Why shake a fist at the United States Air Force?
It’s a question asked of me recently by several colleagues and reportedly posed by several general officers. Why the John Q. Public blog and its accompanying social media presence? Why engage in what seems like a constant broadside of negativity and criticism against a service that does so much good in the world and which I claim to love so much?
In the first instance, the answers lie in the questions. I love the Air Force. I love it enough to celebrate it when it excels, but also to lament it when it falls short. I love it enough to care about not just the results it produces, but the way it came about those results, and whether that way reflects a healthy and viable defense agency. The good that the Air Force does in the world is indeed tremendous, and in some ways unparalleled. But it is more fragile than popularly believed, and will not persist without a deliberate effort to sustain it.
But the answer goes deeper.
I left active duty because everything the Air Force had ever taught me told me that the service was on the road to institutional disaster, and there was nothing I could do from within to influence this fact, despite being reasonably favored, connected, and positioned to have an institutional voice. It wasn’t that the exhortations I and others advanced were ignored or discounted. It’s that they were completely unwelcome. They were unsought. The service had not just stopped listening to its own officers, it had stopped wanting to hear from them in the first place.
It was my conclusion that the Air Force had entered, in aviation parlance, an unrecognized spin. Without recognition and recovery, it was bound to continue losing altitude until it slammed into terra firma, losing public confidence and perhaps even its institutional independence in the process. This would be an unacceptable result. As an airman, I believe the future defense of the United States will be determined in that narrow space separating a good Air Force from a bad one. I believed at the time I retired from service and continue to believe now that the Air Force’s unrecognized spin is not just a threat to independent airpower, but to the very safety and security of our nation.
It seemed to me recognition would not happen from within but would need to be supplied from the perspective of unmuzzled outsiders who could speak with credibility and force about the service’s observable systemic dysfunctions. I wasn’t sure if I could contribute to that voice, but I knew for sure I couldn’t have the right kind of influence from the inside. Think about that for a moment, because it’s a significant statement. Air Force officers reaching squadron command should have their passion and idealism rekindled by participation as junior executives, not suddenly diminished by the realization that their ideas are dismissed as easily as before. Command used to bring with it special trust and responsibility. Increasingly, it just means you’ll have greater responsibility than others at your rank, but with no greater influence or voice in the organization.
The Air Force’s current crop of generals considers field grade officers to be minions rather than junior partners. They believe 40-year-old Lieutenant Colonels with a decade of combat experience and multiple layers of advanced education are to be seen and not heard, to follow orders rather than thinking. This attitude among the senior officer corps explains the intellectual insularity that has starved many problems of critical thinking, deepening pathologies and tightening the spin. The most critical problem facing the US Air Force is not one you’ll find in any headline, it’s the one that underlies every headline: the willfully affirmative ignorance of senior officers and executives to the existence and severity of systemic problems. This despite the enthusiasm of their own subordinates to identify and correct problems if so empowered.
This foundation explains why JQP became a thing in the first place, but it doesn’t explain why what began as a tiny personal hobby has grown into a movement and a community. Why, then, does a movement deeply critical of the Air Force persist, and why do I keep feeding and growing it?
Because the spin is tightening, and loss of altitude is accelerating. Because without recognition and a change in institutional performance in the next few years, the crisis currently gripping it will become a permanent cultural fixture, sealing a fate of failure that cannot be conscientiously countenanced.
Since I started writing about the Air Force, the dysfunction within it has become more noticeable, as has its acceleration. Exposure of problems that had previously been internally contained has sometimes evoked responses that make even more clear and alarming how badly the service has lost its footing. The problem is larger, more pervasive, and more wicked than I originally believed.
The service is too top-heavy, with too much authority concentrated at the senior most levels. Commanders at squadron level have no real authority, and have lost the necessary resources to actuate what little authority they retain. Officers and NCOs below command level have no hope of exercising any real latitude or judgment. Micromanagement is rampant. Promotions, reassignments, awards, decorations, special duty selections, deployments, separations, punishments, and just about all other human resource functions have been removed from the hands of front-line commanders and placed in the hands of centralized bureaucracies completely disconnected from the service mission. Little surprise that these staffs have begun to think of themselves as “the mission” with the operational units of the Air Force there to support its administrative functioning.
Service culture has degraded into one of control, compliance, and conformity veiled by propaganda claiming just the opposite. The Air Force was born on push-back, rose to prominence on the wings of technical innovation, and achieved greatness by capitalizing on the intellect and ingenuity of its people. The current rhetorical veneer embraces innovation while ignoring these handmaidens, a clear giveaway of insincerity. Today’s generals don’t want innovation in the true sense. They want alignment, not just of action, but of attitude, spirit, and mind. If they understand the first thing about innovation, they must know that it can’t happen in the kind of aligned environment they’re manufacturing. But they persist in favoring conformity because it carries less political risk, and the transitory nature of a senior officer’s career allows individuals to shield against personal consequences arising from systemic failure if they can simply dodge risk and avoid upsetting power structures long enough to be promoted and reassigned every couple of years. This explains why we see a rash of morally courageous decisions from generals after they’ve been approved for retirement.
The growing gap between slogan and intent – painfully obvious to the critical thinking airmen of the US Air Force — has infested every corner of intra-service communication, feeding a catastrophic loss of candor. Bosses don’t demand honest answers and subordinates dare not report bad news lest they look to be out of control or otherwise incapable. When things go wrong, leaders don’t take responsibility, choosing instead to hide behind communication breakdowns or misunderstandings. Human resource management has become an acknowledged game of numbers and flesh peddling, with airmen treated as commodities rather than volunteer warfighters with goals, aspirations, families, and off-duty lives. Leaders pretend to care about airmen by standing up programs to feed resiliency, while at the same time dialing up threats to resiliency by feeding tempo, instability, and impersonality in the key processes that touch the lives of service members and families. Airmen are concluding that their generals don’t truly care, but want to look like they do.
