Leaked Memo Shows Depth of Air Force Manpower Crisis

Lt. Gen. Tod Wolters is the Air Force's senior manager of operations resources. A letter he signed in early June should be setting off alarm bells at the highest levels of the national defense community.
Lt. Gen. Tod Wolters is the Air Force’s senior manager of operations resources. A letter he signed in early June should be setting off alarm bells at the highest levels of the national defense community.

Earlier this month, Lt. Gen. Tod Wolters, the Air Force’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, sent a memorandum to all of the service’s major commands. The letter, cryptically titled “[Air Expeditionary Force] Rated Sourcing Guidance,” had a subject much simpler than its cryptic title: to announce the failure to adequately manage the supply of manpower for mission requirements, and to force field commanders to suffer the consequences.

Of course, you’d ordinarily need a Drogan’s Decoder Wheel to understand this or any other manpower-related Air Force document. Making people management an inaccessible black box of loopy jargon and Byzantine rule structures is one of the chief ways the league of flesh-peddlers maintains dominion over the operational community in today’s Air Force.

But the system is also learnable and manipulable enough that anyone willing (or forced) to invest the time can at least comprehend what it’s doing. In this case, JQP will provide a translation of this document, which was provided on the condition of anonymity by sources inside the Pentagon.

Austin Millbarge decoded an encrypted transmission in Mandarin Chinese using a Drogan's Decoder Wheel. Similar tools and tactics are necessary to understand the Air Force's management of people, which should be as clear and simple to comprehend as any part of the airpower business.
Austin Millbarge decoded an encrypted transmission in Mandarin Chinese using a Drogan’s Decoder Wheel. Similar tools and tactics are necessary to understand the Air Force’s management of people, which should be as clear and simple to comprehend as any part of any business.

First, a rendition of the relevant text:

“Due to continued stress on the rotationally deployable Rated Force as evidenced by the sharp increase in DAV 64s, HAF FAM for Rated is no longer to sustain sourcing Individual Rated Staff Rotational Taskings. Per AFI 10-401, Para., DAV 64s may be tasked as part of a forced-to-source solution. Effective immediately … we will begin sourcing DAV 64s as a mitigation strategy for our rated shortfalls.”

The letter goes on to provide additional process details before promising, laughably, to fix the problem to which it is reacting before the next deployment window, which starts the month after the deployment cycle it covers. The full document:

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Letters like this make one yearn for a time when leaders spoke plainly enough to be comprehended. My own belief is that generals like Wolters should stop putting their signatures on trash like this. Force the staff to speak sense, or better yet, write it in your own words — especially in a case where your words are certain to ravage the health of the force.

For now, we’ll have to settle for translations. Here’s what I contend this memo is saying:

“We don’t have enough pilots, navigators, and air battle managers to meet our requirements, even though those requirements are not a surprise. We know we’re short not because we have a manpower plan or a personnel strategy, but because we’ve noticed you, commanders in the field, have been protecting your key rated officers with a code saying they are too important to your mission for us to deploy them. You’ve been doing that more and more, which has left us less of a flesh margin. Because you’re now interfering with our ability to look good in the shower, we now suddenly care, but only enough to get what we want.

Yes, we realize an operational deferment is your way of saying “Uncle,” which is what the Chief of Staff has told you to do when you reach the limit of your ability to get the mission done with available resources. But because of our unwillingness to look more than three meters into the future over the last fourteen years, we just can’t care about your mission. We hear your cries of “Uncle” and hereby disregard them. The reason is rather simple. You can’t fire us or make us look bad, but the generals asking for these wing-wearers to go build powerpoint slides in the desert for a year … they can make us look bad or maybe even get us fired.

So, because of all that, we’re invoking an arcane rule buried in an instruction you’ve probably never seen and wouldn’t be able to understand if you did, since we gutted your operations support staff long ago. This rule allows us to slap an arbitrary label on our deployment scheduling process and use that label to justify an exception to your protective coding.

Bottom line: your people are not your people. We let you believe they’re  yours because it tends to make you more effective, thus serving as a necessary fiction to make the big machine run. But at this point we need to kidnap them for powerpoint. We don’t have time for a discussion about this, and even if we did, we’ve already made our decision to seize your manpower, so this is a one-way communication (yes, we know that’s not really communication per se, but hey, we’re the Air Staff).

As for your mission, we have nothing to say about that. Good luck figuring it out. We’ll care about it when you’ve failed miserably or often enough that it starts to make us look bad. By then, you and several of your successors will have been scapegoated and fired if you weren’t wise enough to retire preemptively. Oh — and even though we’ve neglected to fix this issue for the last decade-plus, we promise to fix it by October.

P.S. this all starts now, so we’ll be taking your people very soon.”

That’s a fair if somewhat raw and perhaps abrasive accounting of what this letter means to commanders in the field. Softening or shying away from the true meaning of the message would constitute a mistake of the same species that landed the Air Force in this mess in the first place. Too many people have strangled the truth of things for too long, masking problems with too much “can-do.” It’s clear now that the Air Force “can’t do” what it is charged to do without inflicting long-term damage upon itself, and that’s a bitter pill senior defense officials need to swallow.

