CMSAF James C. Binnicker began his tour as the ninth Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force last July with one big advantage that some of his predecessors didn’t have. The enlisted force that he represents is in excellent shape.
It hasn’t always been that way. Chief Binnicker says that he often returned from his travels as a command senior enlisted advisor in the 1970s “depressed beyond belief’ by the discontent and poor conditions in the field. Military compensation had taken repeated beatings in the budget, so airmen and NCOs were leaving the service in great numbers, taking their years of accumulated experience with them. There was serious talk of labor unions within the armed forces.
The troops were still getting the job done, but many of them were too preoccupied with concerns about their personal welfare—what Chief Binnicker calls the “Me-I Syndrome.”
That cycle was finally broken by the restoration of pay and benefits in the federal budget. Chief Binnicker served for six months as the Air Force’s enlisted representative to the Presidential Commission on Military Compensation that helped bring it about.
Today’s enlisted force is top notch—well-motivated, less self-centered, and more mission-oriented than the force often years ago. The experience levels have been rebuilt. Chief Binnicker rates the current force as “the best we’ve ever had” and says his lead priority is to keep it headed in the right direction.
Chief Binnicker has superb credentials for understanding what makes the enlisted force tick. In his twenty-nine years of Air Force service, he has experienced about all there is to experience. He has worked on the flight line, in the shops, and in office assignments. He has had four overseas tours. He has served in a combat zone, at the Manpower and Personnel Center (which in January 1986 was redesignated the Military Personnel Center), and as chairman of AFA’s Enlisted Council. He has been senior enlisted advisor at a wing, a numbered air force, and two major commands.
Like other leaders taking a force-wide view, Chief Binnicker is concerned that budget cuts may threaten the quality that the Air Force has painstakingly rebuilt
since the 1970s. Military compensation, for example, already trails wages in the civilian sector by 8.3 percent. At the same time, he believes that there is much the Air Force can do internally to prevent problems and to reinforce quality. The critical element, he says, is how well senior NCOs and first-line supervisors live up to their responsibilities.
Leadership and Retention
He says that an unmistakable pattern in retention illustrates his point. He has spent thousands of hours talking with airmen and NCOs, and he saw data evidence by the basketful when he was Chief of the USAF Enlisted Retention Branch.
“We track reenlistment rates by AFSC, by squadron,” he says. “In some squadrons at some bases, the retention rate is significantly lower than at another base, same kind of squadron, same AFSC.”
With few exceptions, he says there are only two possible explanations for the difference in retention rates. The reason may be that the base is one of those unpopular locations where people do not want to be stationed. If not, the problem is almost certainly leadership.
“It’s the example that is set by the supervisor in his attitude toward the Air Force and toward life,” he says. “We like to work for and be around the kind of people who just ooze integrity and credibility. People, I’m convinced, usually leave the Air Force not because of the pay or the living conditions—certainly those are factors, important factors—but because they’re disgruntled with their supervisors and their working conditions, the kinds of things that we can fix. If, instead of giving reenlistment talks, the supervisor sets the right example, that will influence the right decision about reenlisting.”
The “M” in PME
Among the conclusions that Chief Binnicker has reached on his way to the top is that the NCO’s essential job is to lead, to take “ultimate responsibility” for the subordinates in his charge. Naturally enough, one of the Chiefs first projects is to ensure that NCOs are prepared adequately for that role.
“We are reviewing Professional Military Education [PME] from top to bottom,” he says. “At present, a great deal of the content is about force deployments and geopolitics and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Some folks have said, ‘Enough! We’re not focusing our attention in the right direction.’ We’re not going to restructure PME, but we’re looking to refocus it. We want to put the ‘M’—for ‘Military’—back in PME. We need to provide the NCO the tools to deal with contemporary problems, not to become a political scientist.” He says that grand theory and geopolitics have a place in PME, but that it’s probably a smaller place than they now occupy.
A task force of major command representatives has begun meetings as part of a year-long study of PME content. From what he has learned in discussions so far, Chief Binnicker foresees that the refocused curriculum will emphasize leadership and management and that material will be added on such subjects as how to help airmen deal with family and financial problems.
Airmen begin PME with NCO Prep School at the local bases, just before their promotion to buck sergeant. As staff sergeants, they go to NCO Leadership School, still at their local bases. Each major command operates one or more NCO Academies, where the students are tech sergeants. Finally, 1,250 new senior master sergeants are selected each year to attend the USAF Senior NCO Academy at Gunter AFS, Ala.
Chief Binnicker pushes PME especially hard because he sees it as a cornerstone of NCO professionalism—and because he almost missed out on it himself.
“You’re looking at a guy who didn’t get to go,” he says. “Back in the early days, I worked for supervisors who felt they couldn’t spare me long enough to attend PME. They saw that I got promoted regularly and fast, and I’m appreciative of that, but there’s a void in my life that I wish I could fill. I missed nearly all of that [PM E]—either because I couldn’t go at the time or because I was beyond eligibility when I could. I finally did get to go to the Senior NCO Academy. I was in the third class.”
