It wasn’t long ago that the Air Force’s Chief of Staff went to Capitol Hill and reported to the Senate Armed Service Committee that morale across the service was “pretty darn good.”
We scoffed at that for principally two reasons. Not only is it misrepresentative, but doing anything to improve the actual state of morale means telling Congress the truth and requesting the resources to address it.
There are at least two reasons Gen. Welsh might make such a statement despite the manifest presence of contrary facts and intuitions.
The first is simple pride. Having run the Air Force for nearly four years and commanded one of its major commands before that, Welsh would inculpate himself in flawed or failed leadership by any admission that the service is in bad shape.
The second is more complicated, and would probably have triggered the preposterous “pretty darn good” statement irrespective of Welsh’s personal stake in things. Pure politics. The trick for a high-ranking bureaucrat is to tell just enough truth to get what you want, and to not tell a stitch more … because in a bureaucracy, truth is dangerous to self-interest.
The Air Force wants money to modernize and needs money to repair its aging fleet. But if it were to propound too forcefully that it has a morale problem triggered by staffing shortages and overstretch, Congress might respond by giving it more personnel money and less fleet money … or by growing the Air Force to an end strength that might threaten modernization objectives in future years.
This has been the game for a long while now. As budgets have declined, service leaders have prioritized modernization in order to save the future (as they see it), gambling that airmen could gut out crushing conditions in the near-term until budgetary or operational conditions eventually change, providing relief at the structural level.
But it’s a bad bet, because basic conditions are unlikely to change any time soon. The operating environment will continue to be characterized by sub-state threats we can’t ignore and potential state adversaries with whom we must strategically compete. Military spending, currently about 4% of GDP, is unlikely to grow.
This means the Air Force’s basic equation can’t really change. Either the service must somehow secure more resources from Congress, or it must make existing resources stretch further by doing less — something that also requires political approval. Barring either, it will continue barreling toward failure. This is all weighed by senior officers who have aged in a culture that abhors human-centric and manpower-intensive conceptions of combat power … preferring instead a machine-obsessed vision that sidesteps force-on-force struggles via technological superiority.
But such notions have their limits, and manpower still matters. The Air Force doesn’t have nearly the number of people it needs to accomplish its basic mission, to say nothing of the additional tasks necessary to support itself while tending to myriad politically imposed make-work requirements.
A vivid way of understanding this is through the lens of Gen. Welsh’s December admission that the service is 15-18% understaffed in every mission area. Restating this in numerical terms, it means the service would need to have between 370,000 and 385,000 airmen — rather than its current 314,000 — to effectively do its job.
Either way, the Air Force needs to persuade Congress, the American public, and its own civilian leaders in the DoD and the White House that it needs either (a) a robust infusion of new resources or (b) a dramatically smaller mission.
Which brings us to the Fox News report currently making the rounds on cable news and the internet. If you haven’t yet seen it, take a look at this 5-minute clip. Analysis after.
For those who have followed this blog the past few years or have been serving at the street level in the Air Force at any point in the last decade, this video is a blinding flash of the obvious. Things have been bad and getting worse for a long time, which is why the service’s people have been dismayed by the serial failures of their senior leaders to recognize and appropriately address stressors on the force.
But to those outside the loop (and to out-of-touch generals and civilians within the Air Force), this coverage is alarming. Stealing parts from museum aircraft … training so sparingly that we’re openly anticipating heavy losses in the next war … cannibalizing from multiple aircraft simultaneously to keep others airborne … so swamped with administrative work that the mission takes a back seat … exhausted enough from repeat deployments and endless shift work to have fallen out of love with what should be one of the most fulfilling jobs in the world.
To those laboring under propaganda-fueled false illusions that “all is well” … this report is weighted with some pretty heavy stuff.
But the most striking thing about this report isn’t the substance of it so much as the way it came about. Fox News is delivering the message, but the hidden hand of the Air Force is visible to the trained eye.
Two sitting wings commanders, two pilot captains, a Chief Master Sergeant, and a handful of additional NCOs … all hailing from operations and maintenance specialties and all telling the truth about exhausted equipment and burned out people. The grant of access necessary to craft this report had to come from the highest levels, and we can assume based on the prevailing culture of Big Blue that the truths spoken herein — especially those spoken by Colonels interviewed on camera — would not have been uttered without an explicit or tacit green light from the chain of command.
In other words, it may not be Gen. Welsh or Secretary James doing the talking, but the Air Force is corporately sending a message … that it is no longer willing to suppress key truths about the condition of the service it believes have been fostered by political shirking within Congress and the Administration.
Still, there is something pathetic about all of this. Clearly, senior officials want to expose the desperate straits in which the service and its airmen find themselves. But they don’t say the words themselves or marry themselves publicly to anything politically inconvenient … and certainly not in the stark and appropriately downcast terms the truth deserves. Instead, they concoct a media gambit to advance their objectives via “strategic messaging.” This leaves them free to avoid the the uncomfortable but right act of speaking truth to power while leveling with the internal audience about the tough road ahead.
It’s just this sort of approach that has withered the trust and confidence airmen once had in their chain of command. They respond to moral courage, not creative publicity.
It’s good that word of what’s happening inside the Air Force is finally getting widespread media coverage, and that the alarm has at last been sounded. But it’s a disgrace that the message didn’t come from the Air Force’s top leaders, whose unwillingness to take political risk continues to degrade our nation’s current and future defense.
It’s abundantly clear that it’ll fall to rank-and-file airmen to continue telling the truth. Hopefully the corporate leadership will see fit to at least stand clear and let it happen.
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