Rhetoric v. Reality: Waste, Integrity Issues Plague Air Force Savings Program


Last spring, at the crescendo of defense community angst concerning impending budget cuts, the Air Force launched a program called Every Dollar Counts.  The stated philosophy of the program was that to genuinely save as much money as possible, the service needed to bypass the endemic filtering process that drives communication across the middle layers of its massive, hidebound bureaucracy and appeal directly to airmen doing the organization’s daily work.  They’d be best positioned to identify valuable savings targets that might otherwise elude notice, and only by pursuing and effectuating every possible savings opportunity could the service survive sequestration — a thing construed as the budgetary equivalent of the Sword of Damocles.

[Footnote: sequestration did not reduce overall defense spending last year, and this year the budget was ultimately reduced by $3.4B, a number colloquially referred to as “budget dust” by Pentagon programmers.]

Just before the kickoff of the Air Force’s campaign, I published an article outlining several ideas for big-ticket savings.  One of the suggestions I offered had to do with eliminating the standing requirement for desert flight uniforms:

“Many dollars are spent on a rolling basis to outfit deploying aircrew members with desert flight suits, boots, hats, jackets, and alterations.  In the overwhelming majority of cases, this is a waste of resources.  These uniforms — clocking in $162.50 each — are seldom necessary.  They perform no better in arid weather than green flight suits, don’t tend to fit as well, get stained too easily (requiring replacement when they do), and require their own matching velcro, specially-made patches, and name tags — all at unit (and taxpayer) expense. Because the rules require aircrews to deploy with them, commanders are buying these uniforms every deployment cycle … mostly for folks who will live “inside the wire” and therefore have no need to dress like their joint counterparts or blend in with terrain.”

A reader of the blog took note of this suggestion as the campaign got underway and submitted it for consideration in May, 2013. This was an enterprising and bright young officer who, like me, had accumulated a closet full of expensive and unnecessary uniforms over the course of several years, and saw this as a clear and obvious example of the kind of waste the Air Force purported itself to be targeting.  In good faith, he took the time to carefully craft an official proposal, convinced by the Air Force’s rhetoric and his own abiding idealism that the service would at least give his idea serious consideration.  After all, it seemed like a no-brainer.

That’s not what occurred.  Ten months later, he received a 200-word email dismissing his idea without meaningful justification.  I’ve included the text of that response below, along with some analysis.

“Thank you for your interest in the Every Dollar Counts Campaign. I appreciate your innovative thinking concerning saving money through revising flight suit requirements.”

This is a re-framing of the suggestion.  Revising uniform requirements wasn’t the suggestion.  The suggestion was to discontinue a wasteful and duplicative equipment requirement.  The embrace of “revising uniform requirements” as the chosen analytical frame for the response is telling.  It indicates the suggestion was probably staffed not by an operational leader concerned with efficiencies or even by a budgeteer concerned with savings, but by a personnel officer specializing in uniform requirements.  We can imagine how agenda control measures such as routing a suggestion to a certain office might be used to predetermine an outcome in a case like this.  But let’s continue.

Based on over 80 idea submissions on the flight suit, the one point we seem to agree on is that the Air Force should protect Airmen with the right equipment when we put them in harm’s way.”

Pacific pivot?  Don't tell the USAF, which continues to acquire and issue desert tan flight suits in huge numbers.
Pacific pivot? Don’t tell the USAF, which continues to acquire and issue desert tan flight suits in huge numbers.

Here, we encounter pure, unmitigated nonsense.  First, the response admits more than 80 uniform-related suggestions were submitted as part of a savings campaign.  This logically means that at least 80 airmen saw areas where uniform policies should be changed — most likely with requirements reduced — in order to save money.  The response doesn’t acknowledge a savings motive, instead leaping to a non-sequitur that somehow the 80 submissions were a signal of universal agreement about the force protection merits of uniform policies.  Keeping airmen safe in harm’s way was never a question; the question was about how to do that cost effectively.  Responding to a different pretense than the one offered desperately cheapens this response.  

Further cheapening it is the subtle, weasel-worthy shift in agency it affects through the use of the word “we.”  Here, the responder invokes a vague collective in agreement about one thing (the role of uniforms in protecting airmen) as a way of militating against and marginalizing the persuasive force of another thing (saving money by eliminating uniforms).  Of course, the entire basis of this part of the response is, to borrow from the vernacular of General Curtis LeMay, “utter bullshit” . . . because a tan flight suit is no more or less protective than a green one.

“For these safety reasons, the Air Force will continue to provide flight suits for flight crews.”

