Good leadership at all levels will fix what ails the Air Force, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said here yesterday (6/18/08).
"There's nothing more important ... to what we do than leadership. It covers the full spectrum of our people. It covers the full spectrum of our missions. It covers what we're doing now and how we look to the future," Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said.
On this first leg of a four-day tour of western-U.S. military bases, it was the chairman's first opportunity to talk with airmen face to face since the June 6 resignations of Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley.
Standing in a hangar, flanked by A-10 Thunderbolt II and F-22 Raptor fighter jets, the chairman set about easing the concerns of hundreds of airmen gathered to speak their minds and hear what the nation's top officer had to say about the future of their service.
It was Mullen's first visit here, and the "all-hands" meeting is a trademark of the chairman's visits as he listens and responds to concerns of servicemembers.
Mullen said he admires Wynne and Moseley for taking responsibility for the degradation of nuclear program standards reported within the service, and said it will help the Air Force move forward in fixing the problems within its nuclear mission.
Still, the chairman conceded, there is a "great deal of work to do, and it needs to be done and grasped by the entire Air Force." Mullen also emphasized that the fix does not set squarely on the shoulders of the senior leaders.
"This is not just senior leaders. You can lead from E-1 to O-10. You can lead from the front, the middle or the back," Mullen said. "Leadership is at the core of what makes us great."
Mullen also told the airmen that the military as a whole is undergoing "enormous" change. Counterinsurgency operations and irregular warfare are evolving and will remain "for the next several decades," the admiral said.
This requires the force to adjust its training, education and promotion systems, as well as its weapons and munitions development, Mullen told the airmen. And in doing so, he added, the services must balance their development and training to be ready for both conventional and irregular warfare.
Questions from the group ranged from the future of the Air Force to the challenges facing the service, to troop downsizing in Iraq. But the first question went straight to the concerns of the branch. A senior master sergeant wanted to know if there would be a gap in senior leadership during the transition to the new secretary and chief of staff.
Mullen promised continuity, saying there would be no gap. He did not say when the transition would happen, but said it likely would happen soon. Michael B. Donley and Gen. Norton A. Schwartz have been nominated to take over as Air Force secretary and chief of staff, respectively.
The second question again struck at the concern for the future of the service when a staff sergeant asked what's on the horizon in terms of leadership, manning and financial challenges.
Mullen cited recapitalization of the Air Force's aging aircraft as the biggest financial challenge the service faces. While there are some new fighters ready to come off the production line, the tanker fleet needs to be replaced as well, Mullen said.
Mullen said that how much to invest in future Air Force technology should partly be a discussion that involves the public outside the Washington beltway. He said DoD needs to be able to invest in the national security of the United States and that he encourages a discussion with the input of the American people.
Some think that the comfortable technological lead the U.S. military has enjoyed is closing and that some countries are catching up, Mullen said. "[The gap] is not as substantial as it used to be," he said. "There are those that are closing in on us. We've got to make sure we stay invested ... to keep our technological lead."
The chairman noted that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced last week he's halting the reduction of the Air Force that has been under way for years as a show of manning support for the service. He said that over the next year the Air Force will level off at about 330,000 airmen and that an overall assessment of the branch will take place before any further cuts are made.
A lieutenant colonel stepped to the microphone and said it seems that the Air Force has been taking "hits" lately over controversial procurements, perceived policy difference among senior leaders, and the recent nuclear program problems.
"It seems like the credibility of the Air Force is pretty low right now. One of the questions we're asking ourselves is, 'What aren't we doing right?" the officer said.
Mullen focused his response on the Air Force's problems within the nuclear program, citing a loss of discipline, a reduction of standards, and a lack of self-assessment by leaders. He said the reports indicated problematic trends for "at least a decade."
"The nuclear mission is the most important mission we have," Mullen said. "That standard must be renewed."
Mullen also was asked about the increase of intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance missions in combat. A technical sergeant said his unit is being asked to conduct more missions with fewer people. In response, Mullen cited nearby Creech Air Force Base and its development and training using unmanned aerial vehicles as an example of the evolution of the combat mission.
"Once a commander gets a taste of what we can do with the kinds of support with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance that it provides, they can't get enough of that," Mullen said.
He said there was an "insatiable appetite" for ISR in combat, and called the need "critical."
But, manning, equipping and training remain as stumbling blocks, he acknowledged. Also, there is a need to develop career paths for qualified pilots in the field. The problems, he said, are a result of not addressing the needs of ISR in combat earlier.
"It's because we're in a fight right now that precipitates the ... sense of urgency to solve this problem that we didn't solve years before," Mullen said. "We were going along at a fairly slow pace. We can't afford that right now, because lives are on the line."
When a major asked the chairman, "What can the Air Force do better [to support] asymmetrical warfare?" Mullen replied, "The best way to start is with the question that you asked."
He said the Air Force, as with the other services, needs to focus on becoming more lethal, precise and remote, with a smaller footprint. Speed in accomplishing the mission also is critical, he said.
"I've got to match my enemy in speed," the admiral explained. "I can't be lagging, and in many cases I am. In fact, matching it isn't even good enough. I have to get ahead of him."
Mullen said airmen should keep asking that same question and push forward capabilities that support an asymmetric, irregular war.
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service