Team or Corporation? What John Warden Taught the Air Force About Seniority

Colonel John Warden was not just an airpower pioneer, but a brilliant organization theorist. His legacy gives the Air Force plenty to think about, including the proper calibration of power in relationships between teammates.
Colonel John Warden was not just an airpower pioneer, but a brilliant organization theorist. His legacy gives the Air Force plenty to think about, including the proper calibration of power in relationships between teammates.

Given the shrill wailings of senior Air Force officials recently, one would think that sequestration was not so much an ill-conceived legislative-electoral tactic as the name given to one of the galloping horses of the Apocalypse.

To be sure, it does exert pressure on the defense budget and does indeed place the Air Force in particular on the horns of several budgetary dilemmas.

But lest panic be incited by the howlings of so many wolves, let’s take a step back and keep it real. There’s no crisis here. Behind the veil of budgetary emergency, many wasteful things continue unabated within the Air Force. Most visible among them: the trappings of rank.

Recently, nearly four dozens stars worth of seniority descended upon Minot Air Force Base, ostensibly for some sort of fact-finding/review/temperature-taking/glad-handing tour, complete with a flightline photo op and a pre-scripted press avail.

Great propaganda, but expensive.

This bloated constellation and its accompanying coterie represent a couple thousand years of Air Force experience. They didn’t need to meet and have a picture together — at an estimated cost to the taxpayer of more than $200,000 — to know that it’s still cold at Minot, and that a nuclear community neglected for a few decades hasn’t yet had enough recovery time to be declared “fixed.”

Such behavior isn’t that of a “flat broke” organization straining under budgetary weight.

But it is the current behavior of the Air Force. While rank-and-file airmen feel the crunch of sequestration through longer deployments, failing support systems, and draconian roster depletions, senior officials continue to enjoy a lifestyle that would have made Frederick the Great flush with envy. Luxury jets continue to globetrot. Red carpets continue to get rolled out. Honor Guards continue to assemble. Bands continue to serenade. Airmen continue to be pulled off the line to assemble in large groups where they listen to words both inconsequential to their daily lives and easily transmittable via less costly means.

Why does this continue? Why does “broke” not really mean “broke?”

Because, perhaps, senior officials see these lavish expenditures as part of how they’ve defined doing their jobs. Because, perhaps, of an ingrained modernist management philosophy that sees prestige and status as not just incidental aspects of high command, but as operative mechanisms in the important exertion of control and authority.

Constantly showing up for official visits, flanked by the visible trappings of seniority, dictating to subordinate leaders and their airmen how time will be spent, what will be discussed, and how the agenda will be traversed is a way of reminding everyone who is in charge. It’s a way of reinforcing power structures and throwing around official weight.

But even if this decidedly corporate method of organizational governance has any merit, it also carries a drastic cost to teamwork. Constant reminders about verticality and required obedience to senior leaders gesture toward deeper and more insidious ills that cannot be discounted if the Air Force seeks to be at least as much “team” as it is “corporation.”

When senior officers and their staffs spend too much time on this stuff, there develops a feeling of division between those in charge and everyone else. A distance — a “power distance” — that is unhealthy. It makes junior personnel feel like their leaders are not just holding a higher pay grade, but that they are separate altogether — an entity apart from the rest of the team.

This gets in the way of loyalty, which is earned through respect rather than rank. More crucially, communication is inhibited when too much formality marks relationships between members of the same team. When communication is inhibited and candor dies, blind spots develop and problems grow from lack of attention. This is very much the story of not just the nuclear enterprise and the Air Force more generally, but the modern military and, some would argue, the entire modern administrative state.

Through his policies and actions, Colonel John Warden tried to teach us something about this.

When he took wing command at Bitburg in 1987, Warden issued a number of directives designed to reorient the organization in ways he saw necessary. He sought to decentralize and de-bureaucratize.

This wasn’t ideological for Warden; he sensed that war was on the way, and that unless airmen could operate effectively in distributed fashion, the coming war would be much bloodier and more contested than it ought to be.

One of his many initiatives was the elimination of reserved parking spaces at Bitburg. As you can imagine, this really pissed off everyone who felt his or her rank entitled a shorter walk. But Warden didn’t seem to like the idea of one person being more “important” than another extending beyond the military workplace and into the sphere of personal activity. He wanted everyone to feel like they were on the same team, and thought such unwarranted formality got in the way.

A few weeks later, General Kirk, the newly appointed 4-star running Warden’s parent command, toured Bitburg. He was downright appalled at Warden’s parking space decision and ordered him to reverse it. Warden complied, but the damage was done. Because of this and other initiatives, Kirk was worried about him “rocking the boat” and sent several spies to check up on Warden over the next several months. 

Despite the wing passing a readiness inspection with flying colors and Warden fielding and developing new tactical concepts that were strategically important to the Air Force, he was relieved of command after just one year when Kirk decided he was too unconventional. Kirk sent Warden to a relatively inconsequential job in the Pentagon without ever telling him why. In retrospect, the decision was clearly rooted in style preferences rather than performance.

Of course, Warden didn’t waste time moping about his new job. Instead, he set about being as consequential as possible, and ended up making history. He went on to author the blueprint for the Desert Storm air campaign, and his ideas have largely defined air campaign doctrine ever since.

Despite this, the Air Force declined to make him a Brigadier General. This was exactly the wrong decision. It took an unconventional thinker and obviously brilliant airpower mind out of the fight right before the longest and toughest unconventional war in our history. 

With more people like Warden in positions of authority, would the Air Force have been so slow to adapt in Iraq and Afghanistan? Would it have become so intellectually overtaxed so as to fixate too intently on solving a narrow set of problems, consequently neglecting others? Would it have been necessary for the Secretary of Defense to publicly chide and later fire the service’s two top leaders?

We can’t know. But what we can say with confidence is that we need people at the flag officer level who not only think for themselves and guard their intellectual independence ferociously — as Warden did — but who are focused on closing the power distance between professional teammates. We need senior officials who understand that teams and corporations have different power structures, and that confusing the two gets in the way of group identity.

John Warden taught the Air Force this lesson, but it didn’t sink in. Maybe if we reflect on it again, against the backdrop of budget pressure and a dynamic and uncertain future, we’ll see the wisdom in it more clearly.

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This is but a tiny sliver of the fascinating and still unraveling story of John Warden, one of the preeminent theorists and most influential officers in Air Force history.

For more, see “John Warden and the Renaissance of American Airpower” by John Andreas Olsen, and keep an eye open for Olsen’s upcoming book, “Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd,” due out April 15th.

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