In Total Reversal, Welsh Admits Air Force is On Verge of Manpower Collapse

Two years ago, he decided to cut 19,000 airmen in one year instead of spreading those cuts over five years as Congress authorized. Now, Gen. Mark Welsh says the service has a manpower shortage in every mission area.

“Virtually every mission area” faces critical manning shortages, and the Air Force risks burning airmen out. “We’re at 82 to 85 percent manning levels in virtually every mission area,” Welsh said during a discussion Tuesday at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. “We can’t reach in someplace and grab more manpower to fix a problem anymore. And so we have got to figure out different ways of using our people in a more efficient way or we will wear them out. And if we lose them, we lose everything.”

This was the assessment earlier this week of Gen. Mark Welsh, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF), as reported by the Air Force Times’ Stephen Losey.

The remarks came as a surprise to many, likely including the 2013 version of Welsh himself, who insisted upon the wisdom of cutting 25,000 airmen from the ranks over five years and then proceeded to jam those cuts, electively, into a single year. Somewhere, in the alternative universe where 2013 Welsh roams oblivious to the consequences of his decision, he is undoubtedly haunted by the professional ghosts of the 19,000 airmen who lost their jobs in 2014 … as well as the tortured souls of those who remained behind to struggle with increasing demands in an endemically under-resourced and mismanaged Air Force.

But here in the real world, 2015 Welsh is answerable for the consequences created by his former self. His total reversal is comforting in the sense that it acknowledges a problem at the core of national defense. In every other sense, it is a deeply disappointing admission that could do more to snap the spine of the service than mend it.

It would be easy to just post this and say “told you so.” After all, we’ve been beating the drum here for almost three years about problems of undermanning and overstretch. We’ve begged officials to refrain from personnel cuts. We’ve recommended manpower reforms to move billets away from frills and into operational squadrons. We’ve repeatedly critiqued the bureaucratic busywork, mandated community service, and VIP tourism that have exacerbated already dire manning issues by further invading the time and focus of a shrinking and task saturated pool of airmen.

We’ve argued that too many people deploy for too long doing too little in their billets to justify the disruption and hardship triggered by their absence. We’ve suggested reforming the Air Force Personnel Center (AFPC) and holding generals there and elsewhere accountable for personnel abuses. And with increasing volume and frequency, we’ve sounded the alarm that airmen were well beyond burnout and looking for the nearest exit. Welsh now seems to adopt these arguments without saying what he plans to do to address them.

Incidentally, these urgings are a continuation of arguments I made for several years before leaving active duty — joined by many of my colleagues then and since. 

Here’s one example — an email I sent to my boss, Charleston’s Ops Group Commander at the time, after our C-17 squadrons received an assignment bill from AFPC that I was convinced would degrade our mission capability if we paid it. The bill excised 40 pilots from an already undermanned and inexperienced group, sending many of our instructors and established aircraft commanders to plug manning holes in other communities.

This is one of many such pleadings made by a legion of like-minded commanders and staff officers between 2008 — when Gen. Schwartz and his “legion of yes” well and truly broke the Air Force manning equation — and my retirement in spring 2013, less than nine months after this message went forward. I know many others who made similar pleas, impaling themselves on various swords before separating or retiring in advance of the full and inevitable iceberg contact we’re now witnessing.

—–Original Message—–
Sent: Wednesday, May 30, 2012 6:27 PM
To: 437 OG/CC
Subject: Must-Pay Bill


I know you’re task saturated and it’s not my intent to swing another dead cat in your direction, but it’s one of those moments where I feel I owe you candor. The assignment bill we’ve gotten from AFPC is too large.  If we pay it, we will short ourselves of the required manning to safely execute future squadron deployments.  There are a ton of additional effects ranging from professional development to resiliency to health of squadron, but this is the immediate bottom line.

The Sq/CCs are meeting tomorrow to parcel out the assignments and we’re dutifully moving out on matching faces and spaces.  We’ll meet the suspense to AFPC.  Just wanted you to be aware that in my view, we’re about to cross a red line.  This will be a delay-fuzed manning bomb with large consequences.  I believe our system depends on me telling you when we reach a point like this. If I hide the fact until next spring when it becomes self-evident, I will have done you a disservice.

For background: I believe the root cause of the oversized bill is mismatch between AFPC’s analysis of our “numbers” and the reality of how many people we have.  We’ve asked Maj X to provide a list of the 367 pilots he claims we have here so we can go down the list one by one and reconcile.  He has not provided a list of names to back up his number.

