Fixing The Air Force By Jeff Schogol

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DeM Banter: Classic…crisis, complexity, and confusion (C3), but does the USAF culture support the communication, creative thinking and collaboration to fix it? …trust…..something that takes a great deal of time and effort to rebuild

Air Force Times
August 20, 2012
Pg. 20

Welsh must repair relations with Congress and reserve components, experts say

The new chief of staff takes over an Air Force that has been bruised and battered lately on Capitol Hill and in the public eye — from bud­get battles to scandals that involved mishandling of fallen troops’ remains, the F-22’s oxygen problems and sexual assaults at basic training.

Gen. Mark Welsh III takes over as the Air Force’s reputation with Congress is at a low point, a situa­tion he vows to improve — as he must if he is to have a prayer of getting lawmakers’ blessing for plans to shape the service’s budget and reorganize the force.

During Welsh’s confirmation hearing, lawmakers hammered him with tough questions about how the Air Force would repair relations with Congress and address the sex­ual assault scandal at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, placed a hold on Welsh’s nomination until he could grill him face-to-face on the Lack­land scandal. Cornyn lifted the hold Aug. 2; the Senate confirmed Welsh later that day.

Welsh conceded during his con­firmation hearing that the service has a “trust problem” with law­makers.

“I believe there is some concern, and I would tell you that it’s fairly widespread from the opportunities I have had to meet with members of this committee,” Welsh said. “It’s not isolated to a particular issue or a particular region. I think it’s something that we need to pay a lot of attention to.”

‘Tough lessons’

The biggest challenge that awaits Welsh is mending fences with Congress over the proposed fiscal 2013 budget. His predeces­sor, Gen. Norton Schwartz, in Feb­ruary called for larger cuts to the Guard and Reserve than the active force and quickly learned what happens when the big pic­ture slams headfirst into political reality: a bloody mess.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he was disappointed that Air Force brass initially was unwilling to even discuss state and federal lawmakers’ concerns over the ser­vice’s plans to take nearly two­thirds of a proposed 9,900 cuts in personnel from the Guard and Reserve and retire hundreds of aging aircraft in 2013.

“We raised legitimate questions about state-level capabilities and whether growing the proportion of the Air Force active component will cost more in the long run,” Leahy said in a statement. “The Air Force initially declined to answer these questions with any evidence. Non-disclosure agree­ments and other attempts to with­hold information made a bad situ­ation worse.” Since then, the Air Force has been more transparent, Leahy said. Answering lawmakers’ questions will help it “regain credibility.” “These have been tough lessons for the Air Force, and I hope they will be heeded,” he said.

Responding to scandal

The Air Force suffered a major embarrassment last year when whistle-blowers at the Port Mortu­ary at Dover Air Force Base, Del., reported that remains of fallen troops had been lost or mutilated.

The incidents preceded even Schwartz, but he took a large mea­sure of public outrage and con­gressional wrath.

Carolyn Lerner, head of the Office of Special Counsel, blasted the Air Force in late 2011 for fail­ing to tell families of fallen troops until two days before an OSC report was released that remains were mishandled at the mortuary. OSC eviscerated the service for “a pattern of the Air Force’s failure to acknowledge culpability” at Dover and later for retaliating against the whistle-blowers who brought the problems at Dover to light.

But Lerner praised the Air Force’s review and follow-up after the OSC report.

“We worked with the Air Force for months on this case and were impressed in the end by their responsiveness,” Lerner said in an email. “They took full corrective actions for the whistle-blowers on the mortuary case and they strong­ly disciplined the supervisors who remained employed there, includ­ing an Air Force colonel. They com­mitted to training for supervisors on employees’ rights to blow the whistle on wrongdoing.” But the more recent scandal at Lackland, which has seemingly expanded in seriousness with each passing month, has angered some lawmakers, who believe the Air Force should provide more infor­mation about the investigation into sexual assaults at basic training. Led by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., 78 lawmakers have signed a letter calling for a congressional inquiry.

“The Air Force has so far shown that they are either unwilling or unprepared to answer even basic questions about its investigation of the widespread, and possibly ongo­ing, sex abuse scandal at the Lack­land Air Force Base,” Speier said in a statement to Air Force Times.

