Sept. 16, 2013—A year ago, after the conclusion of his first address to AFA’s Air and Space Conference, one only had to walk amongst the sea of company grade officers and senior noncommissioned officers streaming out of the hall at the conference center in National Harbor, Md., to get a sense for what they thought of the new Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark Welsh. “It’s nice to feel good about what I do,” said one CGO, a comment reiterated by others.
In the year after his first address as Chief, Welsh has routinely drawn praise as someone who can articulate and communicate the mission of the Air Force, and empower airmen to do so as well, at a time when the nation is debating what it wants and expects from all its military services.
But the Air Force leadership has also experienced severe tests in the last year, from addressing sexual assault and harassment across the force to the outrage sparked by the service’s temporary cancellation of tuition-assistance benefits. The Air Force now also faces some of the starkest force structure decisions in years, as Welsh told commanders and airmen alike during the course of his August tour of Pacific Air Forces bases in the Asia-Pacific region.
Whole fleets of airplanes, from mobility to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance to the combat fleet, are on the table for the program objective memorandum build now unfolding in the Air Staff. That’s where the real savings are, Welsh noted, and he is now forced to assume budget sequestration will not go away for its 10-year lifespan. This assumption is the impetus behind the “Air Force 2023” project.
“We’re going to get smaller, and we’re not going to get a whole lot more new stuff,” said Welsh bluntly to airmen and in private calls with wing leadership at stops in Japan and South Korea. The service must commit to the F-35 strike fighter, the KC-46 tanker, and the Long Range Strike Bomber, and a few other core programs. Overall, however, there are very few programs that will be immune from budget considerations. Wing commanders and group commanders were informed point blank that sequestration is not going anywhere, and, in all likelihood, there’s going to be another budget continuing resolution by year’s end. They should plan on losing 12 percent off their top budget line for at least the next two years. It’s going to get worse before it gets better, repeated Welsh almost routinely.
Despite the gravity, Welsh took a positive view of the situation when pressed. “It’s a great time to be a leader,” he said earnestly during his Pacific trip with CMSAF James Cody. He shied away from using the word “turmoil” to describe the changes the Air Force is now experiencing, instead conceding that the force is experiencing a number of changes and shifts all at once. They are: the end of more than two decades of constant war footing and the transition to a “peacetime Air Force”; the blunt instrument of sequestration wreaking havoc on operations and maintenance of every mission area; and the uncertainty created by the military’s need to confront its ballooning personnel costs.
“But the most important thing is, I’m incredibly proud of our airmen,” said Welsh in Japan. “Everywhere you go, they are just good. They are trying to do the right thing, they are working hard and they are proud of what they do.” Speaking with the Daily Report during some down time in Tokyo, he said he was reassured about the force’s resilience from his conversations with NCOs, group commanders, wing commanders, and junior enlisted personnel at installations across the Pacific.
“At the unit level, they are taking good care of each other. So, despite the issues we sometimes deal with, where this breaks down at an individual level, it is such a positive experience to go out amongst our airmen,” said Welsh. Even the attitudes about sexual assault and prevention are shifting at a unit level, which is where change is going to be affected, he said. The issue of respect—rebuilding and enhancing a “culture of respect”—is something that resonates with the force, and at the unit level airmen are taking the initiative with unique approaches, from places such as Kadena AB, Japan, Kunsan AB, South Korea.
Cody arrived in the Pentagon as the new CMSAF in January 2013, five months after Welsh arrived there as the Air Force’s 20th Chief of Staff. Welsh admitted he was counseled by senior retired Air Force officials, including former Chiefs, on the rigors of the job, what he can affect, what is harder to influence, and how to go about doing business at the highest level of the service leadership. Cody and he both said they are now entering a window of time where they will have to guide some of the most difficult decisions about the future of the service: what it will invest in, who are the airmen they want to retain, and whom they will be letting go in the years ahead.
