When I first joined the Air Force in 1994, I had plans only to serve a full career. Those plans remained through my transitions from active duty enlistee to Air Force Academy Cadet and to active duty Officer. My life conditions changed as time passed, but only when the Air Force changed plans on my behalf did the possibility of separating from the Air Force occur to me.
Unlike Tony Carr, I was not on the track to be a General officer. I had told myself that if I retired as a LtCol with the experience of command, I would be satisfied with my career. I never aspired to run the Air Force; I just wanted to have enough influence to make things better for those with whom I served. But like Tony, I did observe several things about the Air Force that I thought were undermining the effectiveness of the force. I would like to discuss a couple of those points here.
It may have been the animating principle of the task force that came up with the Air Force evaluation system: "When everyone's special, nobody's special." Every former USAF member knows the old saying about not knowing how good you were until you read your performance report. Various drinking games and Bingo varieties were sustained by the absurdities. One will read the word "spearhead" more often in a stack of USAF evaluations than in Thucydides' entire History of the Peloponnesian War. Though the reports did serve up much comical fodder, there were some seriously bad things occurring in the evaluation process, and the root of these bad things is dishonesty.
I contend that it is dishonest to insist that mediocre performers really aren't. Because the courage to be honest was almost completely absent, mediocre performers were never told they were mediocre until it was too late and they were no longer promotable. For enlisted folks, the 5-point scale devolved into a three-tier system: firewall fives (best), overall five (but not firewall—mediocre) and anything less than five, which is essentially career-ending. For Officers, the tracks were two-fold: those who have cracked several elements of the code, and those who will retire as LtCols almost regardless of what they do or don't—short of breaking the law. Even breaking the law isn't automatically career-ending.
Merit could not be rewarded because the grade inflation in the system precluded that. Evaluators who wished to reward truly meritorious performers had to deploy wordsmithing skills to remarkable degrees to try and communicate that somehow, this particular person with the firewall-five EPR actually deserved it. It was the Little Boy Who Cried All-Star; this time the person REALLY IS an all-star. You gotta believe me!
The informal culture of the USAF tried to figure out how to play the game while the formal culture of the Air Force perpetuated the fraud. While the same form was used for the appraisal, comparisons across commands and bases and career specialties were almost impossible. Each base commander had his or own preferred style, meaning each time a change of command occurred, an evaluator would have reports kicked back until they met the new "style"- even though they were never "wrong"- (wink, wink). The last little bit of discretion the evaluator had in trying to write the report was stripped out by the bureaucracy.
The Air Force appraisal system was—until the day I separated, at least—a functionally illiterate and dishonest system that was evaluation-by-committee. Only the committee is not well-positioned to evaluate.
Poor Management of Personnel
The dishonest and dysfunctional appraisal system only exacerbated a grievous problem of personnel mismanagement.
There was the time I remember where the promotion to SSgt (E-5) was easier than at any time in recent memory. The rumor mill (which is about as accurate as any official source) was that since E-4s (Sra) and E-5s are often functionally interchangeable in terms of job qualification (neither are commonly 7-level technicians), that the Air Force could improve retention rates by promoting people to be SSgt instead of Sra, but essentially still do the same job. The real root here was money—the Air Force wanted to pay certain enlistees more to improve reenlistment rates. This was initially the purpose of the Selective Reinlistment Bonus (SRB), but SRBs were tough to sell to Congress and the program was difficult to manage. Even small SRBs were still more costly than the incremental pay between Sra and SSgt.
The next thing we know, the Air Force is drowning in SSgts. There were far too many. This causes a LOT of problems. Now there were SSgts who had only one person they managed as a supervisor. A supervisor with one supervisee isn't needed, in my view. There were also too few spots at the NCO academy, and a necessary promotion requirement became even harder to satisfy.
Worst of all, in its effort to "help" all these newly-minted SSgts, the Air Force made promotion beyond SSgt much more difficult. Now there were many more SSgts competing for a fixed number of TSgt spots and many were now destined by to be SSgts for a very long time, especially as the economy tanked and people elected to stay in the military longer and longer.
Unfortunately, the personnel mismanagement was not confined to the enlisted ranks. Officers were treated no better. The career field into which I graduated from the Academy was merged with two other career specialties less than two years later. Ostensibly, this was to increase the number of officers available to fill out certain kinds of deployment requirements. Notwithstanding this countermeasure, the deployments got closer together and longer in duration. By 2007, the Air Force decided it now had too many of the officers in this 5-year old career specialty and announced it was seeking volunteers to separate from service to draw down to a certain target. If it didn't get enough volunteers, it would involuntarily separate people from the career field. I had lost my desire to compete for the right to serve. I volunteered.
My case is hardly unique, though. The Air Force is seemingly perpetually in oscillation between having too many pilots and having too few. In my short 14 years in the military, I saw massive cash bonuses given to pilots halfway through their careers to stay in the Air Force and I also saw early separation programs instituted to get them out early. Sometimes, these programs targeted folks only a few years apart in their careers. For example, there may have been too many Lt Cols and a dearth of Majors.