I’m continuing to analyze our personnel roster in more depth and will provide you with a deployed manning projection to back up what I’m asserting.  The bill has gotten too close to the boat for me to poke at any other alligators, but I promise to circle back and provide more data.  For now, just wanted you to know what I’m seeing.  I don’t think you’d get much of a different story from my colleagues on either coast.


Commander, 14th Airlift Squadron
Joint Base Charleston

Note this wasn’t framed in terms of individual or family impacts. It wasn’t about tempo or training or continuity or the promotion timing of those involved. Those factors were certainly present but had long since been dismissed as invalid reasons for pushback. They had become broken glass for commanders to clean up as best they could. This was the “Alamo” message … the warning that our entire reason for existence was about to be jeopardized.

In response to this input and offline conversations among the commanders involved, my boss charged forth and fought the good fight. He raised the issue, making it visible above wing level and at AFPC. Concurrently, I and others used our connections in San Antonio, Washington DC, and at Scott Air Force Base to highlight what we feared was about to happen — to raise the profile and hopefully instigate a more fundamental discussion about manning in our community, which we knew was representative of basically every other corner of the Air Force.

We lost. Big Blue and AFPC shook off our inputs like a mild case of fleas. They demanded their pound of flesh, robbing an already penniless Peter because Paul was also down on his luck. We did the dirty work … choosing winners (and in some cases, victims), informing those impacted, and sweeping up the broken glass. We did our best to cobble together our squadrons and keep them operating at a basically safe level within a merciless tempo. As always, the people handing out mission requirements were oblivious to our manning challenges and instantly developed deafness and confusion when we tried to explain them.

In playing our assigned roles, we contributed to the problem we were lamenting. We continued to support the pretense that there wasn’t a mission-threatening problem, and gave AFPC and the Air Staff license to continue in their own pretensions. This elaborate machinery of lies was lubricated by constant positive messaging from atop the Air Force about caring for airmen and welcoming them to speak up before burning out. 

As a result of this ornate and continual exercise in collective deception, incentives associated with stabilizing the Air Force and making it sustainable continued to be outweighed by incentives associated with competing priorities. Therefore, no effort to fix the manning issue materialized.

In the time since I sent this warning, the Air Force has slashed 20,000 more airmen from its roster, including hundreds of mobility pilots, while increasing its mission load. Budget officers acting on the direction of Gen. Welsh last year effectuated a cute accounting trick to reduce the C-17 community’s ratio of pilots to aircraft, creating the illusion of sufficient manning while increasing the workload on each individual and squadron. This was done to an already exhausted crew force riddled with lurking risks occasionally bubbling out as safety compromises, and is a representative chard of a huge orb of policies designed to squeeze more blood out of an already drained and disintegrating turnip. This is happening across the force, as Welsh now admits.

All of this happened without a service-wide manning review, personnel forecast, or audit of deployed manpower. But despite these steps not being undertaken, the manpower crisis is not a surprise. It’s a well-known and longstanding reality of Air Force life that has been shouted from the rooftops for years and actively refuted, marginalized, ignored, discounted, downplayed, and outright denied by those empowered to correct it.

Until now.

Which brings us back to Gen. Welsh’s comments.

Welsh All Call
Recently, CSAF told a crowd of airmen that if pilots chose to get out, someone else would step into their place. Now, he says if we lose our airmen, we lose everything. He was wrong then and he’s right now. But what will he can about it?

Some will be quick to credit the Boss for seemingly showing honesty in these latest comments — late being the operative term. But before we trip over ourselves congratulating him for stating what everyone else has been openly acknowledging and pleading about for years on end, we should register Welsh’s own responsibility for what he is lamenting. He’s complaining about a problem he himself — and arguably he alone — was in a position to prevent.

Welsh inherited this problem from his predecessor, though some will say he had a hand in its creation as commander of  US Air Forces in Europe before rising to the CSAF role. Either way, he’s done nothing to fix it and much to worsen it.

Airmen who have raised issues of manning and overstretch have been reminded that things are tough all over. Airmen who have warned that they can’t get the mission done without more people and resources have been told no help is on the way. Airmen who have warned that they’d vote with their feet have been told they’re replaceable and invited to essentially not let the door hit them on the way out. Media outlets that have written about the unfolding crisis have been mocked and marginalized, even and especially those outlets CSAF claims he doesn’t read.

