WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio — It’s the little things that our command does every day that enable the Air Force to be effective, and it’s so important that our Airmen fully appreciate their impact, said Air Force Gen. Ellen M. Pawlikowski, as she reflected on her three years at the helm of Air Force Materiel Command and readies to retire from 40 years of Air Force service this September.
“We don’t fly airplanes, and we don’t drop the bombs, but we make sure the airplanes can fly, and that the bombs are reliable, and their radars work,” she said. “AFMC Airmen need to understand that what they do is important. They literally hold in their hands the health and the safety of our Airmen.”
Pawlikowski took command of AFMC in 2015 during a time when the Air Force was highly focused on efficiency and cost consciousness, punctuating years of sequestration and resource reduction across the military fiscal domain. The command had just experienced a 33 percent reduction in headquarters staff, and across the board, said Pawlikowski, everything drove toward maintaining the bottom line.
“It was a time of dramatic change in a command that was truly feeling the impact of things going on in the Air Force. Everything we did was focused on efficiency, and while we developed some great processes during that time, they were all focused on how much could be squeezed out of each dollar,” said Pawlikowski. “We needed to focus on effectiveness, because we had become slaves of the process.”
To ensure the Air Force would be ready and prepared for the near peer adversaries of 2030 and today, Pawlikowski asked AFMC staff to find ways to be more responsive to Air Force needs and to not be a source of slowing the Air Force down.
“The overall objective I gave the command was that first we had to improve agility. Second, we needed to provide cost-conscious, agile, war-winning capabilities to the Air Force. But, third, we had to be more innovative and proactive in how we went about doing that,” she said.
It was this forward-leaning focus that enabled the command to achieve a marked number of successes during Pawlikowski’s tenure.
More than 12,500 AFMC civilian employees transitioned to the Acquisition Workforce Demonstration Project personnel system in 2016, directly impacting talent retention through expanded opportunities for leadership and development, and increasing a focus on performance based on direct contributions to mission. New hiring incentives were established to recruit the next generation of Air Force scientists, engineers and acquisition professionals, ensuring the Air Force has the depth of talent required to meet warfighter demand needs for years to come.
The drive toward agility during Pawlikowski’s command is evidenced by AFMC-led innovation practices across the Air Force. Leveraging emerging technologies such as additive manufacturing, hypersonics, directed energy, artificial intelligence and agile software development, and by establishing technology innovation centers near Air Logistics Centers, broad expertise from across the enterprise can be exploited to meet current and future Air Force sustainment needs.
“To support the full spectrum readiness our Air Force needs, AFMC has to be out in front when it comes to adapting and fielding new technologies. We need to find ways to change things in our existing weapons systems so that they are integrated and overcome the stovepipes that exist to make this happen,” she said.
During Pawlikowski’s tenure, AFMC held its first command-wide readiness exercise in January 2018— Agile Warrior—where agility and preparedness were put to the test, highlighting the command’s ability to support a full spectrum operation. It exemplified the deep technological skill and expertise inherent in the command.
“This was an extremely important time for our command. We were asking our centers, who had spent years monitoring costs and activity to address immediate needs, to surge and rapidly develop new capabilities much faster to support full spectrum operations. Our Airmen were able to practice deploying while our centers demonstrated their ability to surge in everything they do, from accelerating new technology at the research lab to fielding new airfield damage repair parts. I was extremely proud of our successes during this event,” she said.
AFMC reorganization also helped to enhance the cost effectiveness and support provided to the Air Force during Pawlikowski’s command. In addition to a number of internal departmental consolidations at the headquarters level, organizational change occurred across the field.
The Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center became fully operational, providing the Air Force with centralized management, resourcing and combat support capabilities for 77 installations, nine major commands and two direct reporting units located across the globe.
The Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center was established as the nuclear materiel manager for the Air Force nuclear enterprise.
The creation of the Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Office has helped refine the command’s acquisition focus to be optimized for speed, adaptation and continued change.
Through all of these successes, AFMC also surpassed the $2 billion a year cost savings and avoidance goal outlined in the command strategic plan under Pawlikowski’s direction. Meeting this goal demonstrated the command’s ability to focus on readiness and lethality, while driving cost consciousness into each capability it provides.
As Pawlikowski completes a successful tenure at AFMC, she is also culminating a 40-year Air Force career.
She entered the Air Force in 1978 through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, where she graduated with a degree in chemical engineering. Pawlikowski earned her doctoral degree in the discipline from the University of California at Berkeley before entering active duty at McClellan Air Force Base, California, in April 1982.
Pawlikowski has served in a number of science and technology leadership positions across the Air Force, including positions such as Program Director of the Airborne Laser Program; Air Force Research Laboratory commander; and Space and Missile Systems Center commander; among others.
As only the third female to become a four-star general in the Air Force and a trailblazer for women in the science and engineering field, it is fitting that her final leadership position brought her back to a command where science and engineering play such a strong role in the day-to-day missions.
In fact, Pawlikowski considers her greatest personal career accomplishment the demonstration of “First Light” on the Airborne High Energy Laser, which required overcoming numerous technological, financial and political challenges, similar to those faced by AFMC engineers and researchers today.
“This was the stuff of science fiction, but it also taught me leadership lessons that I carried through my career and the long-term implications of decision-making,” she said. “I also learned the value of and gained a strong appreciation for our civilian Airmen and how important they are to the long-term viability of the Air Force.”
As Pawlikowski brings a lifetime of service to a close, she takes with her a plethora of memories of the people and missions in which she feels privileged to take part. Though she plans to shift focus to her family, she also plans to continue her professional career in some capacity, because, as she says, “I have a brain that doesn’t stop.”
As for advice to the next generation of Airmen, she circles back to that same advice given to her by her mother on the first day of kindergarten.
“Just do the best job you can, no matter what the job is. At the end of the day, if nothing goes right, you can at least look in the mirror and say, ‘I did the best I could,’” she stated. “You can never fully appreciate the impact of what you do today in years to come.”