As a participant and observer of the Air Force for nearly three decades now, I’ve seen good and bad leaders come and go. We’ve had our fair share of toxic lemons occupying the upper managerial tier — many of them unknown generals and civilians quietly corroding our service culture with narrowly self-interested policies. We’ve had a much more modest share of greats, too often unappreciated in their own time.
Between 2012 and 2016, the Air Force was weighted down by a profoundly inept group of senior leaders … a trio so pitifully and proactively ineffective that they became the targets of open scorn from those they were charged to lead. Gen. Mark Welsh, Sec. Debbie James, and CMSAF James Cody came to be known by airmen as “The Three Amigos,” a comic handle lampooning their incessant and ultimately fruitless efforts to substitute appearances and rhetoric for substance. Like the fake cowboys of 1980s silver screen fame, they proved to be all hat, no cattle … three people pretending to be in charge, but mainly bumbling around and occasionally causing damage.
These three were good for war tourism, turtlenecks, and talking points. When Welsh wasn’t lying to Congress about morale, he was letting his laywers strangle civil liberties so the story of horrifically bad morale would have a harder time making it into public view. James busied herself with a multi-million-dollar publicly-funded travel schedule and do-nothing social engineering initiatives. Nobody really knows what Cody did, except that the enlisted corps was much worse when he was done and he struggled to explain why … that is when he deigned to even make the attempt.
Mainly The Three Amigos just alienated everyone internally while embarrassing themselves and everyone else externally. They were indeed a darkly comical farce … or they would have been save for the damage done.
This past year has brought with it a most welcome and hopeful contrast. While most of the Trump Administration struggles to tick the days over competently and free from controversy, the Air Force is quietly rebuilding itself under the steady hand of committed and capable leaders. Gen. Dave Goldfein, Sec. Heather Wilson, and CMSAF Kaleth Wright are as diametrically opposite their predecessors as we could imagine. And they are absolutely nailing the job of leading the Air Force … in step with one another and marching toward the worthy objective of securing the nation’s future, they are setting a once-in-a-generation example of how to leverage the power of public office for good rather than for self-exaltation.
The signal quality exhibited by these three is honesty.
Wright admits his airmen are frustrated and unduly stressed. He says he is genuinely looking for solutions and taking actions, and his airmen believe him because of his honesty. Rather than stumble over self-imposed speech limitations like his straight-talk-allergic predecessor, Wright acknowledges the service is asking too much from people and asks for help solving the problem. He’s not getting stuck on style preferences or limiting his ideas to the incremental or minimal. He’s engaging in active disruption — even going so far as to consider bringing back Warrant Officers if it will be good for his airmen. What a breath of fresh air.
Heather Wilson says the operational tempo is too damn high. She’s the first Secretary since 9/11/01 to unequivocally admit there is a limit to what the Air Force can sustainably accomplish, and to implicitly advertise that by living beyond that limit, we’ve placed the entire service at risk. Most critically, she gets that airmen will never be the ones to say no … so we the leaders have to be extremely careful what we ask. They will give it, until they collapse from exhaustion and over-stretch, or we find that the risk they’ve been masking has a blood cost.
Gen. Goldfein is moving to restore power and authority to wing and squadron commanders, which is another way of saying he admits generals and staffs don’t have the answers. This is an admission long overdue. Pushing authority down the chain is a way of showing confidence, expecting better and more judgement, and establishing trust. These are critical steps forward for CSAF, who continues to demonstrate he is genuinely passionate about steering the Air Force back toward its aspirational origins — a group of people jointly committed, airminded, and organized for combat lethality rather than bureaucratic commodity.
Beneath all the laughter about the Three Amigos meme is a kernel of something serious and substantive about the value of a common vision acted upon by teammates who stick together, stick their necks out for each other, and build a bond that transcends simply sharing the same uniform. Goldfein, Wilson, and Wright are exemplifying senior airmanship, and it’s heartening to watch after a long season of darkness.
The Three Amigos are dead. Long live the Three Amigos.