Back To The Basics New chief of staff emphasizes people, tells their stories By Jeff Schogol

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DeM Banter: Wow… such powerful leadership lessons here….a leader with a mission, a vision, a message, and he is getting it out there. Good stuff and he is making Airmen around the world… proud to be Airmen again.

Air Force Times
October 1, 2012
Pg. 22

Cover story

Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III wants to bring the Air Force back to its basics. A possible return to roll call and an emphasis on “real NCOs” with strong personal leadership skills symbolize a new embrace of service roots the new chief has signaled as a top priority.

People, not planes, have been the focus of Welsh’s few public appearances. The list of immediate challenges he faces is long — repairing fractured relations with Congress, healing a rift between the active-duty and reserve components, and being a stronger voice for the service’s role in national security strategy. But restoring pride in wearing the Air Force uniform appears to be his Job One.

That’s a message that seems to resonate with airmen who heard Welsh speak at the recent Air Force Association conference outside Washington.

“You can tell he’s very passionate about people, about his airmen, and as senior enlisted leaders, that’s our whole focus,” said Command Chief Master Sgt. Dale Badgett of Joint Task Force North. Col. Andrew Gebara, commander of the 2nd Bomb Wing, said he was “very excited for the next few years to serve under his leadership.”

In an interview with “This Week in Defense News,” Welsh said he would lead an effort to defeat the “ambivalence” many feel about the Air Force.

“They have no idea what’s going on above them in the battle space,” he said. “They don’t know how hard it is to maintain air superiority in a contested region. They don’t know how difficult the global airlift mission is or how stressed the tanker fleet can be in supporting a contingency. They don’t know what’s involved with operating fighters in forward bases and keeping people and equipment and weapons up to speed.”

Many airmen have been demoralized by years of poorly managed airmen cuts, a recent sex scandal at basic training and a decade of grinding deployments for which their sacrifices have largely been relegated to the shadows of the soldiers and Marines on the ground.

Welsh says the Air Force has to do a better job of telling its story and airmen have to do a better job of taking care of their own.

That means putting a premium on personal communication, respect for subordinates, focusing on the Air Force’s core missions and explaining to people outside the service why the Air Force matters.

A return to roll call?

As part of an effort to give airmen more “eye-to-eye contact” with their commanders and supervisors, Welsh plans on talking to senior Air Force leaders to ask whether they should consider putting out guidance to bring back roll call.

In the past, each unit would muster personnel for roll call so squadron commanders knew exactly whom they had available for duty that day, said retired Col. Terry Stevens.

“You had an entire unit in the same place at the same time,” Stevens said. “That seldom happened.” Roll call also allowed squadron personnel to get know one another, he said.

When he has asked airmen what the service needs to be different, the overwhelming response has been to reinstate roll call, Welsh said Sept. 19 at the AFA convention.

“They want to know that their squadron commander or their chief or their NCOIC [noncommissioned officer in charge] or their branch chief believes in what they’re doing,” Welsh said. “They want to ask questions about why it’s important. They want to understand where they fit in the process.”

Right now, the Air Force relies too much on email, he said.

“Email is a tool,” he said. “It’s not a leadership style.” It’s a sentiment shared by Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Roy, who is retiring at the end of January.

Roy has asked airmen if they could imagine working through a conflict in their lives via BlackBerry or texting.

“When I ask that question, people say, ‘Well, sure chief, you can certainly work through confrontation with text,’ ” Roy said. “And I ask them, ‘Well, how do you do that?’ [They said,] ‘Well you just put it in all caps.’

“I had to ask what that meant at first. And then they said, ‘Well, just put exclamation points at the end of it.’ And they said, ‘Well, just put a frownie face.’ ”

Roy tries to tell airmen they should embrace technology while understanding its limitations.

“It’s not about this idea of sending info across electronic lines; it’s about this personal relationship that we have to have with people,” Roy said. “We’ve got to understand people.”

To Welsh, a major part of leadership is treating the airmen who serve underneath you with respect.

“Everybody who works for you is critically important, and they deserve to be treated that way,” he said. “Keep in mind that all of those people are better than you are at something.

“In fact, most of your subordinates are better than you at a lot of things, and some are better than you at everything, including leadership,” Welsh added.