Above all, airmen need to understand that the focus needs to be on performance, said Cody, something he repeated with groups of airmen across the theater. It is just a fact of life that the Air Force is going to get smaller, and those who “self select” as not living up to standards—either through behavior, performance, or physical measures—are going to be at risk as the service shrinks.
“Do I worry about losing people in all this? Absolutely. I worry all the time about it,” said Cody during an interview in Japan. “But we have the most capable people we have ever had today. And, down to the youngest airman, they all understand they are a part of what we are going through.”
On the personnel side, the Air Force is looking at new ways to use the talent it has cultivated over the last two decades, particularly in the enlisted corps.
The NCO corps, said Cody and Welsh, will be a critical part of the future of the Air Force, as the service is going to take a hard look at the roles and responsibilities within organizations, and whether officers need to perform certain roles or if NCOs can do them. “Let’s take a hard look at some of these things we have built a glass house around,” said Cody. One way to get a hand on personnel costs in the Air Force is addressing rank structures, agreed Welsh.
“If we can get well qualified mid- to senior-grade NCOs doing jobs that [company grade officers] now perform, over the lifecycle cost of those people, it is less money,” he said. “And, they are very capable people now,” he said about the NCO corps. The difference between the experience and education level for senior NCOs today compared to 40 years ago is “startling,” he said. The service can’t do this everywhere, said Welsh, but it has to look at where it can affect the “money equation” in personnel accounts.
The idea is one of many behind the Air Force 2023 project, which calls for remaking the Air Force for a worst case scenario. “If we assume the worst case, and [sequestration] does not change, we have to figure out what our Air Force can look like,” said Welsh. “Because its probably not what we currently have planned on the books. And we have to get reoriented to go towards that target, rather than the target we are currently aiming at. And that force can be adjusted by turning a number of levers near term.”
The other levers the Air Force has to pull are few, he added, but include the Active Duty-Air Reserve Component mix. More forces in the reserve components mean more capacity or modernization across the Air Force. If the service can get permission to reduce infrastructure, Welsh said, it can have a bit more capacity. Welsh said he’s not anticipating a BRAC round this year or next.
Addressing benefits, fees, and even the retirement system are other aspects that, while extremely controversial, the Air Force must take on if the service is going to stay in business in the long term, said Welsh.
In addition to its composition, the Air Force needs to examine the matchup between future capabilities and expectations, particularly with regards to possible operations ranging from humanitarian assistance to combined arms campaigns. In the long term, the Air Force, along with the other services, must work with the combatant commanders to ensure the US military can still execute the missions it could be tasked with in the future, said Welsh.
He made this point with commanders throughout his Pacific trip, where the subject of operations plans and their relation to actual military capacity were often the topics of discussion.
“If you look in the past, we had the capability and capacity to fill those requirements,” said Welsh. “We had the capability and capacity to do multiple [war plans] at once,” in a given theater, he said. The question is, does the Air Force—and the other services—still posses the capability and capacity to fill those requirements
“My job is to make sure we identify the disconnect between the requirement and the reality of what we have,” said Welsh. And where the gaps exist, Welsh said, he is responsible to point out what the Air Force can bring to bear after 10 years of sequestration, and what a combatant commander can do with it. In the near term, the Joint Chiefs of Staff need to look at the capability and capacity of the services versus the strategy on the books and make a recommendation to civilian leadership as to whether the military can execute this strategy.
Much of this decision-making is going on right now, and in the coming months. “The [Pentagon’s Strategic Choices Management Review] was the beginning,” said Welsh. “It was [Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel] saying, ‘Ok, what are we doing today? What does it actually cost to do these things?’ So the building blocks are available to us to now have the next discussion.”
Welsh admitted there is a great deal of work left to do, as the pending Quadrennial Defense Review will have great implications for what is expected of the Air Force in the coming years. “I don’t know how it will play out,” he said.
“If you have a strategy that’s in place, logically, is there a way to adjust how the services perform to that strategy? I would hope that’s what the QDR is all about,” said Welsh.