Mark the tape, because here is where integrity broke down between the two airmen on either end of this exchange.  First, the responder refers to “these safety reasons” when no actual reasons were provided.  They weren’t provided, most likely, because there are no safety reasons that would necessitate the specific use of a tan flight suit, any more than a purple or mauve suit would be more safe than a green one.  Second, the responder responds to an argument not made.  No one said anything about not providing flight suits.  The point was to eliminate unneeded, extra flight suits.  Whenever someone skips past the real argument and instead answers a fake one, it’s because they don’t have a good counter for the real one.  It’s at this point, with the recourse to brazen intellectual dishonesty, that the exchange became antagonistic rather than collegial.

“A variation of flight suit colors is also utilized today for camouflage during evasion.”

Here, we enter the realm of make-believe.  This is too thin a reed upon which to rest any rational claim.  In fact, it is so laughable as to insult the intelligence of the airman who made the suggestion and offend the dignity of the official who approved the decision on such a basis.  The Air Force has flown millions of missions over desert locales since 9/11/01 without a single desert evasion scenario.  The statistical incidence of a desert evasion scenario is statistically incalculable.  Had such a scenario occurred, it likely wouldn’t have amounted to the kind of episode envisioned here, since we’ve enjoyed unfettered air dominance everywhere we’ve flown for years now, with search-and-rescue crews on standby to rapidly scoop up any downed airmen before evasion should even become necessary.  I’ve had more than one pararescue airman tell me they wish pilots would wear green, since not being able to locate a downed crew adorned in tan against the desert floor is a much larger risk than that of a failed evasion scenario brought about by wearing green.  

Is tan the best color to evade enemy capture in the mountains of Kunar Province?
Is tan the best color to evade enemy capture in the mountains of Kunar Province?

Also worth adding here is that the most likely region for a shoot-down in Afghanistan is over mountainous regions, where the terrain and altitude make it easier than elsewhere for an adversary to hide and shoot.  Mountains in eastern Afghanistan are covered with trees.  Those trees are, you guessed it, green, which might make rational beings wonder why tan is the required adornment over such terrain.  But there’s another chord of dishonesty in this part of the response.  In limiting the rationale to desert evasion scenarios, the responder ignores that thousands of airmen deploy every year to work on staffs or in air operations centers where they will spend their time safely inside the gates of a deployed base, never venturing into harm’s way.  If they have an aviation specialty code, they’ll be issued several brand new desert flight suits anyway, thus wasting countless taxpayer dollars. This kind of waste was the core of the suggestion, and it was brushed off nonchalantly with false ideas rather than through a genuine confrontation with the logic of it.

“The Air Force is researching a single color standardized uniform, but upfront costs of development, testing, and implementation may be cost prohibitive in today’s budget constrained environment.”

So, the answer to this identified wasteful practice . . . is . . . to research another (third!) variation of the flight suit?  And in the meantime, to keep wasting money while declaring an alternative idea cost-prohibitive?  How thick-skulled would someone have to be to buy this?

“Finally, the Air Force is reviewing its uniform wear policies such as patches, wear of desert flight suits/tan boots versus green, etc., but does not currently see significant enough cost savings to warrant upfront costs of making changes to current policy at this time.”

In aviation parlance, this is where the discussion departed the paved surface.  Without providing data to support it, the responder made an expansive claim that savings from retiring the tan flight suit would be exceeded by the costs of implementation.  This invites a cost-benefit analysis, but he doesn’t provide one.  No worries, we’ll do our own.

Costs.  Implementation would require someone — anyone, really — to craft a pithy sentence indicating that desert flight suits would no longer be issued and should not be worn after completion of any  deployment already in progress. Let’s assume the Air Force would loathe to entrust this task to the appropriate level of responsibility — somewhere in the E-3/E-4 range — and instead assign it to a Colonel.  If it took that Colonel an entire 15 minutes to craft the assigned sentence, the Air Force would have spent around $51 in productivity cost to generate the new policy.  But let’s assume that due to distractions, meetings, competing demands, the necessary approvals, and maybe a hangover, it takes our Colonel five hours to assemble this new policy guidance.  This would impute a cost of around $1000 for promulgation of the sentence “[d]esert flight suits will no longer be issued and should not be worn after the completion of any deployment already in progress.

[Footnote: if you’re a Colonel and get assigned this task, please feel free to cut-and-paste from this blog, saving yourself five hours and the Air Force $1000 in productivity expense.]

Benefits.  The simplest way to understand the potential savings of this proposal is to imagine every individual aircrew member in the Air Force being issued half as many taxpayer-funded flight suits as they’re currently issued.  Under current policy, every pilot, navigator, air battle manager, loadmaster, flight engineer, boom operator, aerial gunner, sensor operator, and airborne intelligence specialist (along with others I’m forgetting) is required to maintain green flight suits.  The vast majority are also subject to mobilization and deployment, meaning the budget must also contemplate issuing them a full array of tan flight suits as well (not to mention boots, hats, jackets, gloves, and other matching accessories).  So convinced is the Air Force of the need for these alternately-dyed ensembles that it has essentially created a perpetual doubling of the uniform requirement for every aircrew member in the service.  But we know there is potential for massive savings in this area, and we know because the Air Force told us so.