The worst aspect of personnel mismanagement, however, was using personnel cuts to cover up other mismanagement issues. There wasn't really a huge surplus of officers in my career field enough to justify the cuts to manpower that took place. But it's always easier to cut people than to cut programs. People don't have an interest group—programs do. Programs like new airplanes and new warfare centers have sponsors in the people who will make money off the program (Lockheed, General Dynamics, etc) and the senior leaders whose brilliant idea is that new warfare center or special DoD agency. People, though, have no sponsors. No lobbyists. They just salute smartly as their life plans get scrambled.
Pilots get the worst of it. Because they cost so much to train, the Air Force is perpetually trying to get its money by keeping pilots (especially tanker and heavy pilots) on crushing schedules. If the AF isn't abusing them, it's complaining about how much they cost.
Mismanagement of Major Programs
Not much needs to be said on this one. F-22. The Tanker Lease. JSF. The Air Force hasn't had a successful major new aircraft acquisition since the C-17, and that was the rare success of the last 30 years. The main way the Air Force mismanaged these programs is by mismanaging Congress. The Air Force would repeatedly go to Congress with a request for a fancy new airframe while simultaneously telling Congress that B-52s really can last 100 years. When Congress asks the obvious questions about extending the life of current fighters, the leadership shrugs and utters "F-22" like those terrorists in Team America that only seem to know how to say "derka derka." Seemingly the very best program leaders in the Air Force ran these programs, and yet they continue to run embarrassingly behind and at several multiples of their projected budgets. Is this what's best for the service?
Government of the Pilots, By the Pilots, For the Pilots
I mentioned earlier that the Air Force is particularly abusive to pilots. It is. But why do they keep putting up with it? One reason is that they love flying. Most pilots I know love flying in general, and the Air Force hasn't yet ruined it for them. Fighter pilots get the chance to fly aircraft that don't have civilian equivalents available at any price, so their particular motivation with respect to love of flying is considerable. Pilots of heavy aircraft tend to be slightly less enthused because the Air Force is not giving them as much of a flying thrill while also asking more of them in terms of ops tempo.
Apart from loving flying, though, most pilots recognize that they rule the Air Force. The number of non-flying General Officers in the Air Force is a tiny fraction of the senior leadership. While pilots are a minority of officers that join the Air Force, they are the dominant majority of the senior leadership. Pilots have a different career tracks than non-pilots. I wouldn't argue that it is an easier path, but it one that is easier to make rank, almost certainly.
The result is that the Air Force is run by a cadre of senior leaders that have somewhat myopic view of their service. They also tend to have less leadership experience, overall, then some other specialties. At one extreme is a Security Forces officer who, from his first day on active duty, may be in charge of 20-40 people. By the time he's a Captain, he may have over 100 people under supervision. Compare that to another Captain who happens to be a pilot. At this point in the pilot's career, he will be looking for a Command Pilot rating, after which his leadership consists of commanding an aircrew of a handful of people. At similar points in their respective careers, the Pilot will have less practical leadership experience than almost all of his non-flying peers. His primary purpose in his early career is learning to do a job; he's essentially a highly skilled technician. Other officers who don't fly are given much more leadership responsibility much earlier.
Now a word about leadership experience: it is not so much the case that the pilot's reduced experience translates into reduced leadership potential. I don't think this is true at all. But I do think that the reduced experience of many pilots has been less effective at filtering out the officers who are less capable. With fewer opportunities to fail, less capable officers aren't filtered as effectively, and lessons that could be learned earlier go unheeded. The window of acceptable failure is also very narrow. Pilots pass quickly from opportunities to fail and learn to where a minor failure could be career-ending. The failure that was acceptable for a 1Lt is unacceptable for a Major. But a newly-minted flying Major might have as much practical leadership failure opportunity as a non-flying 1Lt. It puts the pilots in a bad position.
Pilots also look out for each other as part of the camaraderie of being pilots. Several officers progress in rank faster than their leadership skills develop because they have some assistance on the career front that provides them opportunities denied to others.
The result is an Air Force run by pilots who have been overrepresented in leadership billets and undertested in organizational leadership experience. Many of these untested officers end up riding a chain of staff assignments all the way to fairly senior positions where they can achieve sponsorship from the highest level. Thus does an inexperienced and untested leader become a very senior Air Force Officer.
The one upside to a war-weary fighting force is that pilots are substituting combat experience where they lack organizational leadership. As a result of the ongoing combat, the Air Force has a mid to mid-senior officer corps with as much practical experienced as any such group has had since Viet Nam.
Crisis of Confidence
What ultimately prompted me to separate was that I had lost faith in the senior leadership of the Air Force and lost faith in myself. I had seen unimportant things consume resources while true crises like the terrible evaluation system were ignored (after all, this is the same promotion system that created the current leadership, so how can it be flawed?). The focus was not on solving problems, but on the allocation of credit or blame. I started to realize that I was part of the problem, not part of the solution (which is not to say that a solution would be tolerated). The pride of service I had was being replaced by the feeling that I was just doing another job. My initiative was sapped because no one wanted to think about doing things differently, even when what's at stake is miniscule in terms of risk for the reward. When I got out, I was frustrated and depressed, but not yet bitter. I'm still not bitter, and I'm not sure that I could say that if I had stayed in. I'm thankful to my compatriots who are toughing it out for their 20; they are considerably stronger than I am.