The new Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force says the greatest challenge he faces is to help the leadership find ways to relieve some of the pressure being imposed on the force by an intense operational tempo that was escalated by the Sept. 11 attacks.
“I join the Chief of Staff and the Secretary in clearly recognizing that the greatest challenge that we’ve got right now is to reduce the stress that’s on our Air Force, given the optempo,” CMSAF Gerald R. Murray said.
Although the Air Force leadership has been talking about a burdensome operational tempo for a long time, Murray said, “September 11 reshaped, redefined that tempo even more.” And despite what the Aerospace Expeditionary Force concept has done “to provide predictability and stability for our people, that still remains the greatest challenge to us,” he said.
Murray became the 14th Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force on July 1, following the retirement of CMSAF Frederick J. Finch. He said he got the top enlisted advisor’s job after a short interview with Gen. John P. Jumper, in his first meeting ever with the Air Force Chief of Staff.
Murray’s background should be an asset in one of his key tasks, that of helping to persuade young airmen to make the Air Force a career. He said he never had any interest in the military while growing up on his grandfather’s farm in North Carolina. He married and worked in construction until a bad economy made work hard to find. So he enlisted in the Air Force in 1977 to “make a living” but with no expectation of making it a career.
“Either I took a liking to it, or it took a liking to me, but it was enough for me to give it another look and it led to a career,” he recalled.
He worked in aircraft maintenance on fighters, then moved into maintenance logistics before being asked to serve as the senior enlisted advisor, or command chief master sergeant, first for the 347th Wing at Moody AFB, Ga., next for US Forces Japan and 5th Air Force at Yokota AB, Japan, and finally for Pacific Air Forces at Hickam AFB, Hawaii. He was in the Hawaii post when selected by Jumper to be the service’s top enlisted member.
Murray believes he gained a good background for the new job in his previous command chief master sergeant posts, particularly with PACAF, which had “all the diversity of the Air Force.”
Coming to Washington
The new post is his first Washington, D.C., assignment in 24 years of Air Force service. He said much of his first month in the job was spent meeting with the top Air Force leaders and staff personnel and getting briefings, “to make sure we’re all on the same wavelength” before he started traveling to meet the force he now represents at the highest level.
The learning experience has been like “drinking from a fire hose,” he said with a laugh.
The challenges of his new job, like those facing the Air Force as a whole, have been changed by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Murray said. Although the force always experiences a surge in effort when moving into a combat operation, he said, the leadership recognizes now that with the demands of added force protection and the war on terrorism “we really are in a new state of optempo. The thing for us is to find ways to destress the force and stabilize the force in the new steady state.”
Air Force leaders are conducting studies to find out which of the career fields are the most stressed by the new demands and what can be done to relieve that stress. To ease the problems of the notorious low-density, highdemand specialties, they may have to move people from one field to another, change accession patterns and assignments to the technical training schools, or perhaps cross-train some personnel, Murray said.
Security forces is “a good example of a field we’ll have to make some adjustments to,” he said.
The Air Force began to increase security after the deadly terrorist bombing of Khobar Towers in 1996. And the deployments for Northern and Southern Watch missions over Iraq required the assignment forward of additional security personnel, Murray noted. But 9/11 brought the added requirement “to beef up security on bases here at home,” he continued.
To meet that challenge, the Air Force took people out of other career fields to augment the security forces. “That’s a new way of doing business that we will continue to use for surge capacity,” Murray said.
There are not enough dedicated security forces personnel to meet the demands if the Air Force had to escalate to the highest security level, he explained. “But now we have trained augmentees from all our career fields who will go forward into security forces posts.”
The terror attacks demonstrated “that we have a new steady state for force protection,” the chief said. “We can’t rely on those other career fields. Those folks are in mobility positions and we have needs there. So we may very well have to shift people out of fields that are not stressed into the security forces.”
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has told the services they must stay within their current authorized force strength, Murray observed. “So we have to ask ourselves, what can we do smarter? What can we do better?”
“We may increase fields, but we may decrease fields that are not as stressed,” he said. “Or we might even look at outsourcing some positions.” He explained, “That is one of the options we do have. We can use private sector people, contract people … to replace blue-suiters” in some jobs and move the airmen to other fields.
