As an observer and commentator on issues facing the Air Force, I’m sometimes critical of General Mark Welsh, the service’s Chief of Staff. Fair or unfair, his time at the controls has been turbulent for airmen and their families. The service’s descent has accelerated under his watch, with a recent stream of scandal, failure, and general chicanery conspiring with a clouded fiscal picture to raise questions about the future of the entire institution. That said, it’s not infrequent that Welsh demonstrates he “gets it” . . . and that airmen have reasonable grounds for tempered optimism. Welsh’s recent guidance on facial hair, of all things, is an odd but significant such moment.
Mustache March is an homage to Brig. Gen. Robin Olds, an Air Force leader, fighter pilot, and hero famous for his personal courage in pushing back against headquarters micromanagement of the air war in Vietnam. Every March, airmen push the bounds of regulatory mischief — embracing looks only their mothers could love — to invoke the defiant spirit Olds expressed in growing and maintaining his flamboyantly curled and waxed handlebar ‘stache. The practice has become especially popular in recent years, as airmen have been spending more time deployed at bases notorious for zealous enforcement of uniform regulations. One deployed location produced in 2011 a supplemental dress code numbering 84 pages and including amplified guidance for the policing of unruly mustaches. This, of course, only fueled the boundary-pushing of airmen committed to celebrating Olds’ healthy rejection of misplaced authority.
Having lost touch with the spirit of intellectual independence that gave rise to a separate Air Force, many of its senior leaders have chosen to be annoyed by this tradition. But not Welsh. In a recent move that no-doubt unnerved the legion of “fun police” who’ve made their professional names enforcing petty appearance violations, Welsh invoked a service-wide Mustache March competition for 2014, encouraging the entire service to have fun with it.
The idea is not without problems. Critics have bemoaned that a mustache-based morale initiative doesn’t do much for the women who comprise 18.9% of the service. Others have grumbled, not without some merit, that Welsh’s sponsorship amounts to the heisting of a squadron-level tradition by senior management, with any novelty derived from its antagonistic subtext negated by the endorsement of the big boss. Finally, some connect this initiative to other oddities recently embraced at the corporate level — like the notion of a service-wide BBQ contest — and wonder if the Air Force isn’t devolving into a circus atmosphere even as it confronts fundamental issues of trust and communication amid a looming drawdown.
But notwithstanding the understandable misgivings, there’s something more going on here, I think. Welsh is up to something important. This isn’t just a gimmick to create a connection between leadership and people or the wielding of a set of shock paddles to prevent morale from succumbing to a gradual arrest underway for years. Welsh could have chosen a dozen different methods to pursue those ends without inviting the resistance or stoking the organizational conflict likely to result from Mustache March. He chose this particular tactic carefully, I believe to send his people two very important signals.
First, he’s trying to remind airmen that it’s not only alright but important that they have heroes, and to the extent those heroes happen to wear flight suits, we shouldn’t shy away from idolizing them just because it risks elevating aircrews to a special status in the organization. If this is indeed part of the intended message, it’s long overdue. If it’s not part of the intended message, it should be. This is a controversial idea for some, which explains why Welsh is reticent to acknowledge it explicitly. The service decided a decade ago to dismantle some of the negative aspects of its aviation culture, but it went too far, and became seized with the fantastical notion that all of its members are equal contributors to the mission. This tortured idea went so far that it infected evaluation and promotion systems, leading to the championing of ancillary activities at the expense of core competencies. This has been part of a noticeable slide toward operational mediocrity that was underway well before budget woes moved senior leaders to start acknowledging it. To the extent an encouraged celebration of Robin Olds — the quintessential warrior pilot — can help put some “air” back in the Air Force, it’s a healthy move for a service that has lost a clear sense of itself.
Second, Welsh might be signaling his rank and file that he’s picked up on something they’ve known for a long time: that communication between his level and theirs is not working, and that his intent is getting filtered, warped, and twisted before reaching implementation at their level. In kicking off this event, he took pains to bypass the chain of command and speak directly to airmen. This method thwarted the designs of some units that were planning to ban participation in Mustache March or heavily regulate it. It might be that Welsh wanted to test how faithfully his wing and group commanders would fulfill his clearly expressed intent even in the face of misgivings or disagreement, and the only way to conduct such a test is by making sure his message reached the intended audience unfiltered. If this is indeed part of what Welsh is doing, it’s understandable. For a while now, his intent has been frustrated by the staffs and intermediate management layers between him and his airmen.
In 2012, Welsh ordered the restoration of unit orderly rooms, recognizing the service had made a grave error in removing organic support from commanders responsible for executing the day-to-day mission of the service. But while the Air Force Personnel Center publicly supported the initiative, wing commanders did little to make it happen, citing bureaucratic limitations rather than finding ways around them. Squadrons have yet to see their support resources materialize. Recently, Welsh began talking about the need to adjust education and development requirements so that officers would not be required to complete non-value-added graduate degrees for retention and promotion, and would no longer be asked to complete development courses by correspondence before being sent in-residence. Despite this clearly expressed intent, officers are still being directed to complete graduate degrees before meeting promotion boards, and commanders are still considering completion of correspondence courses and advanced degrees in determining promotion and command opportunities.