“Most distressing is that they have not put forward a plan to root out sexual predators from the ranks, increase reporting and legal resources for victims, or hold super­visors accountable for the miscon­duct of their subordinates.” The investigation involves 15 mil­itary training instructors and at least 38 potential victims. Three military training instructors have been convicted, and a lieutenant colonel in charge of the most trou­bled training group was removed.

An independent investigation directed by Gen. Edward Rice, commander of Air Education and Training Command, is expected to wrap up later this month.

Coming clean on F-22

The Air Force also has been slow to fully disclose details about oxy­gen problems with the F-22 that have caused pilots and maintain­ers to suffer hypoxia symptoms, said Ben Freeman, a national security investigator with the Pro­ject on Government Oversight, a government watchdog.

People on Capitol Hill whom the Air Force has briefed on the F-22 problem have told POGO that they were far from satisfied with the information provided, he said. “It’s clear from some of the con­versations with the folks that are giving the briefings, they lack a fun­damental understanding of the air­craft — that’s my opinion,” Free­man said. “The other alternative could be they’re just simply not relaying all of the information, but it seems like from the briefings I’ve heard of, these folks just really did­n’t understand the plane.” Meanwhile, F-22 pilots have told POGO that they are still afraid to fly the planes, and the Air Force has yet to explain to Congress how it concluded there is no contamina­tion in the oxygen system, he said.

“They say they’ve ruled out the idea that there’s any problem with the air quality, and that may be well and good, and maybe they have, but unfortunately, when they’re pressed on it, they don’t provide any information as to how they have ruled it out, they don’t provide information about any tests they might have done,” Free­man said. “Until they do, a lot of people are skeptical.” All that said, POGO has noticed a recent major shift in the Air Force’s stance on information.

“Last week, we sent in questions related to the F-22 and the science advisory panel and we asked for a copy of the report and we got a response saying, ‘There is no report; we can’t give you anything because nothing has been written from the advisory board,’ ” Freeman said the week of Aug. 6. “Just this week, we submit different questions to them and we get a response back that said, ‘Yes, the report is in the works; it is forthcoming; it should be avail­able in the coming weeks.’ ”

Building trust

Those are the kinds of answers that could help the Air Force now, as the new chief seeks to move the service into a new era.

To repair relationships, the Air Force should open up with Con­gress and the experts at think tanks and universities whom law­makers consult when making decisions, said Richard Andres, who teaches national security strategy at the National Defense University in Washington.

“The answer is, tell your people: ‘Just be honest; you know what’s going on in the Air Force; we don’t have any secrets; just let folks know what’s going on; let them know what you’re thinking about, what you’re struggling with; build up the trust that you need to have a rela­tionship with anyone,’ ” Andres said. That kind of openness, Andres said, has been absent for the past four years.

He said that since 2008, when for­mer Defense Secretary Robert Gates forced the resignations of then-Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley, many believed their key sin had been being too opinionated. That set conditions for a leadership reluctant to speak up.

“There’s been sort of a fear in the Air Force that the reason the last secretary and chief got in trouble is because the Air Force was too boisterous and expressed its opin­ions too much,” Andres explained. “I think this Air Force chief and secretary have tried very, very hard to be humble, and they’ve asked the membership of the Air Force not to talk publicly about the Air Force, not to go out there and sound too arrogant or like they’re boasting.” But as an unintended side effect, members of Congress believed the Air Force was not telling them what was going on, causing rela­tionships to become increasingly strained, Andres said.

Asked for comment, Welsh issued a statement promising to work closely with Congress.

“I’ve had the privilege of meeting with a number of Congressional members over the past few weeks and there’s absolutely no question that both Congress and the Air Force have the nation’s best inter­ests at heart,” he said. “What’s best for the nation is that we move for­ward, together, to do what’s right for America. The Air Force will pursue open and transparent communica­tion to promote trust and under­standing with Congress, our Joint and Air Reserve Component team­mates, and other stakeholders.”

