"...do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic..."

"For the good of the Air Force, for the good of the armed services and for the good of our country, I urge you to reject convention and careerism..."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Maxwell AFB, April 21, 2008

"You will need to challenge conventional wisdom and call things like you see them to subordinates and superiors alike."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, United States Air Force Academy, March 4, 2011

Sunday, August 1, 2010

"Who Will Defend Us?" - AETC in the Rear View Mirror

A couple days ago I drove out the front gate of a pilot training base for the last time. Three years in AETC has certainly proven to be educational, as it was when I was a cadet, and I'm looking forward to returning to my combat command with its subdued patches, vitally important wartime mission, and the quality leadership that such an environment produces. My time in the training command was valuable and I learned a fair amount. The people I worked with were highly motivated, extremely hard working and made the assignment more enjoyable. The flying was great and I learned a lot about my communication weaknesses in my attempts to instruct young officers. I was able to do some small good while I was there and my greatest reward was seeing young officers motivated to act with courage.

After I taxied in from my final flight, a group of instructors and students met me and showered me with champagne in the traditional way. I had hoped to avoid that but I have to admit the people who showed up made it an unexpectedly pleasant gesture. No leadership, just bros from the trenches. The greatest compliment of my assignment was overhearing a young instructor pilot in that gaggle ask another instructor, "who will defend us now?" Thankfully the name of another instructor was offered up as a potential. I barely know the person who posed the question and he probably doesn't realize I heard it, but it was an important question I'd like to address here.

Who will defend us from a careerist system that doesn't truly recognize or reward achievement, character, or hard work and that expects us to put ten pounds in a five pound sack? Who will defend us by simply elevating the unvarnished truth up the chain of command even when it's not desired?

Answer: You will or nobody will.

It's not about the timeline or the training mission. It's about the profession of arms and the quality of airpower we are able to offer our nation, even in a job that may appear far removed from the battlefield. If we allow a toxic situation to go unchallenged or if we "play the game" then we are partially responsible for the quality of the leadership that gets produced and the direction our service takes. If we don’t challenge a system where politicians advance over professionals, or if we allow ourselves to fudge the numbers, or if we become spin doctors to mask reality, then we help advance an Air Force of politicians, frauds, and spin doctors. And when the nation asks for airpower, what will the nation get? It will get the perception of air power while the rifleman and the nation suffer the cruel cold reality. It’s hard to lay hate on our enemies and bring Americans home alive armed only with a perception. As military officers we have no right to "stay off the radar" or "hold our cards" and comfortably lay low -- we are in the profession of arms and we are expected to act courageously even at risk to ourselves. Even when far removed from the blood and bullets.

The place I left offers ample opportunity for officers to meet this obligation and to grow into "mission and people" leaders. They have the opportunity to follow our Secretary of Defense by challenging leadership when it asks for ten pounds in a five pound bag. Magic is not an Air Force core competency, and we don't need any more magicians in tax-paid positions.

Of course I have taken liberty with the question "who will defend us" -- the pilot who uttered it may not have amplified it as I have above. He was more than likely talking about a more specific situation where leadership expects magic. The ten pounds demanded: healthy happy family lives, safe flying, physically fit airmen, PME, master's degrees, quality instruction. The five pound bag: an undermanned squadron, more students, routine 12 hour days, double and triple turning in blazingly hot weather, ORM sheets with little utility, and regular six-day weeks.

I'm almost certain he was talking about six day work weeks in the training command and my email up the chain on why I thought leadership's thermometer might be broken and a better risk assessment might be in order. In my email I discussed a 1999 Air Force Times article entitled, "Worked to Death - How Doing Too Much Cost 12 Crewmen Their Lives," which took a look at a fatality at Nellis involving two HH-60s that had a midair collision. According to the article, the overwhelming contributing factors that led to the disaster cited by the lead investigator, Col Denver Pletcher, included "a high ops/pers tempo coupled with leadership problems, internal and external training deficiencies, broken squadron processes, low aircrew experience level, and midlevel supervisory breakdown." The Colonel wrote that the "squadron was on a path to disaster." The article explains that the squadron had been operating under that same ops temp for five years prior to this accident but that "By then, problems were chronic: Squadron processes broke down, morale was bad, the training burden was increasing and there seemed ever-less time to prepare for the next deployment or exercise." In my email I offered what I saw as similarities with the mishap squadron. But recognizing that six-day weeks might be necessary, I also provided my inputs on how best to implement a six-day work week. It was up to leadership to make the call, but it was up to me to raise the red flag.

While I never really got a response to my email, it appeared to have a temporary effect and I got the credit in the trenches. Due to Operational Risk Management (ORM) reasons, the six-day weeks were canceled. But they came back several months later as I was out-processing and preparing for my new assignment. Perhaps the thermometer was fixed and leadership had the benefit of good information when it made its decision. It certainly may be possible that 72-hour work weeks and multiple physically demanding training flights in 100+ degree weather is an acceptable risk that is justified by the importance of the desired result. It's also perhaps a calculation that could lead to an undesired result. Such is the nature of our business. This nature requires good information to be provided up the chain of command even when the environment is characterized by "do what you know I mean, not what I say."

Who will defend you? Who will provide the information up the chain to ensure leadership has an accurate reading, whether they want it or not? You will, or nobody will.