Ten (+1) Suggestions for a Resurgent Air Force in 2016


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I’ve done my fair share of criticizing the direction and policy choices of the Air Force this past year. OK, maybe more than my fair share. But I harbor few second thoughts about that … for seldom in the annals of our national defense history has there been an institution more astray from its proper flight path or more averse to the kind of self-criticism necessary to get back on course. I’ve felt criticism was both constructive and necessary.

But while problem recognition is important, many famous and respected leaders have often opined with good cause that it’s best to accompany complaints with suggested solutions. In that spirit, I offer a non-inclusive rundown of what I consider to be valid and achievable reform proposals for the Air Force in 2016. These are things I happen to believe are achievable, worthy ideas that could help break the service out of its current spin and help it start to ascend again. They’re mainly products of other peoples’ minds, creeping into my playbook in the ongoing effort to influence, be influenced by, and channel America’s airmen. They should be given consideration.

This list assumes a radical reorganization is off the table for the time being, and that the substantial personnel reforms currently under review by DoD won’t materialize until well into the future. I also assume we can’t get much more money right now.

I don’t bound this list out of defeatism so much as pragmatism. The service is in bad shape; it can’t wait for an all-encompassing universal solution to everything … those actions possible and constructive need to be entertained and acted upon now — before either (a) the Air Force organizationally collapses or (b) it is challenged by an adversary formidable enough to expose internal weaknesses largely obscured from politicians and the public.

Which leads me to my first proposal.

