A Look Back and a Look Ahead Through John Q’s Scope



Whatever the John Q. Public community represents as the clock rolls over to 2015, it started more modestly. This is axiomatic, since nothing could be more unexceptional than the objectives that gave rise to this blog.

JQP started as a recently retired officer’s vehicle to (hopefully) slightly, marginally raise the public chatter level concerning key challenges confronting airmen, airpower, and the United States Air Force in the crushingly unforgiving security and budgetary environment of the 21st Century. It was my belief at the time (and remains today) that the uniquely insular culture of the USAF had suppressed the kind of command climate needed to reliably underwrite its future as an independent federal agency. External voices were needed, I thought, to channel and embolden the internal anxieties of the tactical-level Air Force. These anxieties reflected deep-seated problems of basic organization, priority, and communication that could, if not remedied, become dangerous to the future of independent airpower.

As 2014 ends, it’s clear that this community has become much more than the street-level voice originally envisioned. The blog has become more than one person’s musings. It is now a responsive operation that feeds on inputs from the community, with in-depth journalistic and investigative articles woven between commentaries and thought pieces — some by guest authors — on a broad range of topics from unit-level reform to public accountability to national defense writ large. More than 1.1 million visitors found these pages over the past twelve months — a four-fold increase from the year before — engaging with thousands of comments and countless shares that created exponential engagement across the full range of social media venues. It was an explosively participative year for JQP, and I’d like to close it with a genuine note of thanks to those who got involved here to give the Air Force community an unofficial forum that I humbly believe is increasingly worthy and relevant.

There is some sense of a niche being filled. Members and affiliates of the USAF need a place to pull apart ideas central to not just their daily lives but the future of the service to which they’ve dedicated themselves. They need to be able to examine these issues through a critical lens. The Air Force doesn’t provide such a place, opting instead for a propaganda strategy based on constant sunshine. By capturing a considerable fraction of the Air Force’s yearning for untethered intellectual exploration and reflection, JQP has become a prime spot to take the street-level pulse of the service. This explains why many senior leaders and their staffs monitor and even participate on these pages, notwithstanding many breathless denials to the contrary. Not uncommonly, these leaders and decision makers are impacted and even influenced by the ideas surfaced here — not so much by the articles themselves, but in the comments and exchanges that follow here and elsewhere. Many decisions were made in 2014 under the partial influence of this community, and 2015 promises to cotinue this trend.

Here’s a look back at how this all came to be over the past year, expressed as the seven top JQP themes of 2014.  Why seven, you ask?  Because seven’s the number, man.

VIP Culture.

Nothing gets under the skin of airmen more quickly than senior officers who extoll the virtues of shared privation only to climb aboard a corporate jet after a few platitudes and head back to a comfortable office manned by servants and personal entertainers to attend to every whim in ways that would have made Marie Antoinette blush. Meanwhile, those airmen who comprised the mostly involuntary audience for the distinguished visitor return to their jobs, still lacking the resources they need and feeling scarcely more appreciated than before. Over the past year, airmen have become more attuned to and vocal about this “royal court culture” characterizing the senior enlisted and officer ranks.  They rightly question why the service needs its own second-rate substitute for a Vegas show band, not to mention a legion of uniformed musicians occupying manpower billets desperately needed in operational units. They also wonder why senior leaders at all levels feel the seemingly unending need to look in on them directly, disrupting their focus and the work that gives their service life its meaning.

Is the USAF seized with an unhinged culture of senior privilege? Aside from its addiction to corporate perks, there are other indications supporting this hypothesis, such as the seeming inability of commanders to reverse bad decisions for fear of losing political face, and the boldness with which generals disparage other officers, unapologetically betraying a long-cherished custom of military decorum in the process.  These debate topics drew large readership over the past year, and promise to retain potency going forward.

Warfighting Capabilities.

Having lost the ability to educate Congress and the nation about airpower during the fat years, the corporate Air Force sputtered into the lean years with insufficient funding to meet the airpower appetites of the nation and the joint force. Lacking resources, the service resorted in its desperation to political hackery and budgetary maneuvering in an effort to affirm what it sees as its institutional interests over the long term.

Regrettably, this led to positions that ignored warfighting efficacy in the present and near term, creating intra-service alienation of close air support and air control experts in a failed gambit to cashier the A-10. The service’s self-inflicted injury was doubled by the Gump-like tactics used to inflict it, and scarcely salved by the cowardly silence that followed public challenges to the move. Eventually, Congress condemned the idiocy of sending a proven weapon to the boneyard as it was still under heavy demand by warfighting commanders, and sanity prevailed. We’ll see if 2015 brings another round of A-10 debate, but key changes in the House and Senate Armed Services Committees predict a long service life for the Hawg.

