Best Defense

Pilot management? The Air Force’s core problem is that we lack a strategy and so we do everything on a short-term basis

Anyone who’s uttered the immortal words “Hold my beer and watch this” knows the dangers of optimism.

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By “Tred Mill”
Best Defense guest respondent

Anyone who’s uttered the immortal words “Hold my beer and watch this” knows the dangers of optimism. While keeping a sunny outlook can certainly be helpful, its attendant dangers are often overlooked. In the military, the combination of optimism, a get-it-done attitude, and an inculcated obedience to authority enables some pretty spectacular feats, but also invites us to trade a short-term answer for a long-term problem.

This is not to critique the profession, but merely to recognize the power of incentive in human behavior. In my limited experience, it’s usually easier to go along with what the boss wants instead of throwing the flag to get at the root of the problem. Expedience and an aversion to pain are powerful incentives to solve the right-now problem without addressing the harder underlying factors of that problem. Being a human problem, it affects all levels of leadership. The closest we get to Christmas morning is near permanent change of station time, when we pass our workload onto the poor schmuck replacing us.

Most squadron/group/wing commanders serve two-year tours. This is a critical time in that officer’s career. Their very presence in that role signals that they’re destined for bigger and better things. In that two years, there’s inherent pressure to improve upon your predecessor’s performance — after all, if you’re not going to leave the unit more capable than you found it, then what kind of boss are you? Commanders are going to want to fly more sorties, kill more bad guys, achieve a better sortie generation rate, accomplish more patrols, fix more vehicles, etc. Realize as well that this incentive exists up the chain. Squadron commanders that produce better numbers make their group commander look good, and group commanders that produce better numbers wake their wing commander look good.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. We should all want to do well at our jobs and leave things better than we found them. The desire to train/deploy/do more is rooted in very real demands to support the war effort and help the guys on the ground. However, no course of action is free. The Air Force could provide massive combat capability in the short term if we were permanently deployed, but … well, it’d be pretty stupid for retention. If you press harder and harder in the short-term fight, you invite problems in the long-term fight.

The fundamental problem here is that without steady strategic guidance, we only operate in a succession of short-term fights. There’s no mechanism in place (that I know of) to reward or punish a commander after their two command offices of primary responsibility are signed and closed out. Thus, there’s no formal incentive for a boss to concern him or herself with what happens to the unit after they hand over the keys. The incentive is in the here and now. This is not to say that commanders ignore underlying problems in their units, but that every formal incentive drives them to prioritize the now over the later.

I can’t help but think that some of the Air Force’s recent issues of aviator retention (both pilots and combat systems officers) were eminently predictable, but allowed to fester due to waves of commanders doing the best they could with what they had over a period of years, with no one willing to step on the landmine and say no. No raindrop believes it’s the cause of the flood.

“Tred Mill” is a mid-career Air Force officer and aviator. The views expressed here his own and do not represent those of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the people down the street.

Photo credit: 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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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