This pathology has worsened recently. With a harsh season of force reduction looming, airmen are understandably anxious about their future prospects and grappling for enough certainty to plan the future for themselves and their families. Welsh’s repeated insistence that the service would maximize use of voluntary programs before forcibly jettisoning airmen enticed many to apply for voluntary separation, only to have their earnest reliance on Welsh’s words met with obfuscation and resistance. Personnel officials waited until after airmen had applied to remove thousands from the eligibility roster, in essence flushing out their desire to separate before barring them from voluntary release. Their career intentions now published, these applicants are disproportionately vulnerable to disfavor in coming drawdown actions — all because they followed the Chief of Staff’s lead. In some cases, wing commanders arbitrarily denied applications without regard for the service’s established eligibility criteria, reportedly triggering at least one Inspector General inquiry. In the background of this organizational turbulence, Welsh’s no-nonsense, mission-focused ethos continues to be ignored by some mid-level commanders despite his repeated insistence to airmen that they correctly prioritize the mission above all else. Briefing materials used by the commander of a wing in Air Mobility Command listed “fly the jets” as #18 among 19 listed priorities. These are just a few examples of the many ways in which Welsh’s strategic intent is not being faithfully translated into tactical-level action.
While the new expansiveness of this trend is troubling, the behavior itself isn’t. Standing on the bridge between the corporate and operational elements of the Air Force, wing commanders are peculiarly susceptible to misapprehensions about the nature of authority, sometimes not realizing that when they sponsor a divergence from headquarters intent without clear warrant, they create an unresolvable and frustrating conflict within the minds of their people. Airmen get quickly disillusioned when they hear clear principles from their Chief of Staff only to hear caveats, restrictions, and conditions placed on those principles by everyone else. This leaves them unable to predict how policies will impact them, and this uncertainty leads to high levels of stress and disaffection, not to mention a general distrust of authority that risks carrying the Olds ethos too far in the direction of disunity.
Intermediate staff and field commanders tend to explain their distortion of headquarters intent by relying on the concept of legality, claiming they need a rule in black and white before they can act on the expressed intent from the big boss. This is richly ironic given that the Air Force is, in many ways, defined by its ability to break the rules of science and war. The Air Force was founded on the idea that war needn’t be fought linearly, and that direct attack of an enemy’s vital centers could fundamentally alter its conduct. Chuck Yeager’s shattering of the sound barrier exemplified the idea that airpower should re-write rules rather than be sanguinely governed by them. Colonel John Warden and his team built the Desert Storm air campaign based on objectives derived not from public law, but the media statements of the president. Wing commanders’ nascent preference for written guidance before seizing the organizational initiative raises questions about whether the Air Force — a service traditionally proud of its commitment to flexibility and decentralized execution — has devolved into an organization incapable of doing anything without a rule to guide it.
Here’s why that would be bad. When everyone needs a clear rule for everything, innovation grinds to a halt while everyone waits for 330,000 airmen to achieve regulatory unison. No one will invest initiative or passion into something if they believe it’ll take years of bureaucratic mountain-moving before it becomes authorized. When the incentives for innovation, flexibility, and independent thought drop too low, these things stop happening, leaving only the rules to fall back upon. When the rules are all an organization has to guide it, the organization will do things to just that level required by the rules. Just good enough. And the problem with just good enough is that it’s never been enough to successfully defend the country with air and space power.
Just good enough doesn’t push a 40-ship package across the fence with an unclear threat picture. Just good enough doesn’t extend a gunship orbit into its fuel reserve to keep a ground position from being overrun. Just good enough doesn’t compel a C-17 crew to request a duty day extension in order to get a critical medevac patient to a hospital. Just good enough doesn’t make a crew chief work past the 12-hour mark to get his F-22 ready for the morning go. Just good enough wasn’t enough for Robin Olds, and it’s not enough for Mark Welsh. Just good enough is well short of excellent, and that’s why the rules will never be enough for the Air Force to uphold its values. And that, in turn, is why the intent of the service’s senior leader must be faithfully carried out . . . not just because it keeps the service moving toward the vision he has established, but because it preserves the critical role of commander’s intent in the contemporary Air Force.
The consternation expressed in this column — even if it does channel significant disquiet felt in squadrons across the service — will not be enough to overpower this entrenched resistance to Mustache March and Welsh’s other initiatives. To beat this system, Welsh will have to do the one thing an organization can’t resist: disorganize. Stop using traditional communication except when legally required, and instead send key messages directly to field commanders, copying intermediate levels for their awareness. This gives wing and group leaders nowhere to hide; no one can claim the message was watered down in transit if it was delivered directly with no opportunity for disruption. Of course, this also removes the opportunity for attenuation at intermediate levels, likely placing wing commanders in a better position to faithfully support senior level intent by restoring some bargaining power in their relationships with major command and numbered Air Force leaders. This approach has costs. It’ll alienate intermediate commanders whose help is necessary to keep the service on track. But to the extent they become antagonized, this exposes a greater interest in their own relative power than the service’s cohesiveness and shared future.
March is a great time for the Air Force to re-connect with a no-nonsense heritage. A heritage sounding in tones of personal courage, leadership by example, and a commitment to technical proficiency. Morale alone would have been a good enough reason to touch this heritage, but if General Welsh is also working to expose and correct fundamental pathologies in the way his Air Force is communicating with itself, he might just find out that Robin Olds and his mustache are not just elements of the service’s history, but important parts of its future as well. If it helps Welsh flush out commanders who refuse to get in step, this is good too. After all, the service needs some senior officers to leave, and who better to cashier than those who self-nominate with unreasonable resistance to collective traditions that transcend their individual preferences.
Some say it’s time for a big shakeup among the Air Force’s commanders, and March might prove a useful test of that proposition. Scores of superb leaders whose capabilities have been forged in the crucible of a generational war await the call to step into larger roles . . . where they will prove to Welsh and everyone else that heritage, fun, and perspective are not mutually exclusive with airpower excellence, but at the very heart of it.
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