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Not so fast, Lt. McCain!: Some thoughts on the Air Force’s real leadership crisis

Pilots and rated aviators are leading every day, but unfortunately it’s largely out of sight — behind a vault door, in the cockpit, or in the air.



By Maj. Mike “Pako” Benitez

Best Defense guest respondent


By Maj. Mike “Pako” Benitez
Best Defense guest respondent

There has been no shortage of ink spilled on the missteps of U.S. Air Force leadership the past few years. Recently, Lt. Jack McCain of the U.S. Navy asserted that Air Force pilots are not provided the opportunity for meaningful leadership development, and purported that this was a significant contributor to the problem. His messaged resonated on social media. Yes, the Air Force does have a leadership problem, but it’s not the one McCain thinks it has. In fact, his argument itself is indicative of the problem.

McCain essentially argues two points: 1. That Air Force pilots don’t get leadership opportunities unless they directly supervise a large group of people on an organizational chart, and 2. That the first time most Air Force pilots are in “real leadership roles” they are assuming command of a squadron.

This mentality completely discounts the leadership that pilots do exhibit day in and day out, all on account that it looks different from what the Air Force writ large generally views as leadership. This perversion would not survive in the sea of inclusionary and diversity initiatives, but somehow it prevails within the subject of leading airmen. Pilots and rated aviators are leading every day, but unfortunately it’s largely out of sight — behind a vault door, in the cockpit, or in the air.

Some of the greatest examples of leadership I’ve ever seen displayed can be easily placed in one of these three environments, destined to never be seen or told. I’ve seen it; I’ve lived it — and I am the norm, not the exception. And is it really that hard to believe? Think about this: Of the active Air Force’s 317,000 airmen, only a third of the service’s 65,000 officers are rated aviators, there are more nurse officers than fighter pilots, and more chaplains than F-22 pilots. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Airpower doesn’t just magically happen between takeoff and landing, but that seems to be the growing consensus within the ranks — and this is dangerous. The collective warfighting output of the Air Force transcends the ability of a pilot to be a good stick-wiggler and button pusher with great eyesight — it requires leadership. When we get it right, it’s transparent. When we get it wrong, people die.

This ties into McCain’s second point, that “real leadership roles” for pilots begin at squadron command. Leading a wingmen, formation, strike package, or a 90-aircraft mission into heavy air defenses are missions overwhelming performed by pilots who are much younger than a squadron commander. In many cases, the squadron commander simply no longer has the abilities to lead some of these more complex missions — these skills are perishable and atrophy is high. Instead, this is reserved for tactically proficient captains and young majors with specialized leadership training from the prestigious U.S. Air Force Weapons School. If you discount this as leadership, what other warfighting entities should also be painted with this brush? A Marine rifle squad? A Navy SEAL team?

Just as a group of trigger-pullers does not survive contact with the enemy without leadership, a gaggle of wingmen flying around trying not to hit each other does not make much of a warfighting entity either.

A decade or two ago, airmen were proud of the service rivalry adage that “In the Army the officer sends the enlisted to fight the war; in the Air Force the enlisted send the officer.” This paid homage to our heritage and the way we fight. The most dangerous place to be in World War I was not in the infantry, it was in a cockpit. In World War II it was in a bomber. In Vietnam, Air Force aviators comprised the majority of the prisoners of war.

Somewhere along the way, the Air Force forgot this. The service became fractured, its teams became disintegrated, and respective leaders lost sight of what other leaders and associated teams were doing — and more importantly — why they were doing it. Unity of effort faded, the value of the Air Force’s eclectic team of teams was shelved. Perhaps this dilution of purpose has itself become a casualty of war, the numbness of decades of perpetual rotations to the land of the glow belts where no one is shooting back at our pilots. It doesn’t really matter.

What does matter is that management ran awry, everything became equally important, the service bought into the self-hyped culture that “everyone is the greatest” and that the service is the “best in the world.” As a result, the perspective of leadership became cast within the walls erected by career field fiefdoms, like a poorly set broken bone. As if it were the twisted ending of a horror movie, the flying component of Air Force suffered the most. The dogs of war went from thriving in stride to surviving with a limp, huddling around a watering hole that was slowly evaporating. So yes, this is a leadership crisis.

In the profession of arms, how you successfully fight is determined by how you effectively lead. Unfortunately, as the Air Force celebrates its 70th birthday this year, the service has still not determined what a leader of airmen actually is.

Unlike the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps, the Air Force has never saw fit to define leadership traits, leadership principles, or even an over-arching leadership philosophy to place on the table. The Air Force took the time to author an entire doctrine volume on leadership, but it contains none of this.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein has been championing an effort to develop airmen that are better suited to lead the joint force. While the output of this remains to be seen, how can the service expect to get a foot in the door on leading in the joint environment when they don’t have a decent philosophy to lead within their own branch?

While there are thousands of writings on leadership theory, the foundations of military leadership are really quite simple. Each military service’s brand of leadership is deeply rooted in its entire purpose of being, not by the exquisite equipment it buys, maintains, and operates.

Back to the core of McCain’s argument, flight leadership is leadership, today’s culture has relegated this to the auspices of technical and tactical skill, rather than attributes of one who leads airmen in the air and on the ground. Leadership doesn’t have an off switch, and flight leadership doesn’t have a weight-on-wheels switch — but for the better part of the 21st century pilots have been conditioned that it does.

There are unique leadership attributes to be gleaned across the expanse of individual professions within the Air Force. Just as there is much a pilot can learn from the greater Air Force, there is much the greater Air Force needs to relearn from its operational corps. Leaders aren’t defined by the rank on their collar or sleeve and they should not be defined by the metal insignia on their chest either.

The Air Force needs to encapsulate, cultivate, and empower leaders by codifying this distinctive kind of military leadership. I am not advocating that Air Force leadership philosophy should revolve around the pilot. I am saying the tribes that comprise the operators of the Air Force — which includes battlefield airmen as well as flying officers — should play a large part in defining this.

As an aviator, I find it ironic that many parts of the non-operational Air Force have embraced flying vernacular (“lead turn this task,” “on my radar,” etc.) but have never adopted the leadership philosophy that accompanies it. This irony turns to disappointment when you consider that the Air Force has been saturated by all sorts of initiatives with the wingman concept, yet there isn’t a flight lead initiative to be found.

Perhaps this future philosophy should simply be called flight leadership, where it would transcend the cockpit and be embraced throughout the Air Force — whether you have an aircraft or not. The concept isn’t far-fetched — civilian companies have built leadership consulting firms on the same principles. Better communicating leadership philosophies/fundamentals promotes better accountability to reinforce what the Air Force considers a leader to be. And this should be derived from the warfighting ethos that forged the Air Force. FENCE in.

Maj. Mike “Pako” Benitez is an F-15E Strike Eagle weapons systems officer. An Air Force officer of over 12 years, he previously served eight years enlisted in the Marine Corps. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Defense

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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