Turns out, Air Force Space Command decided a few years ago that it wanted to get its airmen out of flight suits.  The driving rationale had to do with teamwork and good order/discipline issues, but it was also championed as a way to cut $670,000 in spending each year by eliminating a uniform requirement impacting 1,800 airmen.  Space Command thus calculated that it was spending $372 per year on flight suits for each of those 1,800 airmen.  We’ll assume for our purposes that desert flights cost the same as the green ones eliminated by Space Command (though with accessories, the real number is probably much higher).  On that theory, if we export the calculations used by Space Command to the current discussion and consider that the desert flight suit policy impacts an estimated 20,000 aircrew members, the savings would be roughly $7.4M per year for the active duty alone.  That would be enough to pay the salaries of enough airmen to comprise a small squadron, enough to continue the training budgets of multiple Air Force wings, or enough to fund any number of other priorities.  Most poignantly, it would achieve a benefit-to-cost ratio of 7,400:1, meaning it would clearly fit within the intent of the Every Dollar Counts philosophy (taken as stated) and should have been given serious consideration.  Clearly, it wasn’t.

Why not?  A review of some the initiatives actually adopted by the program yields important clues.  In a message to the field, the Air Force’s Vice Chief of Staff heralded several success stories, to include a facility-sharing arrangement saving $500,000 in the conduct of first-responder training, a $400,000 trimming of telecommunications billing achieved by a more accurate audit, and a telephone line disconnection effort netting $358,000.  Each of these examples realized significant savings, but each shared another common characteristic.  Each was a “spot” effort that wrung out easy savings without attacking structural or systemic waste.  Arguably, these are efficiencies that should have been had already, but were only seized with the application of downward pressure to ferret them out.  In that way, the Air Force campaign can be seen favorably.

But in its refusal to let airmen attack structural and systemic reform targets that could yield massive aggregate savings, the initiative missed countless golden opportunities to posture itself for the budgetary turbulence it insists is sure to befall it in the near term.  By stepping over dollars to save comparative dimes, the effort lost credibility with those airmen who took the time to participate in it, creating the impression that every dollar did not count after all, and that the whole thing was just a way to politically demonstrate a culture of reform without actually going to the trouble of reforming. Ridding itself of duplicate flight suits should have been a no-brainer for the Air Force.  Over the course of five years, what might budgeteers have done with $37M in savings culled directly from a manifestly wasteful practice?  And more importantly, what other, similar opportunities were brushed aside?

The email to my friend closed with:

“The Air Force will continue to review its policies, however, and make appropriate changes as options become available. Thank you again for your input and I hope that you will continue to look for other cost cutting measures like these within your respective organization.”

Translation: we shot down your idea and sent you a terse, evasive email, but we hope you’ll keep helping us look for savings targets.  But he won’t.  Few of his colleagues will either.  Because it’s clear that real reform driving at manifest structural waste is off the table, and that’s the thing airmen want more than anything else.  They want it because they genuinely care about safeguarding taxpayer resources in a time of domestic austerity, and they want it because they need the resource tradespace to stay sharp at their jobs while the budget gets squeezed.  Most of all, they want reform because they want to once again, someday, be proud of their service . . . and that means ridding it of the kinds of obvious redundancy, stupidity, and waste that have no place in a world-class organization.

Apologists for the savings campaign will decry this critique with insistences that airmen just don’t understand the big picture.  But it’s the big picture airmen are operating from and trying desperately to clarify.  This is an example of an officer making a suggestion to lead-turn the ending of our only remaining desert war by tuning down our reliance on desert gear.  That’s a big-picture idea. Why it was crushed is not clear in the response, since the reasons given are nonsensical and disingenuous.

This episode should remind us all of something that seems to have been forgotten over the years.  Airmen are too intelligent for propaganda.  They know it when they see it, and it only alienates them. In those rare cases where they take what looks like propaganda to be forthright corporate communication only to find out later the joke was on them, the service will have lost a potential innovator.  This stands at odds with its stated objective of innovating to win and defend the nation.

It also stands at odds with the fundamental value of integrity.  When an airman suggests an innovation that can’t be done, s/he deserves to know why rather than being given false or placating explanations.  In this case, an airmen was told “every dollar counts” and believed it, but found out that every dollar didn’t count, and wasn’t given the reason(s) why. This is a particularly disappointing outcome, especially juxtaposed against the recent insistence by the CSAF and SECAF that airmen reaffirm their commitment to the core values.  Seems reasonable to conclude that if a survey were conducted at this moment, airmen would say it’s the staffs and senior leaders of the Air Force who seem to be struggling in this area.

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