“Realize that they shouldn’t intimidate you, by the way,” he said. “The fact that they’re better than you gives you lots of tools that you didn’t have yesterday — it’s a good thing, not a bad thing.” Welsh added that it’s OK for leaders to show that they care.

“If your people don’t believe you care, you’re going to have a tough time leading them anywhere,” he said.

Cut the jargon

The Air Force has a lot of jargon to explain its missions — most of which Welsh acknowledged he doesn’t understand. That’s why he outlined the foundations of air power in plain English during a speech at the convention.

The nuclear enterprise will continue to be the Air Force’s premiere mission, he said.

“We have 36,000 airmen every day who worry about the nuclear mission,” Welsh said. “It’s a big deal for us; we can’t afford to ever get this wrong.”

Another essential Air Force mission is the ability to hit targets from a long way away, and that is why the next generation bomber, with a price tag of $550 million per plane, is a “must-have capability,” he said.

But what the Air Force absolutely must continue to do is provide control of the air; otherwise, the Army and Marine Corps will have to change the way they fight, Welsh said.

“I’m not talking about asking for more F-22s, folks,” he said. “I’m saying this mission is critical.” To demonstrate this point, Welsh showed a picture of U.S. troops sleeping in foxholes in the desert.

“Can you imagine any enemy doing this with the United States Air Force in the air?” he said. “It would never happen.”

The mobility mission has been the Air Force’s greatest success story, with mobility airmen flying 60,000 sorties per year, Welsh said. “I have refueled a lot in my career,” he said. “I have never — not one time — showed up at a tanker track and the tanker wasn’t there. That’s remarkable. Excellence is the way of doing business in our mobility fleet.”

For years, the Air Force’s success has been based on three things: Recruiting the best people, providing them the best training and education, and giving them the best equipment money can buy.

“That third part may be at risk,” Welsh warned. “We may just have to get equipment that’s better than everyone else’s.” That means the Air Force has to put its emphasis on recruiting and training, because if the Air Force can’t get that right, it won’t be able to attract the best and brightest anymore, Welsh said.

A theme Welsh brought up repeatedly during the AFA convention was that the Air Force is doing a lousy job telling its own story. The ability for the service to communicate what it brings to the fight will be critical as defense spending dwindles.

“We’re not better than anybody else, folks, but we’re just as essential,” he said.

To help explain why the Air Force matters, and to mend some fences, Welsh spent much of his speech talking about dedicated airmen, such as a senior airman who pays attention to every detail when helping families of wounded troops.

The airman is a reservist, underlining Welsh’s theme that the rift that has developed between the active-duty and Reserve component force over budget cuts needs to be healed.

Welsh also introduced the noncommissioned officer in charge of wrapping the bodies of fallen service members, paying attention to every detail, including printing new dog tags to reflect a service member’s posthumous promotion. And he mentioned a Guard fighter pilot who was prepared to ram hijacked Flight 93 as it headed to Washington on Sept. 11, 2001. Her father was a commercial airline pilot flying for the same airline as the doomed airliner.

“She knew he was flying that day, but she didn’t know what flight number he was flying in,” Welsh said. “Can you imagine that? Where do we find them? We value courage in this business, and we should all value her.” Welsh’s speech drew rave reviews from those who heard it.

“I thought it was incredible,” said Brig. Gen. Brad Webb of Air Force Special Operations Com­mand. “It’s a message that I think the Air Force needs to hear. I think it had a lot of good messages in it. It’s got a lot of challenges in it for us. It left everyone with mouth dropped open and a tear in their eyes.” Lt. Gen. Eric Fiel, head of AFSOC, thought Welsh did a good job of personalizing the speech.

“It was more about airmen than about hardware,” he said.

Lt. Col. Steve Combs, a reservist, was impressed with how Welsh engaged the audience.

“I think he’s probably the most dynamic chief we’ve had in a long time,” Combs said.

Though Welsh has demonstrated he cares for and respects airmen, supporters said people shouldn’t be lulled into the belief he will let things slide.

In the Sept. 18 interview with “This Week in Defense News,” he said he demands accountability.

When asked if the sex assault scandal at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland showed the Air Force needs to get tougher on leadership, Welsh said no.

Just because the Air Force doesn’t “air our dirty laundry a lot in public” when commanders are relieved doesn’t mean the service doesn’t hold leaders accountable, he said.