Power, Command, and Due Process. 

One of the consequences of a hierarchical culture that doesn’t create room for vertical dissent and debate is the engendering of a mafia-like power structure giving bosses unquestioned authority to dispose of lower-level bosses for any reason and without a meaningful appeal process. If this doesn’t strike the reader as a particularly American system, that’s because it would be much more at home in the militaries of our traditional adveraries. But it’s the system currently emplaced in your United States Air Force, and it helps explain why morally courageous leaders have been voluntarily bailing out of the service by the dozen while those happy to chant the word “yes” to achieve personal advancement have found a welcome environment within which to affirm their nihilistic ambitions.

Summer brought the news that Craig Perry, a promising, accomplished, highly-educated, and hand-picked squadron commander in the Lackland basic training community, had been sacked by a boss who found him intolerably intelligent and innovative but hid these real motives behind an obviously framed witch-hunt supported by an investigation that would be called corrupt if it were competent enough. JQP threw the flag on this morass and raised pressure on the Air Force to correct, but Perry’s firing stuck and his boss retired under the shimmering glare of official regalia, with the Wing Commander who sanctioned it all promoted and shipped away to a staff role. The Perry case was particularly distressing since it involved an ex post investigation to justify a firing rather than a firing based on evidence. When commanders can manipulate supposedly dispassionate processes to manufacture justifications for things they’ve already done, the door to arbitrariness and abuse is wide open.

Soon after, the news broke of the even more specious sacking of Blair Kaiser, a decorated combat commander with no recorded misconduct despite repeated investigative attempts by his own chain of command to smear him. The inability to prove him culpable of wrongdoing didn’t stop his wing commander, Colonel Pat Rhatigan, from searching out a frail and unsupported excuse to push Kaiser aside in favor of a command darling who himself was promptly fired without explanation by the same person who hired him. Rhatigan made a Trump-like sport of cashiering the Air Force’s best and brightest, crushing the careers of five commanders during his tenure, which continues into 2015 but is rumored to be ending with retirement rather than the customary promotion most Little Rock commanders receive. His unchecked gutting of an organization that thrived before his arrival is a stain on the Air Force tradition of dignified leadership.

Such toxicity poisons Air Force units unless remedied by senior officers. In this case, not only did the 4-star officer presiding over the inept administrative fireworks that distracted and disrupted an important warfighting wing do nothing noticeable to remedy them, there is circumstantial evidence he made himself part of the circus.

Senior-level responses to these cases demonstrate the infection of entire major commands with the disease of self-serving and politically correct management, which cannot coexist with true leadership. Unexplained firings are not the road to a superb Air Force. But as 2015 gets huge in the windscreen, they continue. It’s not clear that the Air Force is enough of a learning organization to actually realize it can’t thrive without lucidly and transparently explaining its most consequential decisions.

Compensation and Benefits.

A year ago, JQP was seized with one subject: the retroactive slashing of veteran pensions by a craven Congress enabled and emboldened by a sinfully silent joint chiefs of staff. This vapid idea, born of the mistaken notion of a lavishly compensated military, was eventually beaten back through legislative activism. But now that the generals and admirals have explicitly joined politicians in dishonestly blaming warriors for the costs attendant to sending them into indefinite, undeclared wars, it’s only a matter of time before we traverse the road to ruin traveled by other great powers who failed to properly moderate matters of war and peace. Sidestepping this disastrous future is possible, but only if we begin involving the American people in the wars they support. Meanwhile, constant legislative combat is the only means of avoiding a ruinous raiding of troop compensation and benefits as the vultures of the military-industrial complex circle, perfectly willing to force troops to buy their own bullets.

The year ahead will bring more of the same, and we’ll be on the watch.

The Mangled Drawdown.

The Air Force needed to get rid of a bunch of airmen in 2014 because it couldn’t make its case effectively enough on Capitol Hill that airpower can’t be done cheaply or without sufficient manpower. As a result of its political failures, the service found itself with a manpower task to which it was manifestly unequal.

What followed? Lies, ineptitude, and broken promises. Heartbroken airmen and families betrayed by people they trusted. People with warfighting value shown the door while others with questionable relevance remained relatively insulated from budgetary predations. None of it answered by the commander charged to carry out the service’s manpower strategy, Major General Margaret Poore. She remained silent as an oak while others provided occasional explanations, such as they were. As 2015 rolls in, General Poore remains securely ensconced atop the personnel bureaucracy, having to date made not a single public statement about the mistakes of the drawdown.