The Air Force is admitting in this letter that it has so poorly managed its operations resources that it can’t do what the war effort requires without crossing red lines drawn by its own operational commanders. When a rated officer is coded with a “DAV 64,” this is a commander’s way of declaring the individual critical to a unit’s mission. This might mean the ability of a squadron to meet its required objective of training and readiness for the next war. It might mean the person is in a key leadership role where continuity is important to maintaining unit health. It might mean that without this individual, required training programs cannot be executed. It might mean that the unit is itself set to deploy and needs its first-string rated officers on the roster to get its wartime mission done safely and effectively.

No matter what it means, crossing the red line drawn by commanders is reckless in the extreme. It’s a classic example of managing a strategic resource by batting away the alligator closest to the boat. This has been the Air Force’s approach to managing people for a long time, and it is finally reaching the point as an institution where it can’t keep the alligators at bay. The boat will sink if this keeps up. As a country, we’re allowing our Air Force to fail internally. When it fails, it won’t just be airmen paying the price, it’ll be all of us.

Strategic myopia isn’t necessarily always a function of individual stupidity, cravenness, or ineptitude. Sometimes, it grows from system-wide incompetence and misguidedness. For as long as most airmen can remember, the Air Force has refused to develop a long-term plan to manage people. Every assignment drill is a crisis. Every deployment cycle is a crisis. Everything the Air Force Personnel Center is charged to do seems to be a surprise. That’s evidence the system has clouded the future rather than lifting the fog.

Airmen deserve a horizon that gives them 2-3 assignments worth of forward visibility so they can plan their lives and deliberately develop themselves and their relationships. In many corners of the Air Force, airmen are lucky to have 2-3 weeks of forward visibility. This memo will result in scores of people getting deployment orders on short notice — people who in all cases believed they were out of the game this cycle. Squadrons will be traumatized by the need to backfill and close gaps created by these moves, and in many cases they’ll be unable to do so or will make things happen with elevated levels of obscured risk. And of course, the service doesn’t bother sending a useful public release to the field illuminating this new reality to shape expectations. It generates another useless memo scribed in Staff Swahili.

Questions abound.

How is it a surprise to the Air Staff that these requirements exist? How is it a surprise that we don’t have enough people to fill them? When’s the last time someone challenged a deployment request? Is anyone reading the feedback deployers provide at the ends of their tours, where they often attest that all they did was go to the gym and build slides? Is anyone measuring the impact to operational units of having their key players pulled out of the lineup on short notice? Is there any reason to think that if we went to war tomorrow, those units shorted their key experts wouldn’t have degraded readiness? What is the staff doing to fix this?

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Myopia like this is worse than robbing Peter to pay Paul. This is like robbing Peter now, knowing you’ll have to rob them both again later as a result. A rated officer pulled out of a deferment is bad news for the future of the impacted organization and good news for future enemies. As the human toll of short-notice chicanery mounts and more rated officers bail out of the Air Force to avoid more of the same, there won’t be enough flesh to satisfy the peddlers even with exceptions like this. Not only is the Air Force unready to do its job now, it’ll be even less ready in the future. When both Peter and Paul are getting serially robbed while the pickpocket smiles at them, we’re at risk of losing a war.

But on the road to that future of toast, the current iteration of the Air Force will have sidestepped the nasty business of speaking truth to power by telling combatant commanders they have to shrink their staffs or live without a few extra powerpoint rangers or DV flight coordinators. 

What should the Air Force do to fix this? Well, you don’t have to be able to read Ulysses to decode an answer to this “riddle.” It’s really pretty simple.

1. Stop deploying people who don’t need to be deployed as a matter of political patronage or to feather the comfortable nests of deployed commanders. Audit every deployed billet and immediately invalidate those that clearly don’t need to exist.

2. Stop firing rated officers. You have a shortage in the RPA community, a shortage in the fighter community, a shortage in the staff community, and a horribly mangled mismatch between health of force and mission demand everywhere else. Yet you’ve jettisoned hundreds of pilots in the last two years alone and made conditions poor enough that others want to leave. Just last week, you told twice-deferred majors you’d rather they retire than be continued. This memo was signed before you made that decision, which means you’re literally paying people to go away who you desperately need.

3. Admit to Congress that you royally screwed the pooch by jamming a five-year drawdown into one year when the enemy was still voting, and that you’re now 20,000 people short. After all, if this number was good enough to be shared among the 4-stars at Corona, it’s good enough for public consumption. To get back to your new magic number of 337,000 — which is what you know you need to do the job you must do — start by inviting some of the people you fired last year to come back. The ones with wings might be especially useful.

4. Stop playing pickup with America’s Air Force and make a plan for how you’re going to utilize her sons and daughters to get your mission done. Halt, at least temporarily, the perpetual taxpayer-funded travelganzas and various symphonies of distraction, and instead channel energies toward building a sustainable, long-term strategy for dependably rendering airpower in the nation’s defense. 

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It’s a painful thing to recognize, but America’s strategic service has lost its way fundamentally. When you can’t organize and manage people competently, you can’t win wars. When you start dismantling your own mission rather than confront and remedy a fundamental mismatch between manpower and requirements, you deepen the damage and lengthen the recovery. During that lengthy recovery, enemies can still strike, and the world can still pull your card. Being unready is unacceptable, and planning to be unready is negligent.

This latest warning sign is peculiarly distressing. There’s no optimistic note upon which to conclude.

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