“People who think we’re tolerant of commanders and misbehavior don’t know me,” Welsh said. “I assure you of that because I never have been and neither has any other commander I’ve worked for. So I’m not sure it’s a major issue. If it is, I’d love to find out where it is and we’ll fix it.”

***

Welsh: Trust, communication, transition are key issues

Gen. Mark Welsh became U.S. Air Force chief of staff Aug. 10 as the service, the Pentagon and Congress continue to grapple with the issues related to automatic budget cuts set to take effect Jan. 2 unless Congress finds a solution.

He also takes the reins at a time of deep distrust not only between the Air Force and Congress, but also the active side and the Guard and Reserve. He spoke Sept. 18 with Air Force Times’ partner “This Week in Defense News.”

Q. Sequestration is the biggest short-term challenge that, obviously, you and your counterparts are facing.

What areas are you most concerned about in a sequestration environment?

A. The biggest concern I have is that the trade space will eventually come down to modernization or readiness — terrible trade space for a military service to be operating in.

Q. What are the top things you have to do in the first six months on the job?

A. First thing, start to work on a trust issue, at least a perceived trust issue, with Congress. I had a number of interviews prior to my confirmation hearing and some more afterward with members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and other members of the Senate. Each mentioned that they were concerned about this lack of trust, poor communication and lack of transparency with not just the Air Force but with the Department of Defense, but they specifically mentioned the Air Force. Clearly, that’s something that [Air Force] Secretary [Michael] Donley and I have got to address.

Second thing is the other issue that everyone mentioned, and that’s the active-Reserve component mix within the Air Force. The process that led us to submit the [fiscal 2013] budget — that arrived on the Hill and basically ran into a brick wall — didn’t go well. I believe all the people involved are good people. Nobody was trying to do this with evil intent; however, the process obviously did not work well for us. We have to move from where we are today and spend some time figuring out what is the right answer for the long term as far as coordination and communication.

Q. What about priorities over the rest of your tenure, more strategically?

A. Transition to a peacetime Air Force is a major concern of mine. As we draw down in Afghanistan, the Air Force will probably remain a little longer, maybe, than some of the other services, just to support the activity that’s on the ground.

Our fleet is aging fairly dramatically. There’s no secret about that. We’ve taken great care of it. It’s still getting the job done, but it can’t continue forever. We have to figure out a way to modernize the Air Force.

Q. About this spat with Congress: $9 billion in cuts are being withheld. How are you going to resolve that issue? Is it going to come at the cost of pulling Guard cuts off the table, cutting more active-duty people? What are the ramifications operationally if that happens?

A. The first thing we have to do is that we have gotten some of this discussion off the table. There has been an agreement reached on some items that are just in the best interests of everyone to move forward with. Those things have already been done. The Hill has been part of that discussion and has agreed we can move forward.

There are others remaining that we have not been able to move. The first step is for the Air Guard and the active-duty Air Force to walk toward, not away from, each other, and see if there is anything we can do as far as a proposal that we can offer to [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] and then to the Hill for resolving some of the disconnect. Let’s get as much off the table as we can, and then figure out where the real hard kernel of discontent is and attack that last.

Q. But you feel that it’s solvable and you’re not going to have to pull $9 billion elsewhere out of your budget?

A. I don’t know what’s solvable; I’ll be honest with you. It depends on how far we can move forward in the next couple of months, I think, before the end of the continuing resolution to offer an alternative that is viable. The problem is that, at this point, we’re someplace we can’t stay. The only way to move forward is together, but there’s a lot of players in this now: There’s 54 Guard units; there’s a number of governors involved. We just have to work this hard.

Q. You and your predecessors have all said that the three most important programs for the Air Force now are new tanker, new bomber and joint strike fighter, but everybody says everything is on the table now. Could any one of these three end up being given away?

A. I hope not. All three of these things are currently in our budget structure. If the costs are controlled, if we maintain the costs we currently have projected, then the budgeting should not be a major issue for these unless something changes again, which it could.

