The Rise of the Gutless Air Force Colonel

The problem with promoting someone to Colonel is that doing so vests in that person a belief that s/he has been invited to the Big Time … and is destined for generalship. Each of these beliefs is almost always mistaken. But in the time Colonels are suspended in these mistaken beliefs, they avoid risk so as to preserve the path forward. The grow cowardly. They self-muzzle, self-censor, and self-limit. All to stay in the good graces of Caesar in the fervent hope he will see through the Duffle-esque veneer of mediocrity and glimpse their hidden genius, thereby finding reason beyond their feckless fealty to reward them with the appropriate tablescrap of a new rank conveyed alongside Earthly deification.

What these loyal mutts don’t understand is that they are nearly always past abeam the final approach fix of their careers. Having not run the numbers or having been wilfully allergic to the conclusions yielded by doing so, they haven’t noticed that only about 5% of the Air Force’s Colonels are promoted to Brigadier General. This is roughly equivalent to the Below-the-Zone promotion percentages to Lieutenant Colonel and Colonel, and that’s no coincidence. If you’re not early to O-6, you have nearly zero chance of every being an O-7, and that’s because the Air Force insists it’s Brigadiers have perfectly rounded CVs that will help them compete favorably for senior positions on joint staffs. This is keyed directly to the service’s constant vigilance about the size of its budget and the degree of independent authority it is afforded in conducting the air war. When the US made its air service independent, it created an insecure, self-loathing institution riddled with doubts about its place in the warfighting order.

Seven decades later, that insecurity is still filtering into its culture. It drives Big Blue to create generals who may or may not be good leaders … but will certainly be good bureaucrats capable of maneuvering in support of a bigger budget and greater latitude to spend it. To what end? Who cares. There is no unifying vision. Just a grapple for power, and this is the enduring nature of bureaucracy.

Back to our spineless Colonels. What I’ve noticed in the past two decades is a sharp decline in moral courage. As a first-term airman in the early 1990s, later as an NCO engaged in flightline maintenance, and in the years leading to 9/11/01 as a Lieutenant flying C-17s, I saw many examples of Colonels making courageous decisions to defy headquarters expectations and to do right by airmen.

I saw wing commanders order Enlisted Clubs to ignore underage drinking so airmen would drink on base rather than drive. I saw ops group commanders cancel Friday flying when too many jets were on Red Xs — better to give maintenance an extra shift to catch up than make weekend duty a certainty for the sake a few more training squares. I saw a wing commander preserve full per diem for his deployed airmen because they were getting subpar service at the deployed chow hall. I even saw a deputy commander for maintenance scrub the annual PT run because his airmen had been forced to complete two unscheduled readiness exercises in the prior month, leaving no one any time to work out.

I’ve seen ops group commanders tell generals “no.” You can’t have that extra mission, because we’re already over-committed and we need to train. No, you can’t force us to pick up a bunch more downrange lines for this week because it will spread experience too thin and spike the ORM for our new aircraft commanders. No, you can’t have your pet love child upgraded in special ops to help her career because we only allow the best pilots through that door. And no, you can’t bump a newly arriving family out of billeting to accommodate the bloated coterie coat-tailing you on a visit you don’t even need to make.

But between that day and this, something has changed. Colonels don’t take courageous stands anymore. They’re basically latter day Master Sergeants, taking the world as they find it, following orders, and enjoying the comparative serenity of having fewer people outrank them. They’re knowledgeable and wise, but numb to mediocrity and abuse, accepting both to a fault.

Here’s why that’s a problem. Our system is one of authority. More specifically, an intricate and ornate system of balancing, contending, and counterweighting authority structures where it is expected that those with legal authority will exercise it to the fullest in fulfilling their organizational mandates, sometimes creating marginal skirmishes with others seeking to do the same. When one node of the system ceases flexing its authority, a vacuum is created and swiftly filled with authority emanating from a competing node in the system. In the present-day Air Force, Colonels have ceded their power to headquarters staffs and the generals who run them. This explains why Air Force bases have devolved into cultural replicas of miserable staffs, complete with the various infections that plague human cubicle farms.

Blind rule-following accompanied by robotic rule recitation devoid of reasoning. Bureaucratic manipulation, posturing, and maneuver for their own sake. Terminal shoulder shrugging. Ennui. These are the wages of staff duty. They have now become fixtures of Air Force life at wing level, because our Colonels have permitted it to happen.

This is because they are gutless. They refuse to risk anything until they realize they have no chance of making Brigadier General, at which point they become more bold and more inspirational. If they would have logically reasoned in the beginning that they had nigh on zero chance in the first place, they might have had balls all along. What a world that would be.

So here’s my pitch to all you Colonels out there: you’re already dead. You’re afraid to take risks because you still think there’s a chance you’ll make general, but it’s not going to happen. The sooner you recognize that you have no chance of advancing beyond your current rank, the sooner you’ll start using your authority like a proper Colonel. This is, of course, a paraphrase from a Band of Brothers scene.

The Air Force once had a proud tradition of bold Colonels flipping the bird at the institution in order to guard the flame of combat capability. When it was healthy, the service promoted enough of those renegades to fortify itself at the highest levels. When it stopped doing that, calcified by decades of budget hawking, it lost something important.

It also sent a strong signal to O-6s that they would not pass muster for O-7 unless they proved at every turn they were willing to kneel and kiss the ring. Far too many have conformed to this expectation. Because of this, airmen have been robbed of the base-level leadership necessary to safeguard their interests — chiefly their ability to get the job done free from excessive harassment by the queep enforcers and mattress police.

In today’s Air Force, the spineless are rewarded far more often than renegades. This has led to a bloat of useless “senior” leaders who are far more interested in pleasing their bosses than taking care of their airmen. We will need to see a reversal of this trend if the service is to have any chance of thriving in the future as anything more than a mediocre human filing cabinet with cool toys.

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