Advice from the Chief
The Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force is not in the chain of command. When the position was created in 1967, it was set up that way so that the Chief would not become bogged down in day-to-day programmatic matters. Instead, he was to be free to travel, talk, listen, advise the Chief of Staff and the Secretary, and represent the enlisted viewpoint across the board. In congressional hearings in 1967, Rep. L. Mendel Rivers (D-S. C.), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told Air Force Secretary Harold Brown to make sure everybody understood that the new Chief was not some minor functionary. “He is a special bird,” said Representative Rivers.
Inevitably, that “special bird” becomes a role model for many of the half million airmen and NCOs he represents. He is frequently asked for advice in planning a successful Air Force career. Some want to know what they should do in order to have a chance someday to wear the special stripes of the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force.
“You can’t design your career that way,” Chief Binnicker says. “There’s no roadmap that I could lay out. My advice would be to do the best job you can at what you’re doing right now and not to worry about the next job. So many people, when they get into a new job, immediately start planning their next job. The current job becomes secondary, and they lose sight of what they’re doing.
“When you are doing a good job, those influential people who can make a difference in your career recognize the professionalism, the commitment, and the dedication. They recognize that here’s an individual we need to take care of, and they do.”
Chief Binnicker imposes a special responsibility here on senior NCOs. It is their duty, he says, to become unofficial “sponsors” for airmen with promise, guiding their careers and coaching them along. It does not particularly matter if these airmen are under their direct supervision or not.
“The man that I credit with most of my success early on was in a totally different shop and AFSC,” Chief Binnicker says. “He was a maintenance guy.”
The Chief believes that senior NCOs should be living examples of Air Force standards and that it is up to them to see that the troops meet standards, too. He says further that younger airmen no longer regard “standards” as a code word for “Mickey Mouse”—a perception that used to be widespread in the junior force.
“In those days,” Chief Binnicker says, “the standards applied only to the people. They didn’t apply to the facilities. Today, they go to every corner of the base so that people benefit from high standards in a better working area, a better living area, and more pleasant surroundings.”
The example he knows best—having been senior enlisted advisor to the Tactical Air Command commander until a few months ago—is the “TAC Standard” that has almost become a prototype for what can be done with a little money and a lot of determination. In 1978, TAC launched the “Look” programs, in which the command opened self-help centers and reallocated funds from its budget to renovate run-down facilities. It began in the maintenance areas and spread from there.
“People raise their own standards when they live and work in areas like that,” Chief Binnicker says.
Budgetary Storm Clouds
But senior NCOs and other Air Force leaders, working all the internal improvements in the world, cannot ensure alone that the force will stay at today’s quality levels. Congress has to help by voting reasonable pay and benefits. As Chief Binnicker’s predecessor, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Sam E. Parish, said, “Patriotism is a great thing—you can live it and believe it, but you can’t eat it.”
Chief Binnicker is concerned by the “budgetary storm clouds” he sees on the horizon. Comparability of military and civilian pay was achieved in October 1981, but a gap has now developed, and it’s widening. The Chief says that small gaps are not a significant factor in recruiting and retention but that, as the experience of the 1970s demonstrated, large ones are devastating.
No threat to benefits is so disturbing to the force—including first-termers, the Chief says—as devaluation of the military retirement system. A change that went into effect August 1 reduced by twenty-five percent the retirement benefits of those entering service after that date while “grandfathering” the benefits of those who had come in earlier. A reduction of that scope to the benefits of the current force would almost certainly have triggered an instant retention crisis. The approach decided upon, however, may have planted the seeds for a different retention problem—the proportions of which are not known—in the future.
“We now have two systems, and that’s not healthy,” Chief Binnicker says. “It creates an ‘us-and-them’ situation. I think it’s really going to hurt us in four or five years when those folks who came in after August 1, 1986, come up on their career decision—especially if the pay raises between now and then aren’t what they need to be. The decision not to stay in the Air Force will become easier.”
A short budget will affect more than pay and benefits, though. It will also bring changes in force management. Chief Binnicker says it’s probable that the Air Force will have to lengthen the standard overseas tour to four years—from the present three—because of reductions in Permanent Change of Station (PCS) money.
“If we have to go for the four-year tour, the overseas volunteer rate will go down,” Chief Binnicker says. “Once people get overseas, they find out they like it, and they extend. But it’s a different matter if you’re in the United States and you’re told the assignment will be four years. Three years, for some reason, sounds better to people.” He expects that a number of senior NCOs who are eligible to retire will do so rather than accept a four-year tour overseas.
Budgetary storm clouds notwithstanding, Chief Binnicker has no doubt that the US Air Force of 1986 is a great place to be, and he takes obvious pride in the fine enlisted force he represents. His schedule is heavy—but not too heavy to keep him from finding time for any airman or NCO who calls him.
“The first question I’m going to ask is if he has talked to his supervisor,” Chief Binnicker says. “Then I’ll listen to his whole story. Most problems can be solved by the supervisor, and given an opportunity, the supervisor will solve them. Sometimes the problem is the supervisor—but the neat part about the Air Force is that everybody’s got a boss, including the supervisor.
“I have instructed my office staff, and they understand my policy. I will talk to anybody who calls if they’re patient and will wait until I can talk to them. The staff does not put anybody off because they determine it might not be important to the Chief. I determine that.”