SecAF Responds to Criticism on Base Visits

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Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James visits with airmen assigned to Hill Air Force Base earlier this week. James considers personal interaction with airmen essential to getting the unvarnished feedback she needs to lead effectively. Photo: SAF/PA.


The coverage here at JQP is sometimes critical of the decisions and priorities of Air Force senior officials. Recently, I wrote in disapproving editorial tones about Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James’ decision to visit Ellsworth Air Force Base on the eve of a B-1 squadron’s imminent departure on a 6-month deployment.

The reason for those disapproving tones is simple: airmen need their downtime before leaving their homes and families for extended combat operations. Disruption of that downtime threatens their focus and resiliency. Over the course of multiple deployments, such disruption threatens their morale, mental health, and commitment to continued service. When unnecessary, such disruption is a moral trespass, borrowing precious family and personal time for undeserving purposes.

Tours and visits by senior officials, no matter how well-meaning, create additional, non-negotiable duties and formations for the entire base. Their disruptive impact, and the valid questions about whether that impact is justified, are well-documented.

It turns out Secretary James’ recent Ellsworth visit wasn’t the whole story of her unfolding tour of Northern Tier installations. James also toured Hill Air Force Base yesterday (as part of an event that continues today). She elected to do so despite the shortly approaching deployment of one of the base’s F-16 squadrons, creating additional workload for a unit already struggling to keep up with requirements and get out the door in one piece.

One Hill-affiliated source told me the following on the condition of anonymity:

Bottom line — both squadrons are ops canceling flying lines this week due to pilot manning, while preparing for a deployment, and canceling lines on Friday so they can have pilots [be] forced to attend the SeCAF meeting, while being unable to fill the duties needed to run the squadron and prepare to do the primary mission of fighting a war.

A few others familiar with the situation confirmed the accuracy of this account.

After hearing about the issues at Hill, JQP reached out to the Secretary’s Public Affairs office to inquire about the timing and impact of these two recent visits. In an emailed response, spokesman Lt. Col. Christopher Karns gave the following explanation regarding James’ visit to Ellsworth:

Certainly these visits require effort. However, every effort is made to minimize impact on day-to-day operations.  At Ellsworth, the squadron continues to work until the day they deploy to maintain flight currency, ensure combat readiness, and accomplish other training events required for the deployment; this is the norm. Ensuring an Airman’s ability to spend time with family and friends prior to deploying is critically important. The leadership at Ellsworth used a long range plan and in particular a prior period of 11 days where no flying or sortie generation occurred to provide time for deployers to take leave.  Additionally, those deploying will also be given time to recuperate upon return.

This concedes the timing wasn’t ideal but argues that base leadership de-conflicted the issue with a “long range plan” that afforded airmen their downtime nonetheless. This latter bit is at odds with private insistences from some airmen who claim they lost downtime to participate in visit-related duties, but it would not be surprising to think those impacts were not made visible to the Secretary (setting aside that they were publicized a week before the visit on these pages). An important element of Karns’ statement is that it doesn’t deny there is impact to airmen from these visits, or that earnest efforts must be made to minimize that impact. The debate can now advance to one about the best way to do so.

Karns also offered this insight with respect to the still-unfolding Hill visit:

At Hill, she gained a greater understanding of our maintenance and logistics system, F-35 bed-down and Airmen issues. She visited the F-35 depot at Hill. She is having an all-call later today. Without all the facts, a negative optic can certainly exist. However, the benefit of these visits is it permits access to Airmen and an opportunity for the Secretary to get to know the mission and the people she serves.

Karns makes a strong argument on SecAF’s behalf about the value of personally interacting with airmen. Increasingly, this argument resonates with observers noting the ineffectiveness of the chain of command in lifting essential truths to her level without excessive filtering and repackaging at the expense of useful meaning. But even a charitable reading of this rationale leaves a few questions on the table.

If the chain of command is malfunctioning, shouldn’t fixing it be the top priority? Doesn’t that manifest something of a crisis for the service rather than something to be worked around with first-hand interaction that can’t — no matter the earnestness or skill of James and the airmen involved — give her much more than a varying and fleeting sense of things rather than a comprehensive picture? If, for the sake of argument, visits are a good thing in general, is there still an argument SecAF is doing them too frequently? Are they a cost-appropriate approach in times of budget austerity, or do they confound the message of conservation SecAF seeks to advance?

The good news for airmen, in addition to James’ responsiveness to questions on this sometimes contentious issue, is that her intentions seem to be rooted in helping them. In response to questions about the value of visits generally, Karns presses the point:

Part of the value of these visits is to firmly understand the very personal ways her decisions in Washington can help Airmen and family lives. She likes to hear from Airmen directly and not learn about issues by PowerPoint. She is fighting for feedback and seeking to best understand challenges Airmen face and connect on a personal level.

It’s difficult to argue with that logic, even if putting it into action could be done more carefully and with more skillfully massaged timing.

Karns continues:

These visits have enabled the Secretary to champion several new initiatives, understand different vantage points, and has given voice to Airmen at all levels.

While we may disagree on how it should be channeled and how to best prevent it from being filtered, fractioned, or muzzled, we agree completely that lifting the collective voice of airmen at all levels is the right objective. For a service that has struggled in recent times to balance free expression and the desire for organizational loyalty, it’s a heartening message.

Will SecAF and her staff change their approach to future visits to more carefully take into account deployment timing? It’s anyone’s guess. But where there is a constructive conversation, there is the potential for improvement, which makes SecAF’s willingness to respond to recent criticisms reason for tempered optimism.

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