Murray noted that shortly after Sept. 11, the Air Force issued a Stop-Loss order to retain personnel scheduled for separation or retirement. The service also activated about 37,000 Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command personnel.
“I have no doubt that out of the thousands affected by Stop-Loss there were some … who clearly did not want to stay,” he said. But the “vast majority of our people understood why we had to do it,” and a surprising number of people who had been set to leave the service re-enlisted.
The Air Force leaders recognized from the start that they could not continue to use those methods to meet their steadystate operational needs and have reduced significantly the numbers of personnel affected by Stop-Loss and involuntary mobilization, he said.
Murray predicted in an August interview that by October “we’ll have our force stabilized and be out of Stop-Loss and working toward having the Guard and Reserve down to those who volunteer” for active duty. The announcement of an end to Stop-Loss came Aug. 5; however, the Air Force announced Aug. 16 it would have to extend mobilization for about 14,000 reservists into a second year.
Quality of Life
Those steps were possible, Murray said, due to the sharp improvement in enlisted retention, which has exceeded Air Force’s goals, except for the most experienced airmen. He attributed the higher re-enlistment rates to a combination of the greater sense of mission and patriotism after Sept. 11 and the steady improvements in compensation, housing, health care, and other benefits.
However, Murray said that although recent pay adjustments have improved compensation for senior noncommissioned officers, more needs to be done. “We have brought the junior airmen up to an equitable level with the national standard,” he said, “but our midlevel and senior NCOs still fall below. We have a goal to move that up.”
Although compensation still is an issue among senior enlisted troops, he said, “I will tell you, the NCO corps is very thankful for the [added] compensation it has gotten. … They have not taken for granted what our senior leadership and Congress have done.”
Murray also noted the progress toward the goal of increasing the basic allowance for housing to eliminate outofpocket expenses and predicted that goal would be met in about two more years. He was also pleased with the progress made in improving housing conditions, for both families and unaccompanied airmen.
Although base infrastructure was “neglected for a long time in the effort to modernize the force and improve compensation, the Air Force is ahead of all the other forces because of what we did in the late ’90s for housing for single airmen and families,” said Murray.
The shift to privatization for family housing is providing larger houses and improved community services, he said. And he predicted that the Air Force would meet its goal of giving every unaccompanied airmen a single room under the 1+1 barracks design by 2009.
On the Job
There also have been improvements in aircraft availability due to increases in funding for spare parts and maintenance, Murray said. He praised Jumper’s recent change of the Air Force wing structure that restored maintenance groups as a step “to gain more efficiency in our ability to produce sorties.”
The chief said he was pleased with his early contacts with Jumper and with Air Force Secretary James G. Roche. He had just had a lengthy talk with Jumper and was scheduled for a working lunch with Roche the next week. “We are off to a great relationship,” he said.
“The Secretary and the Chief have a great plan to improve our Air Force,” he said. As Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, his main responsibility “is taking care of our people,” Murray said. “And I could not imagine having two bosses who care more about our people.”
A key part of their plans is to provide Air Force people more stability, he said. Murray said the new Aerospace Expeditionary Force structure “has made a huge difference” in providing that stability and is the main reason he stayed in after completing 20 years.
On returning “from the desert the third time,” Murray said that, as he held his oneyearold daughter, he asked himself: “Is this worth doing again?” He said he was distressed by what had happened in the early 1990s, with the rounds of base closures, drawing down the force, then pushing the force “to do more with less.”
“But what I saw is that this AEF process has given us a system and a way that our airmen can identify with, that they understand what we do, when we do it, and when they’re going to be required to do it,” Murray explained. “Is it perfect? No. But we’ve gotten better every time we’ve done it.”
Each time USAF finishes one of the 15month cycles with the AEF, the staff does a complete review, he said. “We’re in cycle three now. I guarantee you, cycle four will be much better. … We have a constant re-evaluation going on how can we do it better, do it smarter than what we’re doing.”
Despite what he called “a tough time in our Air Force” a decade ago, Murray said, “I stayed because I believe that our Air Force is improving. And I care enough about our people to go out there and tell them that there is reason to hold on, there’s reason to stay.”
Otto Kreisher is a Washington, D.C.-based military affairs reporter for Copley News Service and a regular contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “The Quest for Jointness,” appeared in the September 2001 issue.