HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, wrapped up a visit to Hill Air Force Base by holding a town-hall-style meeting with the base’s Airmen — and getting a bit emotional.
“I love you. I love who you are. I love what you do. I love how you stand up for each other,” Welsh said. “Thanks for making me proud.”
Welsh, speaking to a group of active duty and civilian Airmen, acknowledged that the furloughs of two years ago and the budget uncertainty of today was a “breach of faith” with the civil service employees who make up a large part of Hill’s workforce.
“I’m astonished that our government can’t come up with a better solution. … If you walk into a depot you’re not going to get much done without our civilian Airmen. Civilians are part of the fabric of our mission,” Welsh said. “I’m sorry for what’s happened and I’m going to do everything I can to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Recognizing the pride, contributions and sacrifices of Airmen were themes Welsh stressed as he shared his priorities and addressed a wide range of topics.
Any large organization must look at its processes to enable success. Welsh said common sense is the first standard to apply to policy, practices, guidance and even law. If something doesn’t pass the common sense test, it must be changed.
If change is required, commanders and supervisors need to listen to their Airmen’s ideas.
Of the 17,000 suggestions the Air Force received during a recent cost-savings campaign, Welsh said 90 percent of them could have been dealt with at the unit level or lower, proof that all Airmen don’t feel empowered to effect positive change.
“There are a lot of people out there who feel like their voices aren’t heard, that their opinions don’t matter. It’s our job to convince them that they’re wrong about that,” he said.
“We just don’t communicate well enough across commands, components and services,” Welsh said.
Those problems extend down to the unit level.
Airmen must feel like they can go to their chain of command to get the answers they need. If they don’t, they turn to blogs, social media and news outlets for their answers and often miss the facts.
The fact is that it is the job of commanders and supervisors to communicate with their Airmen and get them the answers they need with open, honest, accountable communication, Welsh said.
Care a little more
Welsh believes the solution to problems like sexual assaults and suicides lie within Airmen caring for each other.
“I know you care a lot, but I’m asking you to care a little more. You all do this job for your families and for your teammates, other Airmen. But, there are people in the Air Force who don’t feel valued. They don’t feel included,” Welsh said. “That’s unacceptable. That’s not an Air Force I want to be a part of.”
It is critical for Airmen to know each other and be able to determine if a fellow Airmen is struggling. Being busy or distracted cannot be an excuse for letting someone, who may be struggling through the most difficult time in their life, slip through the cracks.
“The solution is not a ‘big Air Force’ solution. The solution is caring a little bit more – taking the time to get to know your fellow Airmen,” Welsh said. “Some of the stories are unbelievable. Some are uplifting. Some are sad. But, every Airman has a story.”
And, every Airman is important to the vital defense mission of the Air Force.
“It’s our job to go out and fight and win our nation’s wars. It’s really an ugly business, but somebody better be good at if you want to live in a land like this one. There is no second place. It’s win or die. We have to get better everyday”
After sharing his priorities Welsh took questions on a number of topics, including:
The future of the Hill-maintained A-10 Thunderbolt II has been a recent issue of contention between the Air Force and congress but Welsh, a former A-10 pilot, says it’s time to move on. By the end of the next budget cycle the A-10 and it will be one of five Air Force airframes that is 50 years old or older.
“The A-10 will not be used in a high threat environment. 70 percent of the A-10s we used during the first gulf war suffered battle damage. It’s a rugged airplane, but it’s not hard to hit,” Welsh said.
The Air Force doesn’t need an aircraft that was a great close air support platform 50 years ago, Welsh said, it needs one for 50 years into the future.
“The capability gap between our Air Force and the Air Forces chasing us is closing and it’s closing dramatically,” Welsh said.
Looking to the future, Welsh said the F-35 will be able to operate in a high-threat environment, locate and destroy enemy air defenses and secure the airspace for other CAS aircraft. The next CAS platform must be much cheaper to buy and operate than the A-10, must carry more rounds and a more diverse weapons suite.
“Let’s change the game on how we provide close air support. We can do it in 5 years. We just need the money,” Welsh said. “Holding on to old stuff is not going to make us better. We have to modernize.”
Combating ISIL from the air can be a frustrating business and the air war is only one prong in the strategy of the 65-nation coalition battling the Islamic State, Welsh said.
The Air Force is currently charged with eliminating ISIL leadership and preventing the enemy from moving troops and supplies – a difficult task while avoiding civilian casualties and unnecessary destruction of infrastructure.
Because of the strict mission parameters, there are only 15-20 sorties per day on a “good day” and some of those return to base without having dropped a single bomb, but precision is a key part of the strategy.
“I believe when this is over it will go down as the most precise bombing campaign in history,” Welsh said.
With the recent announcement that the United States will delay a drawdown of servicemembers deployed in Afghanistan, Welsh addressed Airmen’s concerns about the affect this may have on highly-stressed career fields.
The Air Force has nearly completed a 2 and a half year review to transfer certain mission sets to the Guard and Reserve units to provide some deployment relief to active duty units and capture cost savings, Welsh said. This has been successful in areas like airlift and refueling, but other mission sets are not as flexible and deployment requirements have not decreased.
In the short term, Welsh said Airmen will continue to deploy to Afghanistan at the same rate they are today. It will be a longer drain on forces and will not allow the Air Force to relieve the pressure currently on Airmen in highly tasked career fields.
“We’ve cut 40 percent of our Airmen since the first gulf war,” Welsh said. “We don’t have flexibility anymore. … And, there’s not a magic fix coming any time soon.”
A recent congressionally proposed change to the housing allowance rates for military-to-military marriages, along with Airmen who choose to room together, would strip the lower ranking member in the relationship of a significant portion of their allowance.
While the proposal did not make it into this year’s defense authorization, Welsh said that doesn’t mean it won’t return as an option in future budgets.
Welsh said he, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, and the joint services senior enlisted advisors are “dead-set against this,” and will continue to fight. Every military member is entitled to all of their allowances as part of their individual compensation for their service, he said.
Welsh said that comprehensive assessment forms that will now accompany performance reports are not meant to divulge confidential information between a rater and an Airman, but rather promote transparency in the evaluation and promotion processes within the chain of command, doing away with the “good ol’ boy” network.
“There should be no secrets about job performance. If you’re an officer, NCO or civilian, you ought to know what your supervisor thinks,” Welsh said. “You can’t think you’re No. 1 of 10 when you’re really 10.”
Prior to the implementation of the new system, a Rand Corporation study of the Air Force promotion system revealed that performance only affected worthiness for promotion by 1.3 percent. Whereas time in service and time in grade had a disproportionate affect.
“The most average technical sergeant in the Air Force” should not get promoted at the same time as the “most outstanding technical sergeant in the Air Force,” Welsh said. “Every senior enlisted leader in our Air Force thinks this is a good idea.”
Welsh acknowledged that this is a new system and that there is going to have to be some “tweaks along the way” with processes, forms and software, but they will be worked out.