As the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread last winter, the Air Force and Space Force scrambled to improvise, maintaining operations while adopting new procedures to ensure Airmen stayed healthy. Although many of those changes will be temporary, service leaders now believe others could become permanent.
“COVID, as tragic as it may be, actually drove us to do some things we had planned to do for a while, particularly on our information technology systems,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. at the Air Force Association’s virtual Air, Space & Cyber Conference. “This is an opportunity.”
Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen W. “Seve” Wilson predicted “there’ll be a portion of our workforce that never comes back to working as we knew it in the past.” How big a portion? It could be up to 30 percent, he continued. “They may show up to work in a work environment once a day, once a week type of thing, but … because we’ve got everything connected, because we’ve got this workforce that can now work from wherever they are, whenever they want, it’s changed the paradigm on how we’re going to do work.”
Maj. Gen. John E. Shaw, commander of Space Force’s Space Operations Command and the combined force space component commander, said both services “experienced a hyperspace jump in digital proficiency during COVID.” He called that the “silver lining” to the dark pandemic clouds and predicted, “We will emerge from this a much more proficient digital society and digital Department of Defense.”
When the pandemic began in early 2020, the Air Force had just 20,000 remote computer connections for a 750,000-person workforce, said Lauren Knausenberger, the service’s deputy chief information officer. Now, she said, the service has been “able to equip our Airmen to work wherever they are, which has been incredible.”
Lt. Gen. Brian T. Kelly, USAF deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel, and services, said that experience raises questions about the Air Force’s long-term approach to temporary duty (TDY) travel and permanent changes of station (PCS). “Imagine us now being able to hire somebody in Arizona who works in the Pentagon, and then never leaving Arizona—maybe occasionally coming TDY to the Pentagon, but staying in their home,” he said. For some staff jobs, he added, military members may not need to PCS.
Still, keeping operations going was not simply a matter of connecting Airmen to networks, and Shaw noted that a one-size-fits-all approach would not have worked. The needs and concerns at Thule Air Base, Greenland, are different from those of Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, he said, and both are different than Buckley Air Force Base, Colo.
Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station, Colo., is “really a big ship under a mountain,” so as reports emerged about COVID-19 ravaging cruise ships, “it didn’t take long … for us to realize, ‘hey, if something took hold inside the mountain, that could be really bad.’”
Lt. Gen. Richard W. Scobee, commander of the Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., said AFRC was “already preparing to have a force that had more flexibility to participate using more of a virtual environment,” but the pandemic hastened that work. The pandemic “tested our ability to operate, especially from remote locations,” Scobee added, but it also provided valuable lessons for overcoming any event—from natural or man-made disasters to war—that “degrades communications.”
“It’s made sure that we’ve been able to practice and demonstrate resiliency, flexibility, empowering our commanders,” he said. “And all of that has been critical to our success in the command.”
Lt. Gen. Michael A. Loh, director of the Air National Guard, said he pushed decision-making authority “down to the squadron commanders and below, the command teams, the first sergeants, our senior enlisted leaders.” Loh continued: “Those folks were making the mission happen. It takes about five people to change an F-16 engine, and those five people are not socially distanced.”
Loh said leaders asked those Airmen what they needed, and then “gave them all the authority—and not just accountability.”
Perhaps the biggest lesson learned from COVID-19 so far has been that of agility, leaders said. Air Force Materiel Command’s Gen. Arnold W. Bunch Jr. recalled attending a senior leader conference awards banquet where he and the other attendees were “high-fiving, we’re shaking hands, we’re hugging, we’re jamming together to [take] selfies”—all in early March. Two weeks later, about a dozen Airmen wanted a photo to commemorate a C-130 coming off the depot line at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., and the photographer “needed a wide-angle lens to be able to take a picture with everybody spaced out.”
Bunch now keeps a photo from each event, as “a stark reminder of just how much our world changed in a really short time frame.”
The pandemic has created challenges and opportunities, Bunch said, and working through those will “make us stronger and better for the future.”
Lt. Gen. James B. Hecker, commander and president at Air University, said all of the university’s courses can now “go from in-residence to virtual local to virtual remote” within a day.
“You know, normally when a hurricane would hit, we would send everybody home and it would be a couple days, and we wouldn’t be able to teach,” he said. Not now. When a recent hurricane threatened Maxwell this fall, the university simply pivoted to virtual classes.
Brown’s imperative that the Air Force must “accelerate change, or lose” is that rising competition and potential threats from China and Russia demand a faster, more agile Air Force. COVID-19 added fuel to that fire, he argues.
“We’re already making some changes, whether we want to or not,” Brown said. “And so, don’t fight the feeling,” but go with it, he added. Likening the agility to adjust to change to a surfer catching a wave, he said, “That’s the way I’m thinking about change: taking advantage of this window of opportunity. [COVID-19] is already driving change, moving ourselves in a different direction. And we need to accelerate.”