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Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Where Capt. Geaney is wrong on the Air Force’s personnel problems: He’s confused management with leadership

I am a Major in the U.S. Air Force and I fly the F-16.

By , a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy.



By “Jack B. Nimble”
Best Defense guest respondent

I am a Major in the U.S. Air Force and I fly the F-16. I just read the article you published by Capt. David Geaney, and I wanted to write to you to express my opinion about why this article so misses the mark. These comments are my own and do not reflect any official stance of the Air Force.

Geaney begins his article by referencing recent columns that address the current U.S. Air Force pilot retention crisis and the role that leadership has played. However, he makes the wrong assumption about the root cause of the problem, claiming that it is “too much” for pilots to handle. Furthermore, he inaccurately splits leadership into two different sectors depending on the rank of the individuals you are leading, implying that certain leadership is better than others. The flaw in Geaney’s argument is the fact that he believes that management (the administrative responsibilities of a supervisor) is the same thing as leadership.

Granted, there are many differences between leading officers and enlisted ones. Leading enlisted troops takes a significant amount of management, but this function does not always reflect on your abilities as a leader. You can be an excellent manager, taking care of your people and their needs, putting them in the right positions, and disciplining them when needed, but you might be a terrible leader. That is because leadership takes knowledge, action, and vision. It is about knowing where you have come from, where you are and what resources you have, and where you want to go in the future. The fact of the matter is that anyone is capable of leadership at any level, and the fundamentals are always the same, regardless of rank. A first class crew chief working the line is a leader when he knows his job, teaches his peers how to perform better, and up-channels ideas for improvement to his boss (hopefully, his boss sees this and gives him more responsibilities and the opportunity to lead in other spheres). A good leader must effectively manage his people, but a good manager does not always exhibit the traits needs to bolster both his people and the organization. Geaney’s failure to acknowledge the power and difficulty of peer leadership (especially flight leadership, as Maj. Mike Benitez eloquently expressed in his article) shows his inexperience in the subject. Looking your friend in the eye and telling him that he messed up and almost killed himself (or others) is not filling out an enlisted performance report, but it’s certainly leadership. Telling your high-performing pilot that she can’t go to Weapons School because she’s number two out of 12 and we only have one slot is not writing a letter of admonition, but it’s leadership. Telling number four to risk his life by pitching into an air-to-air engagement with a hostile aircraft is not managing millions of assets, but you bet it’s leadership. The skill sets may be different among a variety of career fields, but to discount peer leadership as irrelevant or inferior to leadership of enlisted personnel is juvenile.

With regard to leadership being “too much” for pilots, Geaney is obtusely wrong. Despite his claim, no pilot would agree that operators have been placed on an unworthy pedestal. (in fact, fighter pilots are proud of their super-human abilities and, if anything, believe they aren’t being lauded enough.) The mere fact that he asks, “why does almost every single wing commander need to be an operator?” shows his complete lack of understanding of the true mission of the Air Force and the responsibilities of our leaders. As stated above, you need knowledge to effectively lead. If you do not understand the construct and doctrine of air power, to include it’s strengths and limitations, how can you ever expect to lead in the Air Force and create a vision to better deliver air dominance? Geaney is operating under the assumption that a wing commander’s role is just a large-scale version of his own job, when it is nothing of the sort. His idea to split ops and support is also short-sighted, because he does not understand the ramifications of severing command authority. By creating a position of equal rank in charge of base support functions, he is attempting to take away a wing commander’s power to place his assets as needed to support the warfighter. It would become a power struggle between the two roles, and the mission would suffer catastrophically through inaction.

Besides having the knowledge and experience needed to lead, there are two other reasons that pilots (especially fighter pilots) are best suited for leadership positions. First, the Air Force spends a lot of time and money on finding the best leaders and training them (though it doesn’t always succeed). It strives to find those people as early as possible, to include commissioning sources. Despite recent discontent among aviators, being a pilot is still the most sought after Air Force Speciality Code (AFSC), and most candidates compete to attain a pilot slot. Commissioning sources incorporate leadership opportunities, and those who excel in these roles become more competitive when selecting AFSCs. This means that, generally, those who earn a pilot slot have demonstrated some level of distinction over their peers. In pilot training, the most desirable slots have historically gone to fighter aircraft, and those chosen to fly fighters have shown higher technical proficiency over the others in their class. Eventually, only the best pilots are chosen to go to Weapons School, which has been the Air Force’s unofficial track to attaining the highest ranks. It is this way because Weapons School graduates have shown, time and time again, that they are the best, and the Air Force wants the best. Obviously, some pilots fail to distinguish themselves after pilot training, while some support officers excel throughout their careers, but these officers have not been able to show the same level of consistent excellence as a Weapons School graduate.

Second, pilots (especially fighter pilots) are trained to be risk assessors. We are given constant practice on how to handle emergencies in the cockpit that require a split-second analysis of the problem and quick decision making skills to save the aircraft and anyone on board. While following a checklist may not require much thought, there are endless situations (especially in combat) where a fighter pilot must analyze the battlefield, assess the risk of the different options, and make the right choice to enable mission success. A great example of risk-assessment was Pardo’s Push in Vietnam, where he deliberately damaged his aircraft to push his wingman’s aircraft off the coast so that he wouldn’t eject over enemy territory. Both aircraft were lost as a result, but their lives were spared. Fighter pilots excel in command because a commander is often asked to make similar risk assessments that may kill people if not handled correctly. Even in support squadrons, pilots are often given command because of their ability to demonstrate this aspect of leadership, which support officers have not had practice honing.

Geaney is right about one thing: This approach would turn the Air Force on its head, and that momentum would carry it directly onto its backside. If we desire to fix the pilot retention problem, we need to find a way to convince pilots that leading the force is in their best interest. This means acknowledging their efforts and accolades in flight as well as on the ground, paying them in proportion to their worth, improving their quality of life, and giving power back to individual wing and squadron commanders instead of dividing responsibilities and creating inefficient, centralized functional areas that commanders cannot influence. None of this can be achieved without keeping the primary warfighters as the force’s primary leaders.

“Jack B. Nimble“ is the nom de guerre of a major who is a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force.

Photo credit: Department of Defense 

Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1

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