SecAF Continues Visits, Reduces Disruption, Improves Quality of Interaction

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Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James (left), walks to a U-2 Dragon Lady as Senior Airman Aaron Saenz, 9th Physiological Support Squadron launch and recovery technician, carries high-altitude pressure suit auxiliary equipment at Beale Air Force Base, California, Aug. 11, 2015. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Dana J. Cable)

Demonstrating that she is hearing and registering the concerns of airmen tired of having their focus distracted by visiting dignitaries, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James has taken noticeable steps of late to make visits less disruptive for the rank and file. Her efforts seem to be having an impact, making airmen more receptive to her message.

Sources tell JQP that during James’ recent tours at bases including Malmstrom and Beale, noticeable steps were taken to reduce disruption to mission activities. Specifically, little to no preparation or rehearsal was directed at squadron level and her exposure to squadron activities felt unrehearsed and largely unscripted.

Call-ahead guidance from James’ staff reportedly prohibited base leaders from letting her presence infringe on downtime. This matches up with James’ insistence during a recent exchange with me that she and her staff advise local commanders to minimize the impact of her visits upon unit-level airmen.

Whether these recent adjustments are in-part a direct response to my coverage and criticism of her prior visits to Ellsworth and Hill, which some airmen said played havoc with pre-deployment rest and readiness, is not clear. But James has evidently taken an affirmative approach with wing commanders in an attempt to curb adverse impacts arising from what she views as an essential element of her leadership approach.

Sources also tell JQP that James’ tone and rhetoric have shifted. In meetings with airmen and base leaders alike, she’s unwilling to passively absorb briefings, and is instead taking charge, asking more of her own unscripted questions, and generating healthy and less guarded dialogue. Airmen say this tactic feels more genuine, inspiring confidence that she is attuning to their concerns. They also see this approach as raising the likelihood she will gain a better and more accurate appreciation for the challenges they face.

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Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James speaks with Airmen about a variety of issues during a lunch at Beale Air Force Base, California, Aug. 10, 2015. (U.S. Air Force photo by Robert Scott)

James’ updated visit style is encouraging, even (and perhaps because) it is likely to create refreshingly honest interactions between the service’s leader and the airmen on whose behalf she fulfills her role. An exchange observed by several airmen during her All Call at Beale is illustrative.

Reportedly, a Beale airmen asked James a particularly intelligent question about budget priorities and the Tops in Blue program. The questioner prodded James as to why the program persists in an “every dollar must count” paradigm even though thousands of airmen have suggested it holds no value for them, and the diversion of 35-40 airmen away from their home units for a year-long show tour leaves many units short-handed. Her answer was reportedly sincere, unvarnished, and a mixed bag.

James began by acknowledging the validity of the airman’s question and conceding that maybe the service should ask airmen about the program directly — through a wide-aperture survey tool like SurveyMonkey — rather than asking wing commanders what they think of the program.

There’s merit in this part of her response. Wing commanders are generally unwilling to be seen voting against a program they perceive is beloved by their general officer bosses.

The second part of her answer was more conflicted. James reportedly argued that even if Tops in Blue, Air Force Bands, the Thunderbirds, and other “community ambassador” programs were shut down, this would save “only” tens of millions of dollars, and thus would not solve the service’s multi-billion-dollar budget woes.

This directly upended her foot-stomped insistence just moments before that “every dollar must count.” It was a message that rang hollow for airmen who have lived through the worst drawdown in service history and understand that not only every budget dollar but every pair of able hands is needed in an operational environment endemically strapped for resources and over-taxed with mission demands. It was also noted by members of the crowd that by lumping Tops in Blue together with other programs, the Secretary dodged the narrow issue of whether Tops in Blue specifically represents a good return on investment.

Still, her exchange with this airman and others was described as “totally sincere,” and there’s something about it to admire. She fielded a tough question and gave a seemingly unrehearsed answer representative of the service’s conflicted philosophy on how best to balance competing imperatives of manpower, mission, and community interaction in a historically challenging budgetary environment. This is a nice contrast with typical service-favored propaganda that alienates airmen for the sake of political theater. Let’s hope it represents a change in approach.

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Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James (left) greets Master Sgt. Jon Wilcox, 9th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron U-2 crew chief, Aug. 10, 2015, at Beale Air Force Base California. James received familiarization training on the U-2 Dragon lady before flying in the aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Ramon A. Adelan)

No one has been more critical of SecAF’s constant tours of Air Force bases, and I remain convinced, as do the many airmen of nearly all ranks I’m often attempting to channel, that such visits are too frequent, too onerous, and insufficiently justified by what they purport to accomplish.

But there’s no mistaking that Secretary James is making adjustments to address these concerns, and this shows that she is listening. This is reason for optimism that even if she insists on continuing a whirlwind tour in perpetuity, she might generate more value at less productivity cost, and airmen might even see more traction for the policy changes they favor if they’re as willing to give James honest input as she appears willing to receive it.

A long-time colleague and now senior Air Force officer recently suggested to me that the service should allow visits from the chain of command but prohibit, with rare exception, visits from headquarters staffers, functional representatives, and other “variously important people.” This would greatly reduce disruption (and costs) while preserving the beneficial aspects of leader involvement for both commanders and airmen alike. This is an interesting idea I plan to explore in greater depth the near future.

Meantime, let’s hope SecAF’s recent example is noticed and mimicked by her subordinate commanders. Legacy VIP culture is a threat to institutional honesty, and has to be substantially curbed for the service to move forward.

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