The Air Force’s leaders are ringing the alarm that the force is on the verge of breaking. As reported by Air Force Times’ Stephen Losey, the service’s pilot shortage has grown another 25% to more than 2,000 … threatening its ability to conduct the mission.
This jumble of words gets written so often that it has lost a lot of its punch. But make no mistake, what this means is that either the Air Force will not be able to do what the nation needs it to do when our vital interests are threatened, or — more likely — it will determine a way to get the job done, but at an unacceptably steep cost in terms of lost airmen, lost aircraft, and losses on the ground. In either case, a weak Air Force means a vulnerable nation whose way of life could be irrecoverably altered.
Most of the response in the Air Force and in Congress is rightly forward-focused on how to fix the issues … assuming they can be fixed with the means and methods being made available.
But there’s also a question on the table that must be answered for any fix to have half a chance of succeeding without being derailed by the same forces that led to the current crisis. That question is: who is responsible for this mess and how did they create it?
This is a fair question. I believe it should be posed to former Chief of Staff Mark A. Welsh and former Secretary Deborah Lee James in open hearings on Capitol Hill. These two presided over the Air Force during a pivotal moment in its journey when the current crisis was still preventable. They didn’t manage to prevent it, and we need them to explain why.
Some will say this problem has deep roots that were planted long before these two appeared on the scene. While this is true, it’s not the main point. The main point is that these two had the luxury of something no one before them had: notice.
They were put on notice constantly, repeatedly, loudly, and uncompromisingly. Not just by this blog, but by the movement it helped to catalyze. For the entire four years Welsh and James were in their positions, they were getting clear feedback that things were coming apart … that people were leaving in droves and poised to leave in bigger droves unless things were improved.
For the most part, these perpetual pleas for improvement fell on deaf ears. The public and the Air Force deserve to understand why.
For those of us who have been observing and commenting, the current crisis is unsurprising. This has been the trajectory. I started writing about it in early 2013, documenting the reasons I felt the service was coming apart at its core. It would be useful for all of us to understand whether senior officials agreed.
Just to revisit some of the main points we’ve made over the years, the Air Force is not breaking suddenly or solely because it doesn’t have enough pilots. It is breaking because …
People are too busy to think and micromanaged too much.
Because it’s still more fashionable to plan a wing barbecue than to plan a combat readiness exercise.
Because we’ve taken cherished traditions and turned them into cheap slogans.
Because USAF senior leaders are self-muzzled on the issues most important to their people.
Because generals have used or tacitly authorized deceit and shady tactics to draw the force down to its smallest level in history when everyone warned it was too small already and too overworked.
Because senior officials see airmen as overpaid, not recognizing they are working harder than at any point in service history.
Because we’ve turned bad leaders loose on squadrons and encouraged them to do their best Hitler impressions with no threat of accountability.
Because airmens’ lives have been consigned to a known inept personnel bureaucracy lacking the resources to properly handle their most important life decisions.
Because leaders have been rewarded with promotions for sacrificing their subordinates to show their eagerness for political alignment. Toxic leadership thrived under Mark Welsh, despite his falsely saccharine demeanor.
Because demonstrably good leaders have been cashiered by demonstrably bad leaders and no one had the balls to step in and prevent it from happening, restore the status quo, or discipline errant colonels.
Because it became acceptable under Mark Welsh for a senior officer to disparage a fellow officer in the presence of enlisted airmen with zero accountability.
Because even when airmen made it crystal clear they hated certain things, those things continued to be coercively foisted upon them, creating alienation.
Because generals had to be browbeaten by Congress before they would part company with their personal show choir. The fact airmen hated and resented it wasn’t enough.
Because it’s become acceptable to leave airmen stranded in the desert beyond their planned redeployment date with no one held accountable.
Because despite the constant shrill cries about low resources, there’s always enough cash to fund VIP frills for service elites.
Because the service’s enlisted culture is as broken now as its officer culture has been for a long time, and Welsh did nothing about it for four solid years.
Because generals have felt it acceptable to stain fellow officers with the taint of treason if they dared to disagree or felt moved to exercise their right to confer with elected representatives.
Because when airmen have mustered the courage to explain their challenges to senior leaders, the response has been that they should suck it up and get back to work.
Because the service’s public relations operatives have worked harder to provide a voice to retired generals than the voices of airmen.
Because suggestions for how to reform on critical issues have been dismissed and ignored.
Because deploying airmen have had to set aside their personal lives to entertain self-important bureaucrats … in part because their local leaders have failed to speak truth to power with appropriate courage and volume.
Because when all else fails, the service just tells lies.
Because in an alleged effort to curb sexual assault, the service has created a distorted workplace culture of emotional distance and stunted relationships, essentially driving a stake through the heart of teamwork. It has mainly ignored suggestions on how to reverse itself.
Because it created a leadership culture that encouraged the unlawful witch hunting of airmen to score political points and look tough on hot button issues.
Because its senior leaders take no notice of the civil liberties of airmen, which they hold more dear than their uniforms.
Because its leaders at the highest level have proven they are full of shit.
Because in an effort court budgetary favor, the service has surrendered to politics and demoted itself from a true meritocracy to just another quota-driven agency. And it didn’t even feel comfortable enough about the decision to share it openly.
Because its helping agencies don’t help.
Because it waited until it could no longer deny a personnel shortage to acknowledge and start acting on it.
And because when push came to shove, the service’s top general chose to lie to Congress about the state of morale rather than admit the Air Force had a huge problem.
These are just a sample of the reasons why the service is breaking. They’ve been publicly and strenuously argued … and largely ignored until after the damage was done.
Those who did the ignoring should answer for that.