The new Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, Gary R. Pfingston, rates today’s enlisted force as “better than it has ever been.” However, he adds, upcoming budget and force cuts have today’s top-notch troops worried about tomorrow.
Since last August, when Chief Pfingston began his tour as the tenth Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force–its top enlisted man–airmen have asked one question more than any other: “What is the future of my Air Force?”
Implicit in this general question, says the Chief, are several specific follow-ups, such as “Are we going to continue to recruit new people? Will I have a chance to reenlist? Will I have a promotion opportunity? Will I have a career? Will I be able to retire?”
Chief Pfingston answers, “Yes, to all of the above.” He acknowledges that life in the Air Force will be different in the future, but he firmly believes that “in most cases, all those things will still be true and available.”
The Air Force of the future, predicts Chief Pfingston, will be smaller. but it will be “better trained, more high-tech, and more mobile” and “prepared for the global reach [of airpower] that may become necessary.”
A quick look at Chief Pfingston’s background reveals what made him the ideal candidate to represent the troops. The Chief has spent nearly half of his twenty-eight-year career in the aircraft maintenance field, first as a B-52 crew chief and later as a maintenance controller and scheduler in Thailand during the Vietnam War. He’s been a military training instructor, a first sergeant, and a senior enlisted advisor at base level, a numbered air force, and a major command.
Chief Pfingston doubtless will hear a great deal from the troops during his tenure. Since the position was created in 1967, the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force has championed the interests of the enlisted force and advised the Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff. To gather the knowledge needed to do that, Chief Pfingston will spend three-fourths of his time traveling and meeting with the force.
“I can’t answer questions about what people think,” he observes, “if I don’t visit with them where they work, live, and play.”
No Hollow Force
For many, the prospective budget and manpower reductions bring to the surface yet another question: Will these cuts destroy the quality that the Air Force rebuilt at great cost after the “hollow force” fiasco of the mid- and late 1970s? The Chief doesn’t think they will. Why? “Most of us–a lot of us–lived through that time of hollow forces of the 1970s, and I feel very strongly that the senior leaders we have in the Air Force today will not allow that to happen again. We learned our lesson well enough.”
Another protection against the erosion of force quality, says the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, is the fact that the Air Force has “gone too far with quality.” He explains that “our standards have risen to the point where we see a tremendous increase in productivity, and we are not going to allow that to regress.”
Not surprisingly, compensating the force for this quality is one of Chief Pfingston’s top priorities.
“It’s not fair,” states the Chief, “to ask the force to continue to produce with the tremendous standards that we require–and they continually meet–if we are not properly compensating them in a total package.”
Military pay, of course, is the biggest part of that package, and here there is a problem. Not since 1982 has military pay been comparable to private-sector pay. Even after this year’s 3.6 percent raise, the compensation of military workers lags 11.4 percent behind that of their civilian counterparts. For the past three years, inflation has outpaced military pay by an average of one percent per year.
Another of Chief Pfingston’s priorities is recognition of the achievements of the troops, by which he means “the day-to-day recognition” that goes beyond saying “thank you” to a few individuals. Says he, “We have a very strong Air Force, and it’s because it’s a team effort, not because of individuals.”
The Chief points out that many airmen work “six or seven days a week and work ten or twelve hours a day in some very, very tough locations.” He adds that “we need to let those people know how much their efforts are appreciated, for without them, the total mission of this outstanding Air Force wouldn’t be accomplished.”
The Chief is proud that the enlisted force continues to shoulder more and more responsibilities. He emphasizes, however, that “we can’t ask people to accept this delegated responsibility and authority if we haven’t properly prepared them.”
Chief Pfingston is satisfied with the adequacy of the Air Force’s Professional Military Education, or PME, but believes that it’s not just PME that produces an exceptionally capable force. “It’s also formal training, informal training, upgrade training, proficiency training, qualification training, on-duty, off-duty, day-to-day looking and researching, pamphlets, publications, operating procedures,” says the Chief. “The most important thing we do every day in the Air Force is train,” he concludes.
Training is not the only area where the Chief has seen a big improvement. “We do a very good job in most cases of taking care of the individual,” he says. “We are doing a much better job in the 1990s of taking care of families.”
For instance, says Chief Pfingston, the Air Force has established Family Support Centers at most bases. The centers assist Air Force families in many ways, including providing employment assistance to spouses of Air Force personnel and even offering personal financial counseling.
Now a Role Model
Like his predecessors, the new Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force is now the role model for half a million troops. Chief Pfingston says that, had it not been for a person who served as a role model for him, he would not today be wearing the one-of-a-kind stripes of the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force.
“He’s a retired chief master sergeant,” explains Chief Pfingston, “and he was one of my supervisors while I was a military training instructor at Lackland AFB. He got hold of me when I was a tech sergeant and told me that I had a pretty good future and I needed to go for it.
“At that particular time I wasn’t going for it, so he shook me real hard and told me to get my act together. He told me if I wanted to progress in this Air Force that I needed to start doing things that I was capable of doing, And I did that, I wouldn’t be where I am if it hadn’t been for him,”
Chief Pfingston’s advice to airmen is simplicity itself. “Be the best you can be in your chosen field,” he says, “and in your particular responsibility that you have at a particular time. Sometimes, being anxious about tomorrow [causes] you not to [focus] on today. Most of the time, tomorrow will take care of itself if you are truly focused on today.”
Chief Pfingston says he hopes that, at the end of his tour, the force will be satisfied that the Air Force has “worked their issues as hard as we can, provided them with a quality compensation package, and effectively communicated with them about what’s going on in their Air Force today and what we expect to be going on with their Air Force in the future.”