Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

We ask too much of our Air Force pilots

The U.S. Air Force is facing a severe crisis, and it's a cultural one.



By Capt. David Geaney, USAF

Best Defense guest respondent


By Capt. David Geaney, USAF
Best Defense guest respondent

The U.S. Air Force is facing a severe crisis. Numerous articles written by active duty military, the most recent of which are here and here, have provided their perspectives on the matter, but these pieces only serve to highlight the real crisis, and it’s a cultural one.

There are two very different types of leadership employed by officers in the Air Force. There is officer-to-enlisted leadership, which most support and maintenance officers learn on the job from the onset, and then there is peer to peer leadership, which young pilots learn beginning at Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) and into their first few assignments. While often at odds with “bag wearers,” there is a lot that support and maintenance officers can learn from operators, and vice versa. I know that I have learned a lot from my operator colleagues, and many of them have learned a lot from me and my fellow support and maintenance officers.

In today’s Air Force, we ask our operators, and specifically our pilots, to do too much. Col. Mike Worden detailed in his 1998 book, Rise of the Fighter Generals fighter pilots came to dominate the highest levels of leadership within the Air Force in the early 1980, but even dating back to the service’s inception in 1947 its leadership corps has been made up of pilots. Not only is senior service leadership comprised of pilots, but most Wing commanders are also pilots, even when the base could often be better served by having someone with a support or maintenance background at the helm.

The problem, and many pilots will privately agree, is that we have “Golden Calfed” our operators, making them out to be super humans that must not only fly the most advanced aircraft in the world, but lead swathes of people from all backgrounds, and serve on staffs or deploy in positions that don’t require operators. We ask way too much of our operators. Why does almost every single wing commander need to be an operator? There is definitely an argument for understanding the warfighting platform, after all, we are the Air Force, and we project violence through the air, but isn’t that why most fighter or airlift wings have an operations group commander? And while we are on that thought, why are we making some operators mission support group commanders? Aren’t there more operator-centric missions that colonel could be supporting? Place operators into the leadership positions where they are needed, like in fighter squadrons or operations groups, and let the rest do what most of them want to: fly, fight, and win.

Most support and maintenance officers begin their careers managing large programs and processes, while leading large groups of people. I remember that my first day out of tech school as a second lieutenant I was made the officer in charge of 94 airmen, managing and delivering millions of gallons of jet fuel a year. Of course I had a strong cadre of senior non-commissioned officers around me that taught me how to lead and manage such a large flight, but I started that development at the very beginning of my career, whereas most pilots have to wait until they are majors before they have substantial, day-to-day interaction and leadership of the enlisted corp.

I, and other support and maintenance officers, were able to experience leadership from the onset. We’ve made plenty of mistakes as CGOs, but we did so in positions where there were checks and balances, like SNCOs, operations officers, and squadron commanders. The decisions support and maintenance CGOs make are still very significant, but mistakes and errors in judgement can often be mitigated and corrected at the squadron commander level. For many operators, the first time they are put into non-peer leadership positions is when they are at that squadron commander level as a senior major or lieutenant colonel, and thus their rookie missteps are much more consequential. Support and maintenance officers spend the early part of their careers preparing to become commanders, through increased responsibility and leadership, while operators spend the first half of their careers developing and maintaining an expertise in their weapons system.

Perhaps one way to ease the burden and inordinate responsibility on pilot career fields is to establish a system whereby pilot-manned wing commanders are only responsible for the flying mission, and an installation commander is in charge of logistics and other support functions supporting that flying operation. This would enable the Air Force to eliminate most wing and vice wing commander pilot billets because they are redundant with the operations group. The wing commander would be level with the installation commander, but not have to worry about the support piece.

One way to determine which operators fill these fewer leadership roles is to give pilots and other operators the option, as a mid-level captain, to pursue a leadership track or a flying track, much like medical officers are given the opportunity to choose between a professional or leadership track. Minimum proficiency levels would be established and required for those pursuing leadership roles. Those choosing leadership tracks would be required to maintain proficiency in their weapons system, while being given development milestones to meet, through specific non-flying duties, like unit deployment manager, scheduler, or director of operations. Those who elect a flying track would fly more sorties, with emphasis on mastering different maneuvers and maintaining a true mastery of their specific weapons system throughout their career.

Taking this approach would turn Air Force culture on its head, but it would enable pilots to fly for their entire career if they so desired, while giving the Air Force the ability to better develop select young officers into future leaders. The Air Force is already moving toward a separate system for installation support vs. flight operations with the formation of the Installation and Mission Support Center (IMSC), which takes a lot of the budgetary discretion away from wing commanders and centralizes it. The problem is that the Air Force didn’t fully implement the change, so now support commanders are beholden to two masters, the one that holds the purse strings (IMSC) and the one writing their performance reports (wing commanders). Allowing this transition to follow through to its logical conclusion would enable the Air Force to more efficiently manage funds and help solve the pilot retention crisis.

Capt. David Geaney is a Logistics Readiness Officer currently stationed at the Malmstrom AFB’s Rapid Engineers Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineer (RED HORSE). Prior to that, he served at Osan AB, Republic of Korea, and Dover AFB, Delaware. 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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