If it does, then the entire game changes. And then we have to be very realistic about the operational priorities, and I think we have a couple of options: cancel a program or downsize programs, either of which has significant second- and third-order effects. This is going to take some serious thought, and it’s not just within Air Force programs. As we look more and more at the Pacific, when you talk about the range, the payload, the high-altitude sensor requirements, these are all things that the Air Force is at the heart of the effort for. And so I hope that we’re not going to look at every service and just take X percent from each of us. If we are really going to shift the focus on the Pacific strategy, then we need to look at what’s of most benefit to the nation in the modernization realm.

Q. Do we need to start to look differently at how we address capabilities, eliminate redundancies — because if we’re on a track to just keep cutting or looking for efficiencies, it’s not going to work without major intellectual change, is it?

A. I would agree that if we have to really keep continuing to cut resources, then we’re going to have to be willing to look at a different model — even across service lines. If we have multiple services that invest heavily in one airborne area, for example, that probably doesn’t make much sense for the future if we’re starting to compete for resources within the [Pentagon].

So if we have a service that does more of the close-air support or short-range strike, or a service that does more of the long-range ISR or the long-range strike, or a service that does more of the air refueling, then we should prioritize that service’s funding for those areas, in my view, so that we don’t duplicate these efforts.

Q. The joint strike fighter appears to be performing well in flight tests, but there is an affordability question for both buying and flying it.

Fundamentally, what has to happen to get the costs under control? And if you can’t get the costs under control, do you need to start looking at a Plan B, and if so, when?

A. I hope the costs are coming under control. The problem now is we don’t have the data to show that. We haven’t been operating the aircraft long enough to have actual costs versus projected costs. The projected cost per flying hour, which is the metric we’ve principally used to compare things as airplanes are developed, is different: It’s here for the F-35 and it’s here for the F-16, for example, which is a common comparison both [prime contractor Lockheed Martin] and the government use. There are things in this number that are not included in this number.

The company is now saying, “If we remove those things, the costs are going to be much more comparable.” I don’t know if that’s true or not. I have no reason to disbelieve them. But what we have done is taken their figures, taken their briefing, handed it to our program office, asked them to get with the company and compare these two because it shouldn’t be hard to tell if we’re close in number versus very far apart in number. It’s critical that we understand this because we have to operate this in a major way: 1,763 aircraft times the number of flying hours we require per pilot per year is a lot of money.

Q. With the Asia pivot, does there need to be a fundamental cultural shift in the service?

A. I don’t think we need a fundamental cultural shift, but I think that if we’re going to focus in this area over time, we’re going to have to change the way we do business. We’ve had a lot of airmen in the Far East for a long time: in Japan, in Okinawa, in Korea, in Guam and in the past in other places.

So we’ve been operating in the region before. I think the change is, we are going to be using new technology, hopefully in the relatively near future, that will allow us to move into areas of data sharing and information sharing and rapid movement that we just didn’t have in the past. And I think that’s going to be the biggest adjustment.

Q. On paper, the Air Force, Navy and Army all have sort of an equal budget split, but when you look at the Air Force, a huge portion goes for space, intelligence and other priority national programs that you don’t even touch. Doesn’t that effectively doom any form of modernization you want to do over the strategic long term?

A. I think I agree 1,000 percent with that. It does affect it, obviously. On the other hand, we’ve been tasked to do a lot of this intelligence work. We do manage and operate a lot of the space systems that the nation relies on. We’re very proud of that. It’s integral to who we are as a force. So I don’t really see that as an investment beyond our scope. The problem is, it does make the modernization of airborne platforms a more difficult problem, although the Navy has essentially the same problem with their maritime assets versus their aviation assets.

Q. One criticism that’s been leveled at the Air Force is: It almost has an inability to articulate its vision, its ideas, its importance. How does the Air Force tackle this communication challenge?

A. I think the first thing we have to do is just admit we have a problem. There is, at least I perceive, a very clear ambivalence about the Air Force — not dislike, not concern about, just ambivalence because people have no idea what we do. They have no idea what’s going on above them in the battle space. They don’t know how hard it is to maintain air superiority in a contested region. They don’t know how difficult the global airlift mission is or how stressed the tanker fleet can be in supporting a contingency. They don’t know what’s involved with operating fighters in forward bases and keeping people and equipment and weapons up to speed.

Clearly, we have to be able to tell the story in a way that’s better understood. I believe that’s my job.

By Vago Muradian and Jeff Schogol.

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