Lt. Gen. Sam Cox, a superb operational leader, was given overall responsibility for the 2014 drawdown as the service’s chief human resource officer, but a seemingly inept Air Force Personnel Center with which to accomplish it. The inability of Cox to get a solid performance out of its personnel apparatus means likely no one could have done so. It shows that the Air Force human resource business has degraded to a point that puts effective human resource management — and therefore effective warfighting — beyond reach.

To Cox’s credit, there were a few bright islands amid this sea of misery. When the service got it wrong and was shown to have gotten it wrong, it sometimes corrected. Let’s hope this is far less necessary in 2015.

The ICBM Scandal.

2013 brought the revelation that there was rot in the missile community. By 2014, not enough had been done to address that rot, as proven by the unfolding of a scandal that nearly toppled the service. When the world learned that one-third of the Air Force’s nuclear missile community had been captured by a systemic addiction to cheating, a cold shadow eclipsed the Air Force. This was a community manned mostly by officers in public trust positions. What sort of nuclear enterprise had the service created? Was it moral? Could we depend on it to do the right thing in the event of a nuclear conflagration?

JQP called for a bold response to these queries. The Air Force kicked off something called the Force Improvement Program (FIP). Putting aside the alarming notion that a formal program should ever be needed for a military service to improve the climate of an entire command, 2014 gave us reason to believe that FIP might be missing the point. While official accounts paint a rosy picture, we’re still not hearing much from the line missile officers at the heart of the community. From what we’ve heard offline, we know that the #1 revelation surfaced in FIP hasn’t been explicitly embraced by the Air Force: that missile airmen have lost faith and confidence in the senior generals responsible for organizing, training, and equipping them for the nuclear mission. Unless this revelation is acknowledged, there is fair reason to doubt it can be remedied. We can hope that’s happening behind the scenes.

There is an equally potent danger that the Air Force will, in its attempt to “clean house,” rid itself of the very officers whose insight is needed to reform the community. Only time will tell, hopefully not in the form of another failure preventable with the retention of the best qualified officers.

Service Culture and Leadership.

General Mark Welsh came to his position as Chief of Staff with an obvious desire to shake up the Air Force and return it to its cultural roots. But these efforts have not succeeded. While nibbling at the edges of the anti-operational culture that has seized much of the service, Welsh hasn’t done enough to roll back the misguided policies of his predecessors. The patently idiotic and widely rejected Airman’s Creed remains. Every minute that it lives on — and with it the cultural movement it represents — harm’s the service’s legacy. Why Welsh hasn’t done what the operational USAF expected as he came to his position and killed this limping nag of an excuse for Air Force culture is anyone’s guess. Then again, Welsh’s other policy choices — together with his tolerance of toxic and unaccountable leaders — recommend to suspicion that he’s not the leader many thought he would be at the senior-most level.

Air Force culture is warped and broken. A focus on flying, fighting, and winning has been displaced by ancillary nonsense and flawed priorities. A perspective of over-the-horizon air-mindedness built over the decades has been disfavored, replaced by a close-quarters martialism more appropriate to the land services. This has infected everything, re-defining daily Air Force life in such a way that airpower is taken for granted rather than being rigorously cultivated and pushed to the combat edge. While some great leaders remain and continue to fight this movement, they’re bucking strong headwinds and not getting enough top cover.

Airmen are voting with their feet, not only outstripping the estimates of bureaucrats managing separation programs, but giving those good commanders who remain in the ranks reason to pause and consider the level of alienation airmen are manifesting. Colonel Don Grannan’s November commentary “How Did We Lose This Young Airman?” struck a service-wide chord, exposing deep frustration about the quality of leadership across the force. It should have ignited a high-level discussion about leader development and institutional climate, but whether it did so remains to be seen in the year ahead.

* * * *

This latter subject area ties together every thread from throughout the year, and will form the core of JQP efforts in the year ahead.

This community is increasingly animated by the anxiety that an Air Force unhinged and not well-tended could be a casualty of budget austerity in the coming decade. As big ideas about national defense are put on the table for national discussion, the idea of a defense reorganization will become more popular. Barring a change of course, the Air Force seems to be tempting such turbuluence, which is why I’m insistent that it restore unquestioned excellence in the things that set it apart as a service and let other things return to their place in what should be a sober arrangement of priorities.

This starts with rebuilding squadrons, calibrating service culture, restoring focus, and re-embracing institutional honesty and straight talk. In the year ahead, watch for more analysis and commentary on Air Force reform, which is the subject providing the fuel that powers the JQP community.

Thanks for your participation in 2014, and we hope you’ll stick around. Should be a hell of a show in the year ahead.

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