SECAF Visit to Ellsworth Trumps Downtime for Deploying Squadron

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For the last couple of years, I’ve been working to document the Air Force’s unhinged court culture, which is characterized by jet-setting executives traveling the globe on the taxpayer dime to attempt direct interaction with 317,000 airmen.

They do this despite the existence of multiple layers of intervening leadership that exist, in part, to supply them the information they ostensibly seek. They do it on the premise of staying attuned, ignoring not only the redundancy of the idea but the folly of believing they can get a true sense of things with such a method. They do it at great expense. Almost as if to laugh at the idea of common sense, they catalog it with endless selfies and useless formations that provide airmen with little of value while buttressing their own celebrity status and prestige.

One might ask why status and prestige matter if not to help those very same airmen. Why indeed.

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What I’ve been trying to articulate is that these visits are not only unjustifiable from a cost/benefit perspective, but they actually harm unit effectiveness by giving senior officials a falsely rosy picture of base-level life while disrupting mission activities to roll out the red carpet. 

The point of this continuing attempt is to nudge the service to change its culture and return to a tradition of affirming and utilizing the chain of command. That’s the way senior officials should be getting most of their information, and they should be demanding enough granularity and meaning in that information to ameliorate the need for so much expensive and disruptive travel. This change would have the added quality of allowing officials to stay attuned where their attention is most needed: in effectively directing the Air Staff and Secretariat while advocating for airmen in Washington.

Only by forcing themselves to stay attuned to street-level issues through their subordinate commanders can senior-most officials foster the level of honesty and candor any chain of command needs to function effectively when the moment for major combat arrives. This is an old lesson, frequently forgotten and painfully re-learned.

VIP culture has the opposite effect. It atrophies the chain of command while cranking up an engine of dishonesty to power a series of pretentious interactions that obscure bad news and leave everyone feeling more positive than the circumstances should allow. Base commanders keep their careers out of jeopardy by learning to survive these visits, and the key to that survival usually involves inflicting huge disruption and distraction on squadrons.

Despite efforts to nudge the service, and the resonance some of those efforts have had with the rank and file, it’s simply not working. An upcoming visit to Ellsworth Air Force Base is the latest evidence.

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Multiple sources have shared information with JQP that paints a peculiarly unfortunate picture of the relationship between a looming SECAF visit to the base and the deployment of one of its bomb squadrons to the Middle East. The two are in direct conflict, and that conflict is getting reconciled on the backs of deploying airmen and their families.

For reasons of operational security, I’m omitting dates, names, and unit identifications from this fact pattern.

Later this month, one of Ellsworth’s B-1 squadrons is set to deploy. In fact, the squadron’s advance team has already departed. Just two days before the main contingent of that squadron is set to depart, SECAF is scheduled to visit. The timing could not be worse.

Because of this unfortunate timing, squadron members who would normally be taking pre-deployment leave or downtime with their loved ones will instead spend the days prior to deployment preparing for and executing the visit. They’ve had their downtime replaced with chores to prepare squadrons for SECAF’s arrival.

Her visit will include both a simulator immersion and a ride onboard a B-1. Officials have decided that in addition to the crew required to guide her through the simulator and the crew required to give her a B-1 ride, there will be three engine-running spares backing up her live sortie. This means three additional crews will plan, step, and operate — within 48 hours of their months-long deployment to a combat zone — for the sake of making triple sure SECAF gets her familiarization sortie. Not only that, the three spares and one active B-1 will be preflighted and “greened up” three days before her visit, totally disrupting the opportunity for precious downtime. Whether she intends it or not, SECAF is getting treatment befitting an empress rather than a public servant. 

Putting aside the question of whether spending $49,000 per flying hour is a valid or economically responsible means of familiarizing SECAF with the B-1 mission, the interruption of pre-deployment time for aircrews directly contradicts every ounce of messaging from SECAF and other senior officials concerning not only the responsible use of funds, but the resiliency and family focus encouraged in all airmen. These crews will work hard and put themselves at risk without seeing families for months on end. Asking them to give up downtime for a dog and pony show instead of resting doesn’t just contradict the fundamentals of sound leadership. It’s unethical.

Secretary James, General Welsh, and Chief Cody have repeatedly admonished airmen to tell their chain of command when they’ve reached the point of burnout, and to simply stop doing things that do not add value, informing the chain of command after the fact. Prepping for visits is a perfect example of the sort of thing airmen don’t see as valuable or even valid … and that they desperately want to stop doing. And yet this instance crystallizes the problem with encouraging such “peasant revolt” tactics. Anyone refusing to play along or even voicing dissent too loudly would almost certainly be harshly disciplined.

This vignette also demonstrates just how much senior leaders don’t get that the difficulty faced by base-level airmen today isn’t coming from their local leaders. It’s an intractable function of requirements levied from above. Visits are a hefty and non-negotiable tax on Air Force bases. Only those doing the visiting have the power to reduce that burden.

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Having already flown in a B-52, does SECAF really need to operate in a B-1 to understand the Air Force’s bomber mission? Wouldn’t a simulator ride give her more than enough immersion, especially with crews increasingly getting their training in the simulator due to budget limitations? Is her visit to Ellsworth an appropriate reason to interrupt pre-deployment downtime for deploying bomber crews?

The answers seem obvious, as do the solutions. Secretary James should be aware her visit is in conflict with a squadron deployment. She should know because multiple leaders and coordinators should have told her. If she didn’t know, she should be made aware now. And being made aware, she should cancel or re-schedule her visit, and consider a more cost-effective means of understanding the Ellsworth mission.

In other words, if SECAF is looking for ways to relieve the burden on airmen, here’s a great opportunity. 

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