Mission Complete … (For Now)

Operation Enduring Freedom   C-17 Globemaster III Air DropA quick note to those who follow this blog.  After an active spring and summer writing and debating about subjects far and wide, it’s time for JQP to lay dormant for a while.  Occasional asides may pop up to briefly discuss noteworthy things, especially those touching veterans issues, the Air Force, and airpower … but it’s unlikely this blog will again be as active as it was these past months.  On the occasion of putting JQP into sleep mode, I thought it fitting to thank those who have digested and engaged the material posted here, and to reflect a little on the reasons this blog came to be and how it changed over time.

Honestly, I started this blog six months ago with a few narrow, self-serving objectives.

First, I sought to practice making and defending written arguments rooted in logic and evidence but propelled by opinion.  This was a search for catharsis after spending many years in a culture of button-down, almost antiseptic communication — one that didn’t make allowances for opinionated expression or vibrant debate.  The ideas expressed here have been transparently unsupported by footnotes or journalistic investigation.  Instead, they’ve represented an opportunity to practice writing while getting some things off my chest.  It was emboldening to be keenly aware that  others shared many of the opinions I was communicating, including many still in uniform from across the rank spectrum who couldn’t speak as freely as I could.  More on that in a moment.

My second objective was to get better at using the tools of social media.  After a career in a hidebound military institution that applied formal and informal pressure to constrain participation in the online domain, I felt the need to improve my capacity in this area before undertaking a second career.  I come away from the experience of running this blog (and its supporting twitter feed and facebook presence) with the opinion that social media interaction is an essential skill for the modern professional.  This is the way businesses, consumers, thought groups, social circles, and everyday people now interact and operate.  Government has not kept pace (for some good and not-so-good reasons), and this leaves veterans of long-term government service at a sharp disadvantage when undertaking follow-on employment in the private sector.  I now realize how little I know (and even more alarming, how little I knew), and that in itself is a valued outcome.

As I pursued these narrow objectives, utterly convinced no one would notice beyond the few close friends and family members I could coerce into reading my rantings, something weird happened.  The blog grew a readership, one mainly comprised of active duty Air Force officers and NCOs.  As the readership grew and engaged the material both online and offline, I realized there was an opportunity to expand the scope of the objectives of this blog.  This is why, for the second half of the summer, I devoted it almost exclusively to posts attempting to give voice to the service’s internal frustrations … with the goal of instigating broader discussion of nagging and hot-button Air Force issues.

When I left the Air Force, I realized that I was departing an institution unable to discuss its own internal issues openly and productively, and that the habit of internal muzzling was breeding deep frustration within the service’s key officer and enlisted populations.  This blog showed me that the temperature of that boiling frustration was much higher than I’d thought, and pushed me from thinking the service had “problems” to seeing it in an unrecognized personnel crisis that could threaten its future capacity to keep its promises to the nation.

For all of the problems that developed in the US Air Force in the years following 9/11 (not unexpected problems given the stresses created by all we’ve undertaken), the service did not become more open about discussing them, instead doubling down on a stifling culture that actively squashed input from its mid-level commissioned and noncommissioned officers.  Such is the inherent nature of a large hierarchy, and something champions of organizational health must always actively contest.  But the service’s mid-level experts are the people with the right ideas to cultivate and maintain an effective fighting force, and to innovate and develop the technologies, tactics, and techniques needed to underwrite future victory.  They need to be heard.  Some of what happened here at JQP was an attempt to make their disquiet a little louder, so it might be heard by new ears … and to give them a touchpoint to trade perspectives and realize others thought and felt similarly.  This, in turn, might stir the pot just enough to create new openings for discussion to address the service’s most bedeviling conflicts.  This, in turn, might prevent a hemorrhage of talent in the coming years as the combination of economic recovery, fiscal pressure, and war fatigue promise to test the commitment, morale, and job satisfaction of every airman and family, no matter how blue the blood in their veins.

But there’s a little more to consider.  The future will indeed be grim for any agency, institution, or corporation that either fails to adapt to changing conditions or neglects the duty to care for its most critical resources.  Despite the oft-unavoidable corporate focus of the Air Force on acquiring the weapons of war, people and organizations are always higher priorities (or should be).  Any service can acquire aircraft and spacecraft.  Only the one able to attract, retain, and develop superior people … and  able to organize and support them effectively to exploit the full capabilities of those aircraft and spacecraft … will convince the American people it is deserving of the continued privilege of guarding the flame of American airpower.

A perpetually independent Air Force is not inevitable and should not be taken for granted by those entrusted with its care.  Nor should it attempt to indemnify itself against the predations of those who might chop it up piecemeal by seeking exotic weapons, championing faddish management concepts, or creating temporary or quasi-make-believe niche capabilities designed to preserve the perception of its distinctiveness.  The service will only be the best version of itself — and produce the kind of consistent results that can build the credibility necessary to weather the coming turbulence — by getting back to basics at the service level.   What does this mean?

Be about airpower first and everything else second.  

Take care of people, being both tough and transparent.

Tell people how they fit into the mission and how they don’t.

Recognize squadrons as the building blocks of the service and provide them with professional support.  

Seek out and destroy stupidity and micromanagement where they live.  

Hire and place overt confidence in strong commanders with clear lines of authority and only one boss per subordinate.  

Give commanders the trust and latitude to innovate, recognizing that your future role in national strategy depends on the deliberate shepherding and aggregation of the tactics and techniques developed in squadrons.  

Remove power and authority from staffs (and operations centers masquerading as staffs) and give it to field commanders.  

Decentralize human resource management so it can regain its connection with the operational Air Force and regain common sense and credibility.

These are just a few of the prevailing sentiments shared with me by the readership of this blog in the last few months and cultivated in a multitude of discussions across many modes and platforms.  Much of what appeared on these pages was an attempt to put forward the street level view — one increasingly held by field grade officers in key squadron, group, and wing leadership roles — that today’s Air Force has lost touch with the roots of its existence and the key traditions, sensibilities, mindset, and ethos that made it great.  This view holds that to be great again and in the future, the service must arrest its cultural tailspin, which can only begin to happen with open recognition from the top that everything isn’t going the way it ought to be.  It’s my most earnest hope that the words and ideas shared here will have helped bring this about in some small way, even if only at the very edges of the margins.  But in fact, there have been some encouraging recent signals from the top of the Air Force, and they almost certainly have little or nothing to do with this blog, and everything to do with one of its frequent subjects: leadership.

I’ll close on an optimistic note by pointing out that the US Air Force is today led by an absolutely amazing Chief of Staff — an inspirational leader and clearly not a bureaucrat.  General Mark Welsh clearly “gets it” and has begun to outline some encouraging steps he plans to implement in getting the Air Force “on vector” for the long haul.  His recent remarks concerning the foundational role of the squadron are deeply heartening and something many have ached for over the past several years.  His initiative to restore excellence in squadron-level support has drawn many current and future commanders back from the brink — perhaps more than the he himself might realize.  Here’s to hoping we’ll continue to see this brand of decisive leadership, and that it will continue to be accompanied by Welsh’s articulate, honest, and straight-dealing words.  Welsh is clearly a leader, and no one ought worry too much about the future of the Air Force with him at the controls.

Thanks for making this blog a great conversation.  It’s time to end this transmission, but JQP will be back on frequency sometime in the future.  Meantime, the posts currently accessible here will remain so, and I welcome your continued engagement with them.

Posted by Tony Carr on September 4th, 2013.

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