Loyal JQP readers are amassing with popcorn in-hand, salivating at the thought of an acidic lambasting of Gen. Mark Welsh and the mark (scar?) he’s leaving upon our US Air Force as he transitions into retirement after four decades of service.
At the risk of disappointing those loyal readers, I should disclaim up-front that I have no intention of rhetorically dismembering Welsh in this piece. Enough of that has been done, and not unfairly, over the past three-plus years. Instead, what I hope to do is soberly recount the highlights and lowlights of his tenure, and explain what I believe his legacy to be: one of the best intentions and the worst outcomes. In many ways, it’s a perfectly American story.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Mark Welsh is not the devil, even if I’ve occasionally portrayed him as having a forked tongue and holding a flaming red trident. He’s been dishonest at times, but his failings in this regard reflect those of an honest man trying to be a politician rather than the other way around.
I’ll pay Mark Welsh two huge compliments that rank among the biggest one person can pay another: he has a soul, and he genuinely loves his teammates. In fact, his willingness to countenance emotion in his leadership model and his love of teammates have often been the things that have gotten him into trouble … as he’s struggled to sort out who should be favored among beloved teammates when they find themselves at odds with one another.
And this leads to the first major critique of his approach to being Chief of Staff.
When confronted with misconduct by his generals, Welsh was too forgiving of them. Maybe this came from a place of loyalty or faith or some sort of misguided omerta. But with Welsh, once you’re in, you’re part of the family and entitled to his top-cover … and this becomes a problem when all generals and wing commanders are “in” by default. Some of them engage in misconduct and abuse their power. Too often, Welsh protected them when he ought not have done so, incidentally leaving out in the cold airmen who’d been victimized and raising the caustic perception of a double-standard for anointed elites.
This undue faith extended, with the greatest regret, to his personnel officials. In 2014, they sold Welsh a bill of goods by persuading him to jam five years of personnel cuts into a single year. The drawdown that followed was a mess. It left the Air Force woefully short-staffed, something Welsh later had to admit. The Air Force ended up with a 15-20% manning deficit and a strategically dangerous fighter pilot shortage. Welsh fired no one, publicly criticized no one, and never openly acknowledged that avoidable mistakes were made.
Debilitating undermanning in squadrons will be his legacy, and it’ll stand untempered because he refused to hold anyone accountable for it. That’s the way it works at the 4-star level. You have a choice between disciplining your buddies or carrying the burden of what they screwed up. Welsh clearly chose the latter, and while this is admirable on one level, it doesn’t lessen the burden he must carry.
But most unforgivable is Welsh’s failure to fight for resources for his airmen. He constantly told them how much he loved them, and it’s hard to doubt his sincerity in the moment he’s expressing himself. But his love wasn’t enough. What they needed was for him to act on that love with principle and toughness. To tell Congress and the President what a mess had been made of the Air Force since it was put into a perpetual hurt locker in 1991. To articulate accurately the severity of the issues plaguing it and demand the resources to fix those issues … securing them as a result or going down swinging. The emotional retirement ceremony marking his departure would have been much more potent had he fought for airmen on the Hill and in the Oval Office … instead of giving them rhetorical reassurances while telling Congress everything was “pretty darn good.“
There’s plenty more to criticize, from the misrepresentative political shenanigans Welsh championed in the A-10 debate to his dishonest handling of the James Post treason debacle, his refusal to set things right in the curious case of Craig Perry or the unjust firings of Blair Kaiser and Lance Annicelli, and his unwillingness to rein in a propaganda machine that directly and severely undercut his straight talk ethos.
But most unforgivable is the way Welsh sat idle while the service developed an enemy-emboldening pilot shortage, its combat capability withering by the day. He knew during his time as commander of US Air Forces in Europe that there was a problem among fighter pilots specifically and the operations community more generally. He knew it was about lackluster support and resulting administrative gridlock. And yet, as Chief, he did too little to address it, fueling a crisis that has now pulled the service down into the regime of unsustainability. Without a costly rescue effort that will create new problems, the Air Force is doomed to irrelevance and eventual collapse. That’s Welsh’s one-sentence legacy, and it tortures his fans … who fairly harbored high expectations and watched him under-deliver for four solid years.
But lest this turn into a hate-fest, it should be noted that Mark Welsh did some things that are incredibly important and will, over the long haul, help return the Air Force to the healthy organizational condition Welsh experienced for the first quarter century of his career.
He restored squadron support staffs. He didn’t immediately man them, which was a mistake, but he did get them back on the books so they could be entitled to personnel billets at some point. I wish Welsh had liquidated frills like bands and extraneous staffs to find the people to fill those billets, but in the course of time they’ll be filled nonetheless. His insistence on re-establishing manning requirements to support operational squadron commanders is important, and more than can be said for his two predecessors … who myopically deconstructed squadron life to feed other imperatives that were far less important.
Welsh also struck down the officer culture of box-checking and pro forma education that had plagued the system for a decade before he took over. He told captains to stop double-accomplishing military education and reduced emphasis on masters degrees in the officer promotion system. These measures don’t get much press these days, but they have had a tremendously positive effect on the officer corps. Did he go far enough? That’s debatable. But he did better than his predecessors, and got things moving in the right direction.
Most of all, Mark Welsh spoke with eloquence to the hearts of airmen. He intended these messages to be inspirational, even if they were merely aspirational. He gave them words and ideas to rally around … reminding them to love one another and devote themselves to the committed pursuit of a shared fate. This is the essence of what it means to be in a “profession of arms.” It’s sadly unfortunate that Welsh didn’t create the conditions for airmen to fulfill his aspirations … he left the service in such a sad state that airmen don’t have the luxury of love … they’re hemmed in completely by obligation, which ultimately comes first. But his heart was in the right place.
Mark Welsh seems to be a genuine, loving, and lovable character who understands something important about elevating the human spirit. We could have fared worse and gotten a Chief who simply didn’t care. Kinda like Norton Schwartz, who didn’t just resemble Spock but took a Spock approach to his work, with disastrous results.
But nice as caring is … inspirational as loving is … sometimes it’s just not enough. Love only matters when it burns through resistance and structure and inertia sufficient to found meaningful action. Mark Welsh didn’t act on his love for airmen forcefully enough. The reasons why are interesting, but irrelevant. In executive terms, he simply didn’t deliver.
I believe, as most do, that Welsh meant every word he said. But the simple and painful fact is that Welsh leaves the Air Force in much worse shape than he found it. Manning is historically low. Morale is in a sad state. Accountability is inversely relational to rank. We have the worst pilot shortage in history and a growing maintenance shortage to boot.
Airmen have lost trust and confidence in their senior leaders. That happened while Welsh was in the seat. No amount of sweet talk can erase that reality. Sweet and lovable as he is, Welsh failed as a Chief of Staff … because he mistakenly believed that caring — and saying so out loud — was enough. At his level of the game, the job requires policymaking to give real meaning to words. He didn’t and perhaps couldn’t make that happen.
Still, as Robin Olds was always apt to point out, we should remember that the job of Chief of Staff is thankless and unforgiving … basically an exercise in self-loathing in a jail constructed from competing political interests that couldn’t care less about the military ethos or the integrity it demands.
Do we think Welsh tried his best? That’s the real test. I think he passes, even if the margin is razor thin.
But if the test is results-based, the result is different … and it’s not even close. Love is grand, but sometimes it just ain’t enough.
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