Here’s the way I see this. CSAF has stood on the train tracks while a steaming locomotive has raced toward him, onlookers shouting warnings. He has pretended the train didn’t exist. Now that it’s too late to avoid getting mowed down, he stands still, the entire Air Force on the tracks with him, and essentially says “oh look … a train. Maybe we should move.”

That baseline opinion established, I offer the following.

When CSAF says “[w]e can’t reach in someplace and grab more manpower to fix a problem anymore” … my response is that “we” never thought was a good idea in the first place, and “we” said so. “You” (including A1 and AFPC) did this anyway and now apparently agree it was a bad idea. The problem is that “you” already made “us” do this so much that it’s too late to avoid lasting impacts. Instead of breaking one or two communities or, better yet, ceasing activity to create capacity, we’ve spread the strain across the entire force. This has broken or critically strained everyone, just as “we” warned it would.

When CSAF says “we have got to figure out different ways of using our people in a more efficient way or we will wear them out” … my response is (a) there are no new efficiencies. You need either more people or less mission, and (b) too late.

And when CSAF says “if we lose them, we lose everything,” … my response is that I could not agree more.

Screen Shot 2015-10-31 at 3.06.52 PM

There’s no question, at least in my mind and the minds of many others, that Welsh inherited an Air Force in an unusual attitude. It needed timely and decisive inputs. Instead, he jammed the rudder in the direction of modernizing the fleet, ripped the personnel planning throttles back to idle, and put the service in a tightening spin that even he now seems to understand can’t be recovered without damage to the aircraft. The question remaining at this point is whether it can be recovered at all.

All that remains now is for CSAF to hand the ailing, uncontrolled aircraft to his successor. Given that it took him this long to admit there’s a problem, he hasn’t given himself much time to actually fix it. That task will fall to whoever has the honor of being the next CSAF, and it’ll be a tougher task than it needed to be.

Some will say CSAF is indeed only now recognizing the depth of this problem. To that I would say such late recognition is explainable only by pure ineptitude, aggravated by an institutional climate that discourages and actively shuts out candid assessments that contain inconvenient substance. But I wouldn’t say that, because I don’t buy that CSAF didn’t know this problem existed and didn’t understand its severity. 

Assuming he has understood this unfolding crisis in the same way most of his subordinate commanders have grasped it, the real question is why Welsh is choosing this moment to openly acknowledge it. There are many reasons we could speculate, but I’ll offer two I believe are worth considering.

First, it’s possible CSAF saw it in his and the service’s interests to avoid a clear articulation of this problem until now. For the first three years of his time in the position, he’s been focused on modernizing, chiefly by reinforcing Congressional support and national investment in the F-35, LRS-B, and KC-46. Had he said at any point in the last three years, without mincing words, that the Air Force was short on people … he might have invited Congressional limits on modernization funding that stood in competition with personnel funding. With the modernization portfolio now stable (albeit not in quite the shape CSAF had hoped), the risk of admitting a manning crisis and opening a discussion about it is now more manageable from a whole-of-the-institution perspective.

Second, Welsh might be timing his revelation to make the problem more approachable for his successor. The Air Force he inherited was actively engaging in self-deception on the manning issue, which meant that for Welsh to raise end strength as an issue — especially against the acquisition backdrop described above — he would have needed to be utterly convinced of the severity of the problem. The kind of candid, unfiltered information needed to become that convinced is difficult to come by as CSAF, especially in a service culture afflicted with a nasty strain of neo-fascism. By pronouncing there is a problem, Welsh relieves his successor of this burden, giving that person more running room to solve it.

Whether one or both of these is essentially correct, neither begins to address the larger question of what CSAF is going to do about this problem. Most of the solution lies beyond his authority, but none of it lies beyond his reach. What remains to be seen is whether he’ll go on a candid campaign on the Hill and in the White House to return the nation’s air service to sustainability.

But even if he decides to take up a fight for new resources with external stakeholders, Welsh has created for himself an internal dilemma. By lamenting a problem he had a hand in creating … by missing the opportunity to take responsibility for his role in creating and deepening that problem … and by openly advertising that he’s all out of solutions, Gen. Welsh has hemorrhaged the trust and confidence of many of his airmen.

Whether he and his staff have alienated too many to remain effective is a question only he can answer. But then again, as this situation illustrates, the current iteration of the Air Force doesn’t ask questions when it might not like the answers.

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