Too many leaders have set an example of political correctness, risk aversion, and scripted dialogue rather than genuine interaction. Their subordinates have a choice between following that example – which offends their integrity – or rejecting it, which sets them at an emotional distance from a service that told them values like teamwork and emotional loyalty matter above all. As this pathology unfolds, airmen have begun carefully watching what they say, lest they be singled out on suspicion of mental impurity. The Air Force fuels such fears by abusing administrative authority to crack down on those who register disagreement on social media. This is further evidence the service is interested in conformity rather than candor.
Most disturbing about this wayward culture is the tools abusive leaders are using to advance it. The Air Force’s core values are supposed to be unifying, aspirational ideas around which airmen can rally and establish a shared identity. Of late, this value system has been too often used as a cudgel with which to beat airmen into mental compliance. On any given day, the pages of official Air Force websites are filled with commentaries penned by commanders and senior NCOs. While some of these are thoughtful and useful, most are propaganda instruments hijacking the service’s value system as a literary device in the constant push for intellectual commonality. Perhaps without realizing it, the service’s own people are sowing the seeds of its potential destruction by demanding groupthink, and using the values they’ve sworn to uphold as fertilizer.
Of course, none of this is irreversible, at least for now. But dysfunction becomes permanent through the paralysis of systemic corruption, which prevents anything from being fixed when such a correction threatens the interests of those in authority. This is where we must always guard most diligently and be least tolerant of transgressions. Lately, disturbing signals have demonstrated the rise of corruption within the Air Force, something that should scare the living Hell out of every general, captain, chief, sergeant, legislator, journalist, commentator, and indeed every American.
Senior Air Force officers are abusing investigative authority to justify the indiscriminate and overweening exercise of power. They’re firing people for invalid reasons and figuring out a way to “make it legal” after the fact. When questioned about these decisions, the service is declining to respond, sidestepping accountability. When it does respond, it provides misrepresentative and incomplete answers, even when responding to lawmakers. This is the behavior of an ethically unmoored institution.
Commanders are also creating rules and policies that suspend individual liberty without adequate justification, attempting to obscure their exercise of pure fiat behind the veil of military necessity when none exists. In short, they’re creating an environment fundamentally inconsistent with basic American values, denying airmen the same rights they’re fighting to preserve and defend. You don’t have to be an expert to know this won’t work. But on this account, the service acts with unfettered discretion, knowing it will face no real questions from a public and a legislature that trust the military more than any other institution. In taking advantage of this expansive latitude, the service risks losing the trust it has built. With such a loss of trust, it would also stand to lose funding, recruitment advantage, and public confidence, leading to a less secure America.
The symptoms of power unchecked have begun to show throughout service life and across service functions. The nuclear missile force has been implicated in a cheating scandal, a symptom of rot within a community neglected for years. The MC-12 community (among others) has been under-resourced to a point requiring commanders to abuse people at historically unprecedented levels just to get the mission done. The proposed retirement of the A-10 has been a showcase in executive-level dishonesty, with generals publicly undercutting one of the most important and effective capabilities in the inventory not from a place of truth, but from a place of rational politics. The C-17 community has wrecked a dozen aircraft in the last dozen years as generals have consistently expected it to maintain capability without allowing it to train or reset properly. The ongoing drawdown has been a case study in doublespeak, opacity, and fractured trust between airmen and their leadership, something about which the service headquarters still labors in denial, choosing to believe instead that tens of thousands of officers and NCOs were too dumb to read instructions.
Inaudible amid this din of mismanagement is the voice of the ordinary airman as it shouts for the simplest of things: respect, acknowledgement, steady leadership, and the resources to get the job done. Indeed, excellence has degraded from an institutional steerpoint to an illusory notion too far out of reach to be visible. As resources have declined, workload has not, and this is perhaps the greatest dishonesty of all. Expecting excellence while resourcing and supporting for mediocrity won’t work. Leaders who know this and persist in demanding it are just liars by another name, and cannot be judged ethical by any standard.
This is the tip of a disheartening iceberg, and it didn’t grow to this size overnight. The decline in senior leader efficacy is a function of leader development routines in-place for a generation. The political predispositions of the officer corps reflect a larger national tendency that is especially difficult to calibrate in a service that has long relied upon a positive public image to fulfill its cherished budgetary objectives, and is thus unduly guarded and sensitive in its public interactions. The dislodging of the Air Force squadron as its elemental building block is a newer phenomenon largely instigated by the resource pressures of the post-9/11 environment. The road here has been long, and the road back will be as well.
The roots of the current Air Force problem set are deep and intertwined, manifesting a three-fold crisis of organization, ethics, and leadership. Any two of these together could be countered, but as a trio, they seal the service and its airmen into a tightening and accelerating spin. This spin won’t be willingly broken by the Air Force. Breaking it means willingly changing control inputs. But the service for now persists in believing all is well. Recognizing all is not well means tolerating and even cultivating internal conflict, something the current management refuses to allow. This means the pressure and conflict that can lead to recognition and recovery have to be transmitted from outside.
The John Q. Public blog and the community it represents exist as a continuous transmission best summarized as “Air Force, you’re spinning . . . and losing altitude. Break the spin soon, or we are all toast.”
So why shake a fist at the United States Air Force?
The same reason we’re taught to occasionally shake our fists at anything powerful: our future, our families, and our freedom depend on doing so from time to time.
The author is a former Air Force senior pilot and commanding officer currently studying at Harvard Law School.