions about their Air Force futures and hoping desperately for a signal that the service is trying to make their work sustainable. It’s more than a little jarring to have the service chief acknowledge powerlessness to give people normalcy, or even the expectation of sustainability at any future point.
The premise of Welsh’s comments in this area had to do with ISR being a “new” capability inadequately understood by “Big Air Force” to the extent that Creech airmen would have to brainstorm their own way out of their problems.
Many privately grumbled that the community isn’t new anymore, hasn’t been novel for a long time, and that they’ve given Welsh and his staff plenty of ideas for making things better only to have those ideas ignored.
Base Support and Facilities.
Welsh made it crystal clear that Creech will not see any improvement any time soon, and will thus remain a relatively austere, ad hoc facility well into the future. Base housing, a recurring request from Creech airmen whose long commutes exacerbate the impact of extreme hours and irregular schedules, was completely ruled out by the general.
Another support request Welsh sent down in flames was for the availability of 24-hour childcare. This kind of support is badly needed to ease the strain of the 24-7-365 uniqueness of the Creech mission, something Welsh went to great lengths to acknowledge earlier in his presentation, and something he touched on during a previous visit in 2013.
It’s admirable that Welsh didn’t feed any false hopes that the childcare request might be entertained. The airmen of Creech are accustomed to having their support requests denied and took that part of it in stride.
But his rationale was more problematic.
He argued that if he gave Creech around-the-clock childcare, he’d have to fund it for all other bases as well. This is suspect reasoning. If the unique strain of the Creech mission is as peculiar as Welsh believes it to be, accommodating peculiar support requirements would not be a slippery slope of universal funding for other bases.
To the extent Welsh gave this proposal short shrift, it’s especially unfortunate he would do so just as Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James insists the service wants to attract and retain more women. The constant stress of coordinating childcare against the pressure of an unstable schedule is high on the list of reasons women leave service rather than continue.
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Where the tenor of Welsh’s visit went beyond blunt if ultimately constructive truth-telling and into edgier territory was on everyone’s favorite subject: manpower.
The problems with RPA pilot manpower are well documented and have been labeled an acute crisis for years. In that time, the community has largely been pulled together in-stride as an amalgam of pilots borrowed from other weapon systems. Tours have been repeatedly extended and promises about follow-on assignments chronically broken.
In that same span, business has boomed. Last year, Predator and Reaper aircraft flew nearly 370,000 hours – six times the figure reported from 2006. But somehow, in that nine years, the Air Force personnel system has remained flat-footed and devoid of a plan for managing the lives and careers of RPA operators.
Pilots excited to contribute to a relevant, consequential mission have warned for more than a decade of unsustainable working conditions, excessive hours, and too little recognition of the cumulative psychological toll of the job. RPA pilots typically leave their tours burned out and toxic, with any remaining desire for a continuing Air Force career hanging by the thinnest of threads.
For years, they’ve asked for relief in the form of additional manpower. For years, they’ve had those requests marginalized, downplayed, ignored, and outright denied. The recurring excuse is that something else is more important. But given that the Predator alone flew the third most hours of any Air Force weapon system last year, the community is reasonably questioning whether the service has an appropriate sense of its own priorities.
A few years ago, the Air Force charted what looked like a new and more viable path by opening a pipeline of “natively trained” or “18X” RPA pilots, raising them in RPAs rather than drawing them laterally from traditional platforms.
But while the effort helped relieve a minimal amount of pressure on contributing communities, it did not change the grueling reality of life in an RPA squadron. As the initial members of the 18X pipeline now approach the expiration of their service commitments, an overwhelming majority are said to be planning for separation. One such officer told me “the RPA world is turning into a salt mine.”
One officer pressed Welsh on this issue, asking why there was no top-level vision or resourced personnel strategy for the RPA pilot career field. Welsh reportedly responded first with a deflection to the effect that (paraphrasing) when he was a young captain, he always assumed he was the smartest person in the room and had all the answers to the Air Force’s problems, but that he eventually learned to concentrate on what he could control and let others worry about the bigger systemic questions.
There are several reasons to object to this sort of response, especially if you’re the person who asked the question or a similarly situated colleague.
First, it’s condescending and more than a little fallacious to assume captains – those who lead the service’s daily combat operations and form the spine of the operational Air Force – are incapable of reckoning wise and intelligent ideas useful at the highest level. Welsh’s captaincy occurred during a time of relative tranquility and fat budgets at the height of the Cold War, meaning his own experiences have limited value in today’s starkly different environment.
Second, it’s inconsistent with the Air Force’s own commitment to innovation along the entire spine of the service, with ideas considered more important than the rank or experience of the source.
Third, it’s a re-phrased appeal for “trust in the system” offered without establishing a basis for that trust.
In exchanges like this, there are no true questions. Most questions are pre-scripted, propagandist tee-balls for officials to knock out of the park. But even the unscripted questions are actually statements, and the answers given by officials are counter-statements. In this example, the officer essentially made the statement we’re losing trust in the Air Force based on the lack of a plan to adequately resource what we do. Welsh’s counter-statement was essentially trust the system. Even if his answer had been more artfully rendered, it was unresponsive.