  1. Stop Falsely Claiming the Air Force is Healthy. There are many good stories out there of the superb exploits of airmen, but the institution is noticeably limping. There is an ethics problem, as vividly demonstrated by the finding that a wing commander, under advice from others higher in the chain of command, hounded three officers to the edge of personal and professional oblivion for drug use based solely on text messages he obtained by invading their privacy. There is a manning crisis only recently acknowledged by CSAF. The service’s #1 modernization priority, the F-35, is a mess. Solving any of these issues requires trust and credibility. You get that by first admitting there is a problem … something airmen already know is true anyway. You lose it by constantly putting lipstick on a pig.
  2. Outlaw Doublespeak. Senior leaders are losing people with euphemisms and vagaries allowing them to say one thing and do another. If you’re not going to make every dollar count, don’t use the phrase. If you’re not going to strip mandatory volunteerism out of the enlisted promotion system, don’t use slippery language to imply otherwise. If you’re not going to truly allow enlisted airmen to fly drones, don’t steal a great headline claiming you are … before showing them the fine print spelling out how they’re limited to a weaponless, semi-autonomous system that doesn’t even need pilot input to land. You’re better off rolling with unpopular policies but explaining why. Trying to fool smart people just alienates them, and you need them on your side.
  3. Reorganize Public Affairs. Between the Air Staff and the Public Affairs Agency in San Antonio, you’ve got over 200 publicists devoted full-time to supporting corporate messaging. These people are needed elsewhere to tell the stories of the Air Force, its mission, and its airmen. Maintaining a bloated corporate publicity staff is leading you to utilize it in the wrong ways, championing political themes and various faddish flavors-of-the-week rather than the core business of airpower. This propagandizing is injuring focus and making you a rolling joke. Too many publicists is how you end up with Sec. James’ Facebook account championing a former bandsman instead of the Wright Brothers on December 17th. It’s how you end up with Gen. Welsh’s page showing him promoting a dog (to Major, no less) the same day a Battlefield Airman is getting his second Silver Star. It’s how you end up with the top Public Affairs story of 2015 being a showcase of a staged “flash mob” rather than the bombing of ISIS. Cut the headquarters publicity staffs in half and send those airmen to the field to tell real stories. Watch focus and morale improve overnight.
  4. Re-Purpose the Regional Bands. The recent revelation that the Air Force can no longer afford to fire volleys at veteran burials is pretty shameful considering other wasteful activities that continue unchecked. And yet, manpower is an issue across the force. So with hundreds of regional band members already qualified to conduct ceremonies and already accustomed to traveling and working in the community, why not re-task them to handle Honor Guard duties for these funerals? This would solve a problem while making much more efficient use of a resource. If there’s an argument for why these bandsmen can’t be re-purposed, make that argument rather than relying on platitudes about the value of music. No one is buying that stuff, and it’s become a burr in the saddle of mission-hacking repeat deployers who see their squadrons short-handed while frills like bands continue.
  5. Restore the Balance in Civil Liberties. This should really be #1, or perhaps #0. It represents the biggest standing threat the future of the service, because no one will join or stay in Air Force that takes advantage of command prerogative by unnecessarily infringing wholesale on basic rights outside of “take the hill” scenarios. Start by rescinding AFI 1-1. It is probably unconstitutional in its failure to recognize that airmen, despite their choice to serve in the military, have an expectation of privacy. Gen. Welsh’s tortured interpretation of AFI 1-1 is even worse. His insistence that even private text messages are subject to official review under a “professionalism” standard is an irresponsible and incorrect statement — one of the more regrettable from any public official at his level in recent memory. Senior enlisted leaders are now parroting his bad guidance and using it to control behavior. He needs to retract it, clarify his meaning, and re-engage. The Air Force also needs to take the initiative to require satisfaction of an evidentiary standard for Letters of Reprimand. As the Miley Gate debacle shows, commanders believe they can end careers based on bare suspicion … and under the current system, that belief is accurate. The power to end a career needs to be responsibly chained to a requirement to prove the action is justified and not the mistaken judgment or Caesarian fiat of an unduly empowered commander. Speaking of the unduly empowered, none of the reforms above will matter of the Air Force doesn’t hold abusive commanders accountable. Maj. Gen. James Post, Col. Brian Hastings, and many others have escaped public accountability for substantiated civil liberties violations. Airmen have noticed, and it’s a big part of why they’ve lost confidence that senior officials will recognize or safeguard their most basic rights. Continue on this path and no American worth his or her salt will want to be in our Air Force. Or regain trust by doing the right thing.
  6. Revolutionize Human Resource Management. Start by setting the tone that we expect the same level of excellence from personnel staffs that we expect of everyone else. The drawdown of 2014 was a mess. No one was held to account. Tops in Blue, as it turns out, was subjected to abusive, dangerous, and discriminatory management practices. No one was held to account. The rollout of the Enlisted Evaluation System was a micro-mangled abomination leaving supervisors confused and airmen distressed about their livelihoods. No one was held to account. If you’re going to micro-manage personnel processes at the general officer and headquarters staff levels, you’ve got to be willing to fire those generals and discipline those staffs when they screw up. This is the standard applied in the squadrons of the Air Force, and airmen expect the same (or a higher standard) when it comes to the policies that impact their lives. Start by letting Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso randomly select superior performing officers and SNCOs from across the service to replace her current staff. A1 needs to be a cross-section of critical thinkers supported by administrative experts, not a cabal of personnel policy aficionados deaf to ideas that make policies operationally relevant. Reorganize AFPC. Put administrative functions and authorities back into squadrons and give them the manpower to make it happen. Reorganize assignment and career development models around a detailer system that makes one HR professional responsible for the life cycle management of a group 250 airmen. Let detailers coordinate with squadron commanders and each other to get the personnel bills paid while taking care of people. Eliminate “functional managers.” They’ve held too much power and done too much harm to the unity and operational focus of the Air Force for too long. The whole idea was that they’d know their people, but they don’t. They can’t even tell you how many there are or where they’re assigned. Which brings me to …
  7. Conduct a Servicewide Personnel Audit. CSAF recently lamented that we’re undermanned by 20% across most of the force. That’s ugly, but it’s not even accurate. The truth is no one knows how undermanned we are because manpower standards were abandoned 10 years ago when the service knowingly embraced unsustainability. 10 years is long enough. Bring in an objective auditor to evaluate and establish a manpower baseline for every unit in the service, and then resource to that standard. This becomes the new basis for knowing how to prioritize and being able to articulate how short-handed or unbalanced the force actually is so we can determine what to stop doing and what to augment. Right now, the process is working in reverse, with budgeteers deciding how many people we can afford and human resource models twisting and warping to fit the pre-formed bottom line. By this stupefying unmagic, we’ve arrived at a situation where AFPC is approving retirements and separations in career fields that appear overmanned on their books … when the truth in the field is that they’re dangerously understaffed and inexperienced. This is yet another great reason to listen to squadron commanders.
  8. Audit Deployments. There are few sins as grotesque as sending someone to the desert for 6 or 12 months to sit underemployed and superfluous while away from loved ones and teammates. This is happening constantly and is a source of huge frustration, especially given the deteriorating state of deployed bases that have far outlived their planned service lives. Under the current logic, CSAF and gang refuse to even ask the question of whether a deployment is necessary, no matter what evidence exists. They refuse to take the political risk of being accused of not fully supporting a warfighting commander. But the dirty little secret is that Air Force officers, liaisons, and planners partially comprise those warfighting commands, and Air Force commanders are often the ones generating demand signals that result in abusive manpower practices. Get a handle on this by sending auditors to the desert to evaluate the work being done. Stop sending airmen to unnecessary billets, and stop accepting blanket justifications from deployed commanders and their empire building lackeys. Discontinue deployed aides, execs, protocol officers, and awards programs where they stand with a single direct order. All of this fits within the larger rubric of playing our defined role and not cloying for greater relevance, real or perceived.
  9. Green Dot: Just Don’t Do It. This is a really bad idea. Ask your people and they’ll tell you. Hire more lawyers, investigators, and evidence experts. Prosecute and publicize. Dislodge and perhaps even prosecute commanders who are unserious, blame victims, or conduct reprisals. Punish commanders who over-prosecute and prosecutors who over-charge … both of which cheapen the issue of sexual assault while undermining enforcement and injuring justice. You need every airman to care about his or her teammates enough to do everything possible to prevent assaults. You get that kind of mutual respect and shared loyalty through leadership, esprit, and law enforcement. In other words, the hallmarks of a healthy Air Force are the best tools for preventing sexual assault. All you get through social engineering and politicized law enforcement is alienation, division, and failure.
  10. Leave the Hawg Alone. This is for your sake as well as everyone else’s. The A-10 matters too much to current and near future warfare, and it’s not going anywhere, so spare yourself the trauma — and the predictable dishonesty — of making another attempt to kill it, even through some creative gambit involving guard units. If you need to save money, get it by slashing the F-35 program. That’ll get you close. Get the rest by cutting general officer and SES travel budgets in half and mothballing half of the VIP aircraft fleet. Conduct all functional reviews and staff assistance visits by teleconference. You’ll actually make the service more honest and less distracted in the process of saving money.

