Air Force's Cultural Shake-Up

Last week, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made history when he simultaneously fired the Air Force’s top military and civilian leaders. Most press accounts attribute the head chopping to a series of institutional failures but the truth is that Gates’ real objective is to radically change the service’s culture.

Gates forced Air Force secretary Michael Wynne and the service’s chief of staff, Gen. T. Michael Moseley, to resign following the release of a nuclear investigation which reported a “…pattern of poor performance.” 

That report proved a tipping point for Gates, whose grievances with the Air Force include multiple nuclear faux pas, a public relations incident that tainted the chief of staff, major acquisition program protests, the service’s slow response to war support requirements, and repeated clashes with administration officials over budget priorities.

Gates had warned the air service that dramatic change was over due. In April, the secretary gave a hard hitting speech to the service’s staff college at Maxwell Air Force Base. That speech outlined the type of air service he believes America needs. 

He told the students that he wants the Air Force to learn how to adapt to a “…constantly changing strategic environment characterized by persistent conflict.” Gates expects “…unconventional thinkers” to rise in the service who are open to a “…new set of realities and requirements” and ready to abandon the current orientation on “…winning the big battles in the big wars.”

An active duty Air Force colonel agrees with Gates explaining that his service’s “…leadership have lost their way” which he blames on the “fighter mafia” which has run the service since the 1980s.

Before the “fighter mafia” the Strategic Air Command (SAC) bomber pilots were king of the roost. Every chief of staff from the birth of the Air Force in 1947 through 1982 had a bomber background, but for the last 26 years every chief has been a fighter pilot.

There was a general feeling in the post-Vietnam era that the SAC mentality was too prescriptive and checklist-oriented, and the new blood with a “devil may care” attitude of the Air Force’s fighter community infused a measure of fresh ideas and got the service beyond just nukes to think conventionally.

Today, the fighter community, specifically the air-to-air warfare community, occupies most of the service’s top positions, explained a colonel, but they are myopically focused on “…winning the big battles in the big wars.”

Gates warned the staff college students that “…the culture of any large organization takes a long time to change” and then he challenged the service’s future leaders to preserve “…those elements of the culture that strengthen the institution and motivate the people in it, while shedding those elements of the culture that are barriers to progress and achieving the mission.”

One of the barriers to progress says an Air Force pilot is the lack of mission clarity. “As a service we are grappling with our expanding mission set while at the same time desiring to get back to our core competencies,” the officer said.

“The mission of the United States Air Force is to deliver sovereign options for the defense of the United States of America and its global interests — to fly and fight in air, space, and cyberspace.”  A colonel volunteered that “Nobody I talk to knows what that means.” The service’s traditional mission was simple: fly, fight and win.

Another barrier to progress is the service’s willingness to grow its list of missions – such as cyber warfare and space operations – by migrating scarce resources away from pre-existing programs.  Those decisions have created an overstretched, unfocused institution.

Secretary Gates called attention to the Army’s transformation to illustrate the success he seeks for the Air Force. The “Army that went over the berm about five years ago was … essentially a smaller version of the [Cold War-era] force that expelled Saddam Hussein from Kuwait a decade prior.” Today’s Army has started to institutionalize the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan to change its doctrine, funding priorities and personnel policies.

An Air Force officer admitted that his service hasn’t been malleable and has demonstrated a “corporate attitude” which eschews the critical joint fight.  He said his service’s “Basic Doctrine 1” sums up the “corporate attitude” that “Airmen [only] work for airmen.” This attitude reflects a dangerous “parochialism” said the officer.

Another officer recently attended a briefing that promoted the F-22 Raptor, a $180 million fighter aircraft. The presenters pitched all the “neat gadgets” on the Raptor but when asked why the service wasn’t focusing on what the Raptor brought to the joint fight, there was silence. The pilot concluded: “The Air Force was not selling the F-22 as a capability that would help the joint fight, but rather as an amazing air-to-air platform.  We are failing to make the connection with the larger picture.”

Gates asked the Maxwell students to consider new priorities that “…should drive procurement” and specifically “…how we accomplish the missions” in “…the most affordable and sensible way.” He used his quest for more unmanned aerial vehicles to illustrate. “In 1992 … the Air Force would not co-fund, with CIA, a vehicle without a pilot,” the frustrated Gates complained.  He argued that “Unmanned systems cost much less and offer greater loiter times than their manned counterparts.”

It’s clear that the Air Force’s priorities don’t mirror the Secretary’s.  For example, the service recently re-established “Aggressors,” flying units that act as potential adversaries in order to hone pilots’ air-to-air skills – an important mission, but a curious funding priority given the current fight, foreseeable future, and in the midst of increasingly constrained resources.

One of the few Air Force priorities that match the ongoing war requirement is the production of the C-27J Spartan, a joint cargo aircraft. Unfortunately, says one Air Force insider, 95 percent of the Air Staff oppose the project because it may get the service “down and dirty with the Army” and create needed competition for Lockheed Martin, many officers’ post retirement home. 

“My concern is that our services are still not moving aggressively in wartime to provide resources needed now on the battlefield,” said Gates. He explained to the air students that he’s not getting what’s needed “…because people were stuck in old ways of doing business, it’s been like pulling teeth.”

The secretary was right to fire the Air Force’s top leaders and now he must follow-up that decision with real cultural transformation beginning with the right leadership.  

On Monday, Gates named Michael Donley, an organizational and management planning expert, to become Air Force secretary and Gen Norman Schwartz, a C-130 pilot with special operations experience, to be chief of staff.  These selections break the mold of former aircraft manufacturing executives for secretary and fighter jocks for chief.  Hopefully, this new crew will begin the generational process of transforming the Air Force’s out of synch culture.


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