After deflecting, Welsh uttered a platitude, albeit a particularly comforting one, in stating that the capabilities needed for the next quarter century of airpower were under development and that 18X officers would be the ones applying those capabilities in the future. The remark has a ring of truth, but the absence of a plan to retain and develop 18Xs could make a liar out of Welsh if sharp corrections aren’t made before his vaguely referenced future arrives.
Creech’s maintenance community also weighed in, asking what he could do to ease the “rob Peter to pay Paul” dynamic that deploys Creech maintainers to fill holes in other maintenance units, often as a result of excessive deployments taxing those other units. Unfolding in a perpetual cycle, this has placed Creech maintainers on a 1:1 dwell ratio, with just as much time deployed as at home. This has led to chronic understaffing and unremitting working conditions.
Welsh reportedly shot the question down without much elaboration, telling the questioner that this practice is reality across the force. Apparently, the question of why regional bands still occupy hundreds of manpower billets that might ease this strain was also posed, but Welsh reportedly did not address that part of the question.
Here, Welsh crystallizes the line between giving people the straight answers they crave and using blunt talk to dismiss, shut down, or filter out their valid concerns. The questioner was making a statement to the effect of we can’t do the job you expect without enough manpower. Welsh’s counter-statement was essentially suck it up.
Arguably the most important and revealing exchanges during Welsh’s visit focused on the problem of pilot manning. The general insisted he was well aware of the problem and working on it. He stated his intention to send generals to Creech every month to meet with commanders and come up with “solutions.”
This is a revealing notion, again reinforcing that Welsh believes any solutions to Creech’s problems must necessarily flow from the personal involvement of senior officials rather than simply listening to the crews themselves. Airmen at Creech don’t need (and don’t want) more senior officials visiting their base and pulling their focus off the mission to play pretend at solving problems. They need more manpower and the policies to make their business sustainable, pure and simple.
If, as Welsh proclaims, there is no money, no answer, and indeed no relief for the problems at Creech, there can be no value added by more VIP tourism. In fact, the savings cognizable by withholding from such visits would be much better spent providing 24/7 childcare or hiring a few more people to fly or maintain RPAs.
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Creech is a microcosm of the broader Air Force, itself suffering from a pilot shortage that is continually worsening in the face of official inaction. Fighters are several hundred pilots short, while the mobility community continues to suffer from experience imbalances and hidden manning deficiencies masked by accounting tricks and roster manipulation. Unpublished retention goals are not being met, and even when they are, too many top performers are often electing to separate or retire rather than continue.
Last year’s pilot bonus take rate was an anemic 53%, the lowest in a dozen years. As airline hiring reaches full throttle in the next few years, more pilots will likely separate. Their choice to do so will hinge less on the money they can earn in an airline job and more on the increasingly miserable working conditions they’re facing in the Air Force. Many believe that the logic of “service before self” has collapsed into expected self-obliteration, a “privilege” sought by few that cannot lead to a healthy institutional future.
The sad part about all of this is that despite Welsh’s seeming sense of helplessness, it was completely preventable. The painful truth is that America’s Air Force lacks a personnel strategy for its most critical career field, and thus cedes the assurance of excellence in national defense to the whimsical dictates of chance and galloping managerial myopia.
The Air Force has been shedding pilots through voluntary and involuntary drawdown measures for years. As a squadron commander, I had a front row seat for the 2011 Reduction in Force (RIF) board, which purported to seek a 5% across-the-board reduction in the officer corps but instead selected 201 pilots from 446 RIF candidates for elimination – 46% of all firings.
Despite public statements to the contrary, the 2011 RIF targeted pilots specifically, over the objections of commanders. Many of those eliminated were decorated, accomplished aviators who simply hadn’t exhibited enough corporate ambition or checked enough squares in their early years. The service needed them, and commanders in the field knew it. They protested, and the generals ignored them.
Fast-forward a few years and several missteps later, and the Air Force is staring down the barrel of a strategic crisis without the money or structural latitude to correct it. The predicted path forward is more masking of the problem, more platitudes to make that mask thicker, and more pain transferred to the backs of the people doing the work.
All of this for want of a decent plan to make sure there are enough people to do the job of airpower. If not this, what could possibly be the job of senior officials?
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General Welsh’s visit to Creech is symbolically important. Reflecting on it, we glimpse CSAF seemingly sipping a noxious cocktail of denial, futility, and fantasy while the troops he was there to motivate sense a distressing incapacity at the highest levels to correct their problems. Equally concerning, we glimpse a persisting tendency to believe more empty cloying from incapable officials is a recipe for anything other than recurring disruption.
The takeaways are startling. Welsh can’t fix the Air Force’s pilot shortage. He can’t even hire more babysitters to watch the kids while the adults fight terrorists. His honesty is refreshing, but no chaser can wash away the taste of inevitable mediocrity.
If a more eloquent version of “hold the line” is the limit of Welsh’s ability to respond to problems like those at Creech, the nation’s Air Force is in at least as much trouble as McAuliffe’s paratroops faced in the Ardennes.