These are just ideas rather than full proposals, and they’re just the beginning. A full list would include many more suggestions … from overhauling officer development and creating an online debate space to quadrupling the current number of PhD candidates and prohibiting volunteerism statements on performance reports. There are myriad ways I could beg for more truth and less politics from people who wear military rank.

But in the end, every one of these suggestions is part of one overarching recommendation: invert the current set of priorities. Gen. Welsh and Sec. James are currently seized with modernization, organization, and then people, in that order. This is exactly backwards.

People, organizations, equipment. In that order. When you get that right, many of the problems enumerated and implied on this list will resolve or dissolve naturally.

When you make people the center focus, it forces you to balance taking care of them with accomplishing the mission, which in turn requires simultaneous focus on the mission. War is a human activity. When we focus on war execution and war readiness through the lens of human performance, our understanding multiplies, our choices and activities naturally harmonize, and our priorities naturally align. When we focus elsewhere, these natural impulses get misdirected, and we find ourselves trying to define our mission around systems, processes, machines, or programs. These things are not what drive performance in war or readiness, and trying to force them into that center focus creates internal dissonance. It gives us an institutional migraine. Sound familiar?

All of which is to say that when you take care of people, they take care of everything else. When you don’t, they can’t.

If you follow these recommendations and govern by these priorities, you’ll still have problems. You won’t have enough money or people to do what is [t]asked; you’ll still lack the top cover from the Administration to close bases or reduce infrastructure; Congress will still shirk on national defense issues and hang the blame around your neck; the uniform your predecessors spent millions developing will still be terrible, as will the fitness test you feel obliged to maintain. Undoubtedly, you’ll still be nagged and heckled incessantly by journalists and commentators exploiting social media to live inside your OODA loop.

But these aren’t problems that can collapse the service or threaten defense. The things that can bring down the Air Force are all internal. Internal division, internal confusion, internal misprioritization … and internal hemorrhaging of trust and confidence.

With the trust and confidence of airmen, the Air Force can never lose and can achieve anything. Without that trust and confidence, it can’t expect to win or achieve much of anything. Putting people first again in 2016 is the key to breaking out of the current cycle of unintentional acrobatics. It’s the airman, not the machine, that is key to the Air Force’s future.

On that happy note, I offer sincere best wishes to the men and women who serve the world’s greatest Air Force in 2016. Hopefully, it’ll be a year spent gaining altitude.

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