The Air Force is known for its employment of cutting edge technology, but at the end of the day, it’s about airmen. How well squadrons of airmen fight will determine whether the Air Force does its duty in future conflicts, and whether the nation is adequately defended. Accordingly, understanding how the composition of the force is changing over time is important.
This model offers one way to think about such changes.
Traditionally, the service’s attitude about itself and toward its people embraced a “work hard, play hard” sensibility, candid communication up and down the chain of command, and character development as a pillar of overall force development. This approach was seen as the best way to build mutual trust and mutual support, and to be best assured that in the heat and fluidity of a high-intensity war scenario, airmen would be tough, perseverant, ingenious, and tight-knit enough to win together … which is the only way to win. There was a premium on integrity, conceptualized as the fullest version of the truth and necessary to keep airmen from having to wade through time wasting nonsense in a profession that measures success in tenths of seconds.
This view valued people who had spines and pushed back when their BS meters got pegged or they encountered stupidity. It also valued people worked hard enough to make occasional mistakes. It valued people who took risks and learned from occasionally stretching too far … which is a thing sometimes necessary in a real fight.
Of course it also valued those who held themselves to seemingly perfect standards, sparing no effort to achieve peerlessness while remaining untarnished. Those smart and quick enough to do everything to a 100% standard without missing a step. This “zero defect” attitude is as baked into the Air Force as anything, having entrenched itself during the service’s glorious ascendancy as guardian of the nation’s nuclear arsenal during the height of the Cold War.
These two conflicting ideals long coexisted uneasily but effectively, ensuring that roughly half of the career airmen in the service would be drawn from each general category.
The current culture of the Air Force has collapsed the distinction between criminals and the otherwise noticeably imperfect … and has also abolished sub-categories of “imperfect” … creating one huge category of disfavored airmen.
Failing a PT test, declining to participate in politically blessed activities like community service, or refusing to give up family time in order to chase degree credits … these trivialities have roughly the same career impact as committing a crime. Same for suffering a physical or mental injury, writing something too strident for public consumption, or smoking a cigarette in the wrong spot during off-duty time at a deployed base. Even openly disagreeing with a policy while complying is enough to get you marked.
Increasingly, you’re either “perfect” … or you’re on the way out. This means most of the career force is drawn from the risk-averse, the self-concerned, the carefully political … the concealers, compliers, and cronies who band together and push everyone else into the nearest ditch.
As the “perfect” gain control, they’re building up policies to fortify their gains and make life in the Air Force increasingly untenable for anyone who isn’t an organizational pragmatist. This makes for a future force comprised totally of careerists … save for the few criminals who will always occur naturally in a group of any appreciable size.
This is a scary prospect. A force made up completely of the self-concerned can’t, by definition, be an effective team. And if it can’t fight as a team, the Air Force of the future can’t win.
Authentic people who are in touch with their imperfection are not always easy to deal with. They try too hard sometimes, they create work for leaders, and they generally persist in a stubborn, impassioned idealism when it comes to team identity and combat effectiveness. But these people generally grow up to be the best leaders with the deepest ties to teammates and the deepest wells of loyalty to the institution. We need them.
The shift outlined here isn’t as simple as changing attitudes of people toward one another or that which is favored by those currently in leadership roles. It has roots in terrible decisions dating back more than a decade that left the service with an unsustainable day-to-day operating model. That left it especially vulnerable to all that has followed … and the problems arising as a result are fueled by poor leadership, exacerbated by a ruthlessly excessive drawdown, accelerated by a decline in the quality and timeliness of military education, and enabled by a flawed appreciation of the proper role and limitation of command authority. A decline in service culture has been further facilitated by corrupt co-option of law enforcement and individual justice by toxic commanders who haven’t been reined in … and they (and those failing to rein them in) have been further incentivized by political correctness running amok … enforced through excessive centralization, micromanagement, and meddling.
But … we must remember that this isn’t a static prospect so much as a descriptive theory, and the humans subject to it can and will react. They’re doing that now, which is why the Air Force has a retention problem most severe in career fields that have traditionally performed its core mission. They see how things are changing, and want no part of it. They’re getting out of the way.
But just as they can decide to leave, they can decide to stay … which we need them to do desperately. For that to happen, the next CSAF will need to start thinking about service culture in the terms outlined here (or something like them) … and stop pretending everything is “pretty darn good.“
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