Sen. Lindsey Graham (at podium), Rep. Joe Wilson (l), and USAF Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein at McEntire JNGB, S.C. Photo: MSgt. Edward Snyder/ANG
A handful of specific emails and letters arrive after we publish the June Air Force Magazine USAF Almanac every year. The writers express concern the almanac provides too much information.
Air Force Magazine does not print classified information. Everything in its pages is publicly releasable, and most almanac information comes from USAF or the Defense Department.
The Air Force itself is in the midst of a major re-evaluation of what to say publicly, through an operational security (opsec) and public affairs “reset.” This covers interviews, base visits, public speaking engagements, and even official responses to queries.
The reset began in March after several incidents where USAF “just skirted the edge” of acceptable disclosure, Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein told reporters. It “just got to the point where [Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson] and I were uncomfortable with the kind of operational details we were talking about,” he explained March 29 to Washington, D.C., defense journalists.
Three articles stood out to USAF leadership, according to service documents posted on an unofficial but widely read Air Force Facebook page:
- A December 2017 Fox News report detailed how one of the two B-1 bombers in a planned two-ship flight from Guam to South Korea had to abort the mission because of a maintenance problem.
- A January article in The Guardian gave an overview of airmen tracking terrorists remotely, from Kansas. The article discussed civilian casualties, how airmen have to decide when to shoot, and the psychological toll this can take.
- A February Colorado Springs Gazette article about a new space operations center in Colorado described how the center analyzes threats against space assets, with USAF and intelligence community officials working side-by-side.
Each article discussed an important topic, and the subject matter was similar to other news stories that have appeared in Air Force Magazine and other publications for more than a decade. The three articles were seemingly unexceptional.
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According to Goldfein, today’s relaxed view of security has become a problem. Information that was previously OK to release is no longer OK in the context of rising threats from Russia and China. “Coming out of 17 years of conflict where we really haven’t been in the great power competition game … we’ve been a little looser on the things we talk about,” Goldfein said. However, “I remember as a young officer getting a fairly significant amount” of operational security training.
In March, USAF shut down most interviews and base visits, putting a huge damper on the amount of information flowing to the public. It is now retraining all public affairs officials and commanders before resuming normal public engagement.
The Air Force must tread very carefully here. Stories describing targeting plans, exploitable equipment weaknesses, or locations of vulnerable forces can cause long lasting damage. These must be avoided, as enemies are paying attention to what is said in public. But, culturally, USAF has long struggled to tell its story and often seems to prefer not to.
Every reporter who covers the Air Force can tell stories of questions gone unanswered or of interview requests still pending long after a story was written. Public support of the Air Force and even recruiting require people to know what the service is doing in defense of the nation.
USAF also suffers from a strained relationship with Congress. Support from lawmakers hinges on awareness, especially in areas such as readiness, modernization, and force structure. What is going well, what’s a struggle, and what’s needed for the future?
The Air Force leadership emphasizes the importance of frequent, open communication. But below the four-star level, many airmen would clearly prefer not to engage with the public. For someone who didn’t want to talk in the first place, opsec may become a crutch—a justification to not talk at all.Unless clear parameters are laid out, new opsec guidance could prevent even basic information from reaching the public. For example, “details of number, location, and capabilities of operational assets,” is listed as an operational security risk. This is certainly true for a unit at a forward base in Syria—but taken literally, it would also prevent USAF from discussing F-16s stationed at McEntire JNGB S.C.
It is sometimes necessary to restrict information for security reasons, but as AFA Chairman of the Board and former Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters said, “This should be the exception and not the rule.”
Two important changes can come out of the ongoing public engagement reset. To avoid giving away advantages to the Russians and Chinese, USAF must clearly define what’s off-limits. Then, just as importantly, it should train and incentivize airmen to get out and talk about everything else.