The U.S. Air Force is tired, so let’s buy more aircraft?
Allow us to get a little Tom Ricks-ean for a moment, if you will. In his first appearance before the powerful Air Force Association’s annual convention, Gen. Mark Welsh, the new chief of staff, said on Tuesday that his "immediate job" for the service was: "Hugging the force." Not the war in Afghanistan. Not Air-Sea-Battle ...
Allow us to get a little Tom Ricks-ean for a moment, if you will. In his first appearance before the powerful Air Force Association's annual convention, Gen. Mark Welsh, the new chief of staff, said on Tuesday that his "immediate job" for the service was: "Hugging the force."
Allow us to get a little Tom Ricks-ean for a moment, if you will. In his first appearance before the powerful Air Force Association’s annual convention, Gen. Mark Welsh, the new chief of staff, said on Tuesday that his "immediate job" for the service was: "Hugging the force."
Not the war in Afghanistan. Not Air-Sea-Battle concept, or checking down China, or the Asia "pivot." Not righting the trillion-dollar F-35 program debacle, nor replacing the B-52s with a new long-range bomber to ferry the nuclear weapons to save us all.
Yes, those are all among his top priorities. (In the order he listed them: the KC-46 tanker program, the F-35 and the bomber.) And yes, the chief historically serves a caretaker role for the force outside of operational chains of command. But when asked what he felt was his "immediate job" by reporters in his press conference, Welsh said: "Hugging the force."
Welsh seemed to be taking a cue from some of his fellow chiefs, like Army Gen. Ray Odierno, who have adopted home front caretaker duties among their top priorities while avoiding wading into operational details of the war, for example. For the Army, issues like deployments and PTSD and family health are no longer issues for the few or wounded, they’re front and center as a force readiness issue. It’s often called "not breaking faith" with the force, too.
"Operationally we’re getting everything done we need to get done," Welsh said, confidently. "Performance-wise, the Air Force is still really, really, really solid."
But he continued: "Our people are tired…they’ve been doing this for 20 plus years." Welsh cited the Air Force’s Iraq patrols of the 1990s and more recently being sent "back and forth over the desert the last 10 years."
Welsh explained that, other than for those airmen who have served on the ground in the wars, the fatigue he’s concerned about is not the exact same "traumatic" effect of what ground soldiers and Marines have experienced with large casualties over the decade.
For the Air Force on whole, it’s a different kind of tired.
"Our folks are tired, their families are tired."
What could inject life into that tired force? New aircraft.
"For the next 5 to 10 years, we’re not going to see a whole lot of new things appearing on ramps all over the Air Force, which kind of makes you feel good, if you’re in Air Force. It’s going to take a while for those things to appear and populate in a way that makes the whole Air Forcefeel like that they have new equipment so that they can get excited about [it]."
There are many arguments made for keeping military aircraft production running: giving American voters defense jobs; the difficulty of restarting closed assembly lines, like for the F-22; replenishing aging fleets of cargo planes and B-52s; or just keeping U.S. military air power light-years ahead of any other.
Welsh offered a new reason: morale.
"So I think for my tenure as chief, my job is going to be: communicate clearly, motivate as much as I can, and make sure that they understand how good they are and how proud they should view themselves and what they represent."
As he told a ballroom of officers to close his keynote speech:
"Air power, it’s good for what ails you."
For that, they gave him a standing ovation.
Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron
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