Command Climate in the Air Force

When I took command my first platoon in 2003, my unit commander, LtCol C., having just returned from the Invasion of Iraq (OIF I), sat me down in his office and told me the most difficult part of command: Setting an effective Command Climate.

What is Command Climate?  I don’t think it’s really definable, but suffice to say that it’s the force that a commander exudes that causes his charges to make a particular decision without specific guidance.  For a platoon commander, this force impacts the Marine’s efforts at basic things like equipment maintenance, physical training, making safe decisions when off duty, etc.  These aren’t usually life-or-death decisions, but when added together, they have a great effect on discipline, morale, health, and effectiveness of a unit.  Command Climate is the thing that guides a Marine when he has to make a decision, and the pluses and minuses of that decision cancel each other out, leading the Marine to think, “Damn it, Cpl X, or Sgt Y, or MSgt Z, or Lt. SE would want me to do this, so I’m going to do it.”  Simply put, Command Climate is a sort of peer pressure that’s exerted on a unit by the Commander.

Command Climate can be positive or negative.  While it is a truism that the bottom 25% of any group will take up 75% of a leader’s time, it also seems to be true that 75% of the problems in a group of units seem to come from only 25% of those units.  Strong leaders create Command Climates that solve and mitigate problems.  Poor leaders create Command Climates that create and worsen problems.  And so it appears to be so with the US Air Force. 

Today, the Washington Post reported:

“The Air Force’s top leadership sought for three years to spend counterterrorism funds on “comfort capsules” to be installed on military planes that ferry senior officers and civilian leaders around the world, with at least four top generals involved in design details such as the color of the capsules’ carpet and leather chairs, according to internal e-mails and budget documents.”

It goes on to say:

“Air Force documents spell out how each of the capsules is to be “aesthetically pleasing and furnished to reflect the rank of the senior leaders using the capsule,” with beds, a couch, a table, a 37-inch flat-screen monitor with stereo speakers, and a full-length mirror.”

Now, I understand the increased responsibilities that officers, and especially senior officers require.  Officers on Navy ships are afforded staterooms, while low-ranking enlisted sleep in berthing, and more senior enlisted Sailors and Marines rate more spacious berthing areas.  This is done largely to give the officers and senior enlisted space to do administrative work, while sequestering by rank to improve discipline while spending months at sea.  However, in combat, much of this often goes out the window.  When fighting in Afghanistan in 2004, I slept in a 2-man tent for 101 days.  The Colonel commanding my unit (now a Brigadier General) slept in the same type of accomodations, and discipline was not affected.  In fact, one could argue that discipline was enhanced because a full-bird Colonel of Marines was sleeping in the same dirt as a Lance Corporal.  Such is life in a combat zone.

I do find it galling, however, that such generals desire such creature comforts while flying as a passenger in a military cargo aircraft.

The Washington Post also reports that the Air Force is using Counterterrorism funds for the purposes of enriching its own bureaucratic overlords–it’s general officers.  If this is not illegal, it is certainly unethical. 

Add in F-22 problems, more F-22 problems, F-35 problems, a B-2 crash, CSAR-X issuesnuclear weapons issues, more nuclear weapons issues, Taiwanese nosecones, tanker corruption, an Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff canned (here too), friction between the USAF and SecDef, unwillingness by the AF to join the fight overseas, and a willingness to backstab the other services.  Add these up, and countless other minor and major service issues, and you have a Command Climate that is deep crisis.

It seems to me that the Command Climate of the Air Force consists of two principles:

  1. If you’re a high-ranking officer, you are entitled.
  2. If you’re responsible for something, don’t worry.  You can just pass the buck.

So what is to be done?  I don’t think Shlok’s solution is adequate.  Firing the generals just terminates some careers, and there are plenty of AirPower Kool-Aid drinkers to fill their shoes, regardless of the circumstances of the firings.  The SecDef needs to fire the generals, and then make it clear to the remaining generals why they were fired.  Secretary Gates needs to command those USAF generals to act like generals, and if necessary, tell them what is expected of generals.

And if that fails, it might be time to start using the Eisenhower solution:  If you’re not satisfied with your generals, it might be time to start looking at which colonels you can trust.

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3 Responses to Command Climate in the Air Force

  1. SV says:

    I think it’s implied. There’s no shortage of qualified people trying to get stars.

    They just get shut out of the pipeline by the kind who care to concern themselves with this kind of thing.

  2. Excellent stuff.

    You might enjoy this article. Seems to take your point farther. I suspect you already read his work, but I thought it would help foster discussion.

    http://donvandergriff.wordpress.com/2008/07/23/winslow-wheeler-failures-of-intellect-and-ethics-an-air-force-on-free-fall/

  3. smitteneagle says:

    Glenn-

    I certainly have read DV’s work, but thanks for the pointer.

    OPFOR has another scathing attack…I don’t necessarely agree with it, but it might be worth a read, too…

    http://op-for.com/2008/07/musings_on_the_usaf.html

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