Things are tough for the 2016 Air Force. There aren’t enough people. There isn’t enough money. There’s too much on everyone’s plate. Weapons are aging. There’s excessive infrastructure carrying too high a cost, while essential facilities are aging and in some cases crumbling.
And these are just a few of the major structural problems acknowledged by the institution. There are also debilitating issues with poor communication, task and information overload, toxic leadership, an ethically compromised justice system, and abysmal human resource management. This list is not inclusive.
Amid all this, Gen. Mark Welsh went before the Senate Armed Services Committee and reported that morale in the service is “pretty darn good.”
It’s a remark that flies in the face of reality. But it comports with the theory of talent management (if it can sustain the label) embraced by Welsh during his tenure as Chief of Staff. This theory holds that basically, some people will leave no matter what while some others will stay no matter what … and that those in the middle are best influenced through the use of financial incentives.
This static regard for a dynamic and complex phenomenon is blind to how organizational life, service culture, or any other intangible element impacts retention. It is, therefore, blind to morale. Under this thought process, morale problems will never be recognized unless they create retention problems that exceed the reach of financial bonuses. Even then, Welsh and his publicists are likely to blame externalities such as airline hiring or a rebounding economy for any personnel exodus that can’t be successfully obscured from the view of Congress.
But make no mistake. There is indeed a huge morale problem in the United States Air Force. The longer it goes unacknowledged at the highest policy levels, the longer it’ll be before there is any hope of seeing the resources and relief (and the oversight) necessary to address it.
So why won’t Welsh bare this problem and honestly confront it?
Easy. He helped create it. To stipulate to a problem now would invite scrutiny of his decision two years ago to jam a five-year personnel drawdown into a single year. That decision threw fuel on an already serious manning crisis, leading to the meltdown in morale and welfare currently underway.
There’s nothing supernatural going on here. It’s just another case of a four-star more concerned about his own image and legacy than doing right by the Air Force, even if it means taking political risk.
But there was a time — not long ago in fact — when Mark Welsh understood full well that there was a morale problem. He was concerned enough about it to send a message to his entire command soliciting suggestions on how to improve conditions.
Take a look at this email, which Welsh sent to all fighter pilots in United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), a command he concluded in the middle of 2012 when he took charge of the entire service.
To USAFE Fighter Pilots,
I need your help. During a recent 4-star meeting, we talked about what appears to be a pending fighter pilot shortage. The AF’s rated personnel management folks are projecting a 300 fighter pilot shortfall in FY13 that could grow to over 1000 by FY21. They also told us that the fighter community’s bonus “take rate” is 10% lower than the rest of the rated community. Obviously, many of you are leaving, or thinking about leaving, the Air Force for other opportunities. If you’ve already made the decision to do so, then please accept my sincere thanks for your service and best wishes for every success in the future … it’s an honor to have served beside you. My concern is not that you’ve made the choice to pursue a new path, but that we don’t really understand why you made the choice.
You may have heard the story about a Captain fighter pilot who wrote a letter to the Commander of Tactical Air Command a couple of years after the end of the Vietnam War. The letter started “Dear Boss, Well, I quit” and went on to list the frustrations that he and his peers were experiencing. I just read a more recent version, written in 2009. It’s attached to this note. If you believe the author, some things may not have changed much in 30 years.
Our Air Force is in a dynamic state of change and its leaders need to know why some of their most talented, highly trained people are leaving. As we transition to a 5th Generation fighter force, we simply can’t afford to lose front line fighter pilots at our current rate. I understand that it’s a busy time to be in the Air Force. The fighter community is faced with an increasing ops tempo, fewer fighters, less flying, more non-flying jobs and an unclear career sight picture. My gut feeling is that this combination contributes to good people leaving, but I doubt these are the only factors. I suspect some of the issues raised in the Dear Boss letter are also in play. But, most importantly, I don’t know for sure. And I don’t believe AF leaders can make smart fighter pilot force management decisions until we do.
Interestingly, we also have a fighter WSO shortage which will persist for the next few years. But the longer term trends for that career field are positive. That’s clearly not the case with fighter pilots and I want to know as much as possible about what’s causing retention to move in the wrong direction.
So, I have a favor to ask. I’d like to hear your thoughts on what is driving fighter pilot retention down. You can send them directly to my [staff] at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. They’ll strip names off the inputs, then pass them to me, unedited. I’m looking for the ground truth as you see it, not the filtered, watered-down “this is what the boss wants to hear” truth. Once I’ve seen it all, I’ll give you some feedback … including what I plan to do with the info.
Let me close by saying “Thank You” to you and your families for all of your hard work and sacrifice. You, and so many other great Airmen in so many career fields, are the reason we’re the world’s greatest Air Force. But no matter how good we are, we need to get better. When your job is to fight and win your Nation’s wars, you can never be good enough. I will do everything in my power to make USAFE more combat capable; that includes trying to keep our best fighter pilots on Active Duty. If you think “best fighter pilot” refers to you, please let me know what you think. If you don’t, this note isn’t for you.
These are obviously not the words of a man who believes morale is fine. He clearly senses a problem with a bellwether constituency of airmen. And yet, in the years since, the conditions implicating morale have worsened, the fighter pilot shortage predicted at the time has come to fruition … and somehow we’re to believe that Welsh thinks morale is “pretty darn good.”
There’s a serious disconnect here between the assessment of Mark Welsh and the assessment, on the other hand, of Mark Welsh. If morale was a problem among airmen a few years ago, it is certainly a problem now. And if there’s a morale problem among people flying high performance jets in the world’s greatest (for now) Air Force, it’s logical to suspect the problem is much broader and includes other groups.
Such suspicions, pursued with even a modicum of responsible management, would quickly yield the facts necessary to convert them into actionable conclusions. If Welsh and his team haven’t gotten around to doing this, the mind boggles to understand what exactly they have been doing the past four years. One thing they haven’t been doing is improving pilot retention.
The “Dear Boss” letter referred to by Gen. Welsh in his missive is linked here. It’s powerful and oozes truth. It should have instigated a fundamental change in the direction of the service. But aside from a four-star email that gathered a ton of useful input … which was summarily cast aside in favor of four subsequent years of inaction legitimated by comforting but false propaganda … it didn’t produce much of anything.
When people ask me why I’m so frustrated with the leadership of Gen. Welsh, this is how I answer. He knows damn well there is a problem chipping away at the foundation of American airpower, and he’s not doing anything to confront and rectify it. Ignorance would be unfortunate. Complicity in the predictable collapse of the United States Air Force is unforgivable.
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