Tell the Air Force story

Now it’s time for good old-fash­ioned “pounding the pavement and attending as many meetings with members and staff as possi­ble,” said Mackenzie Eaglen of the American Enterprise Insti­tute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

“This isn’t just to talk about spe­cific budget proposals, but rather to better tell the Air Force’s story and educate policymakers on the overwhelming value of air power to the nation,” Eaglen said in an email. “Leaders will also need to cultivate better communication with Air Adjutants General across the country.” A top job for Welsh will be explaining and protecting the Air Force’s core competencies instead of fighting for shrinking pieces of the same pie, Eaglen said.

“Congress does not understand why so many unpalatable budget proposals came from the Air Force this year as a direct result of the defense budget and efficiencies cuts they’ve approved over the last three years,” she said. “There is little understanding on Capitol Hill about how the Air Force has been a signif­icant billpayer in the Pentagon for other services’ priorities, and that must change. It is time to have an adult conversation with members of Congress about their role in helping create these outcomes.”

No surprises

Cornyn’s hold on Welsh’s confir­mation was not the first time a senator delayed an Air Force pro­motion to make his point: Earlier this year, Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, blocked all nominations for senior leadership positions until the service agreed to post­pone a transfer of an F-16 squadron within his state.

Schwartz, in his final weeks as chief, implored Congress to put the big picture ahead of local politics.

“I would just commend again to the leadership in the Congress that we need to take a broader view of this, not so much the tacti­cal view — delegation by delega­tion or district by district — as dif­ficult as that is, but the broader package,” Schwartz told “This Week in Defense News” TV host Vago Muradian on July 26. “It’s important to the nation’s defense.” But lawmakers have shown no inclination of being able to rise above their own parochial interests. “The basic problem with the Air Force is it doesn’t like or under­stand politics,” said Loren Thomp­son, director of the Lexington Institute think tank in Washing­ton, D.C. “That really is a problem when all of your funding comes from a political system.” The pushback from lawmakers came in part because the Air Force didn’t consult with Congress first, especially during an election year, Thompson said.

“Trying to propose any base clo­sures or major unit shifts on the eve of an election is politically naïve,” he said.

Schwartz has acknowledged the Air Force should have consulted Congress before proposing the cuts. “We didn’t do all the interaction, perhaps, that we might have done,” Schwartz said in his July 26 interview. “The bottom line is, we know very well that surprising people does not increase your chances of success.” To get what it needs from Con­gress, the active-duty Air Force, Guard and Reserve need to put aside their differences and act as a cohesive service, said Douglas A. Birkey, director of government rela­tions for the Air Force Association.

The Air Force also needs to artic­ulate why it needs new aircraft after years of deferring investment in modernization, Birkey said.

“Gen. Schwartz took the approach that the Air Force need­ed to undertake its work in a quiet fashion and that actions would speak for themselves,” he said. “While it’s nice to think this altru­istic approach would work, the reality is that Washington is a highly competitive environment. You either help people understand your position in an active fashion or competitors will dominate.” The challenge facing the Air Force is coming up with a message in terms that Congress can under­stand, Birkey said.

“It’s not enough to simply say, ‘Our bombers are old. … Give me new ones,’” he said. “This new leadership needs to explain that the ability to shape key regions through presence, reassure allies, deter potential aggressors and project survivable combat power when necessary is manifested through long-range strike. If we want to support national objec­tives without projecting undue vulnerability, we had better fund a replacement for B-52s that were all procured prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Otherwise, folks had better get ready for an increasingly turbulent world in which objectives are secured through brute force and attrition.”

A fresh look

The Air Force needs to share more information with Congress and state lawmakers about the costs of the active-duty force com­pared with the reserve component, especially as defense spending becomes tighter, said retired Army Maj. Gen. Gus Hargett, president of the National Guard Association of the United States.

“To say that a guardsmen or a reservist is the same price as an active guy when we are providing schools in Germany, we are pro­viding hospitals in Germany, we are keeping bases open, we are doing all those things, it is simply not true,” Hargett said.

To mend ties with Congress as well as the reserve component, the Air Force should have a transpar­ent process to determine how big a role the Guard and Reserve will play in supporting the service’s strategy.

“Certainly, I believe there is a way for the new chief of staff of the Air Force to come in and sit down, take a fresh look at this, be inclusive with all of the leadership, including the active guys, the Reserve and the Guard and to figure out a solu­tion going forward,” Hargett said. “I believe if they did that, Gen. Welsh would be a hero on Capitol Hill.”

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