The Command Chiefs Speak

Nov. 1, 2007

The Air Force’s mission crystallizes on the flight line, where one finds a combination of pilots, ground crew members, maintainers, plus much more. Every airman contributes to USAF’s combat power, and “should have that warrior ethos, and be proud of it,” said CMSAF Rodney J. McKinley.

McKinley, a guest speaker at AFA’s 2007 Air & Space Conference, appeared at a forum on enlisted issues with five command chiefs from Air Force major commands and the Air Force District of Washington.

Airpower “takes the person in finance,” said McKinley. “It takes the person in supply. It takes the person delivering fuel. It takes the people building the bombs, and the people loading the bombs. It takes the crew chief.”

No matter where you work in the Air Force, every job is applicable to its mission, he emphasized.

The forum provided enlisted personnel from the field an opportunity to put questions to top noncommissioned officers. And if the queries were any guide, the enlisted force’s interests are as varied as their jobs, which often take airmen away from the Air Force and into the joint world.

“It’s all about relationships,” said CMSgt. Lewis E. Monroe III, command chief for AFDW.

Today, there are airmen assigned to the professional military education schools of the Navy and Army, pointed out CMSgt. Mark R. Luzader of Air Education and Training Command. “The Air Force each day operates more and more in a joint environment,” said Luzader.

McKinley added that from his point of view it is important to stay in touch with airmen who are away from their service on assignment. When he sends out general e-mails to the Air Force, McKinley forwards them to the senior enlisted advisors at combatant commands.

“Even though someone is serving in a COCOM we still have to keep them up to date about what’s going on in their Air Force so that when they come back they won’t be behind the power curve,” said McKinley.

Questioned about the addition of physical fitness test results to the new enlisted performance report (EPR), the chiefs defended the move as necessary.

CMSgt. Gary G. Coleman, US Air Forces in Europe command chief, said he was angered by comments in a recent story on the subject in a military publication. The airman in question said he thought the new emphasis on physical fitness was a “joke,” because all he had to do was stroll from his air-conditioned tent to his air-conditioned work area.

Fitness at the Forefront

“It really bothers me that we still have people—especially technical sergeants—in our Air Force who do not see the value of being physically fit,” said Coleman. “The fact that we document it is long overdue.”

On the other hand, younger airmen now see fitness as a corollary of wellness, said CMSgt. Jonathan E. Hake, chief at Air Force Materiel Command.

Wounded personnel recover more quickly if they are healthy, added Hake, and exercise and fitness can give airmen a quality of life boost. “Don’t do it so you have a ‘pass’ mark on your EPR. Do it rather so you have the energy and stamina to enjoy life,” he said.

Plus, a more active force might save health care dollars.

The Pentagon spends billions on Tricare. McKinley said, “If we become a healthier, more fit Air Force, that is going to reduce that Tricare cost.”

New virtual promotion notifications were perhaps the hottest topic. Most of the command chiefs admitted that they, too, at first were put off by the Air Force’s decision to post promotion results online, ending the traditional practice of allowing commanders or first sergeants to convey the news.

“I was one of those who thought the Air Force was really falling apart, getting away from all the things about who we are,” said Monroe.

But upon reflection, Monroe realized that in reality most service personnel did not find out about promotions via face-to-face communication from higher-ups. Instead, colleagues or mentors leaked the news as soon as they found out.

“Your commander was usually the last to know you had been promoted,” said Monroe, to laughter from the audience. “We know it’s true.”

McKinley said that he recently had eaten lunch with 17 chief master sergeants who were “emotional” about this subject. But when asked whether their squadron commander had passed along the news of their last promotion, the truth came out.

“As a matter of fact, almost all 17 of them, they had not found out about their promotion to master, senior, or chief sergeant from their commanders. They had found out from somebody else,” said McKinley. “I would just ask that if you are the supervisor of someone who is going to get promoted or if you give advice to a commander, that … this does not release us of the responsibility for face-to-face communication and congratulations,” said Hake.

Asked about the new unified military command for Africa, USAFE’s Coleman said Air Force leaders have yet to decide whether AFRICOM will be supported by a new numbered air force or whether air support will come from USAFE.

“All of those options are still on the table,” said Coleman.

From an organizational point of view, Africa is a daunting assignment, he said. There are only six regional airlines that are considered safe to fly, for instance. If you are in the center of the continent—say, in Niger—and want to fly to South Africa, the best way to get there is to fly all the way back to Paris for a connection.

Plus, Africa is just flat-out huge. The United States, Europe, and China would fit comfortably within its boundaries.

Shave the Gaps

“It’s a very dynamic continent, a very dynamic area that’s going to require an air component that is robust and has tremendous capability,” said Coleman.

Questioned about ancillary training, the chiefs said that on the whole they were pleased that it was being scaled back.

“We’re working very hard on ancillary training,” said McKinley. The Chief of Staff wants to limit it to 90 minutes per year.

Such training has always been a headache for the reserve components, for the obvious reason that it takes up a larger percentage of time on duty for part-time airmen than it does for active duty personnel.

“Ancillary training requirements—we are ecstatic that they are drawing those down,” said CMSgt. Troy J. McIntosh, command chief for Air Force Reserve Command. “We recognized a long time ago that the ancillary training requirements were actually preventing us from training in our core competency.”

The command chiefs also appeared eager to close the lengthy education gaps an airman faces between professional military education milestones such as Airman Leadership School, the NCO and Senior NCO Academies, and the Chiefs Leadership Course.

“I have big concerns in this area,” said McKinley.

Currently the average time in service for an airman attending Airman Leadership School is four-and-a-half years. The next time that individual would likely reach a PME milestone is after 14-and-a-half years, when the airman is due to attend the NCO Academy.

“That is a 10-year gap for what I consider the two most important grades in our Air Force, that is, staff sergeant and tech sergeant,” said McKinley.

Those are the midlevel NCOs that are out doing their jobs, turning wrenches, while at the same time shouldering responsibility for the upkeep, mentoring, and discipline of younger airmen.

“But a lot of times we put no leadership tools in their toolbox for a 10-, 12-year gap,” said McKinley. “We’ve got to fix it.”

Attending ALS at the four-and-a-half year mark is fine, said the Air Force’s top enlisted chief, but perhaps the NCO Academy should come at around the 10-year in-service point.

Similar shaving of the gaps between subsequent PME milestones might then cure the overall problem.

“What makes us different from other services in other countries is our enlisted force,” said McKinley. “And what makes our enlisted force great is the people we recruit and the training and especially the PME we have—so we want to make sure we’re giving PME at the right time.”

Peter Grier, a Washington editor for the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and a contributing editor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “Names for Our Unknowns,” appeared in the July issue.