Air Force in Crisis: Dear Boss, It’s All About the Culture

CAP Maj Gen Mark Smith, Secretary of USAF Heather WilsonCAP Maj Gen Mark Smith, Secretary of USAF Heather Wilson

By Mike Benitez | War on the Rocks

The methodology a fighter pilot uses to debrief after a mission is simple yet effective: What happened, why did it happen, and how do you fix it? Every good fighter pilot knows that the most important part is identifying why the problem happened in the first place. The second installment of this series detailed the events leading up to Air Force’s pilot retention crisis. These certainly affected workload, morale, and quality of life — but are not the root causes of retention woes…

Mission-Focused Leadership

Whether through purpose or neglect, cultural shifts are driving the Air Force towards a mediocracy. As the service shrank and assumed increasingly diverse missions, it neglected culture and went adrift. Without the capability or the willpower to effectively prioritize, everything is important. This means nothing is important. As Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein says, “Air superiority is not an American birthright. It’s actually something you have to fight for and maintain.” Well, it’s not an Air Force birthright, either. It’s one thing to be driven to be the best, and commendable to try to do it without proper resources. However, it’s entirely different to strive to be the best, lack the resources, and have an organization that doesn’t seem to value your efforts to execute the service’s raison d’être — to fly, fight, and win. It shakes conviction and causes people to question their motivation to serve.

This is why retention has been declining. Thousands of comments from pilots in a 2015 retention survey reveal that the underlying issue is a lack of value, real or perceived. This has pushed fighter pilots away, right into the arms of the airlines — and no amount of money can compete. In a recent internal poll of 2,620 aviators across all communities, 66 percent of respondents said if they could change one thing in squadrons right now to keep them from leaving, it would be to prioritize the mission. One pilot explained the service’s failure to eliminate obstacles that detract from his primary duty: “The Air Force expects me to work two full-time jobs. I have a full-time office job, and I have a full-time job as a pilot.”

Despite the Air Force’s efforts to address quality of life and quality of service issues, the cultural decay continues. In another internal poll of 200 fighter pilots in flying assignments, a whopping 93 percent said they work more than 50 hours a week but don’t spend enough time focusing on their primary mission. Sixty-two percent said they exceed 60 hours a week and still lack the mission-centric time to train. Mission-focused leadership instills a mission-focused culture, but both are lacking because they are not valued in a mediocracy…

‘Dear Boss…’

Leadership drives culture. Right now, there is nothing to anchor either.

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