Air Force in Crisis, Part III: Dear Boss, It’s All About the Culture
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”
The methodology a fighter pilot uses to debrief after a mission is simple yet effective: What happened, why did it happen, and how do you fix it? Every good fighter pilot knows that the most important part is identifying why the problem happened in the first place. The second installment of this series detailed the events leading up to Air Force’s pilot retention crisis. These certainly affected workload, morale, and quality of life — but are not the root causes of retention woes.
Consider the “Dear Boss” letter, a unique part of Air Force folklore. Written in the 1970s, the emotionally charged letter summarized a fighter pilot’s discontent with how his service had lost its sense of purpose. It detailed how strategic leadership at the top became disconnected from the tactical leadership at the bottom — the ones carrying out the mission. In the era of fax machines, the letter quickly spread across the Air Force. A similar letter was written in 1997. Thanks to the Internet, another letter went viral in 2009. Two more followed in 2012 and 2017. These were all written during periods of poor retention, and all have the same message.
People wrongly assume that pilots who want to fly have achieved the pinnacle of their desires — flying high performance aircraft — and should be happy. But happiness is not about jets, rank, or money. It’s about the culture of service. Today’s Air Force lacks a foundation to anchor its diverse forces, which were once united by a shared mission. For the past several years, the service has been taking on an infinite number of missions, but without any effort to build a team of teams to support them. In the process, the Air Force severely devalued flying and the fighter pilots who do it. A previously command-driven military organization started to act like a corporation, with management replacing leadership and the culture losing sight of the service’s true raison d’être: its warfighting forces. The erosion of the Air Force’s combat culture is the real reason fighter pilots are leaving.
A Culture of Conviction
I’ve lived in the fighter pilot community for the past 11 years. Fighter pilots work in strong-link teams underpinned by two critical elements: capability and conviction. Capabilities can be measured, but conviction cannot.
Conviction is in a fighter pilot’s DNA. Fighter squadrons operate with the competitiveness and camaraderie of an elite special operations team. They compete with tenacious honesty — not against each other, but against themselves. Fighter pilot culture is underpinned by a genuine belief that no problem is unsolvable and no solution is good enough. Prepare for what’s possible, train to the probable, and debrief to perfection.
The mission is demanding, dangerous, and uncompromising. Today’s fighter pilot has to be well-versed in upwards of 4,000 pages of aircraft technical details, threat information, tactics and procedures. And they must be able to recall it all at a moment’s notice. The cognitive demands to operate at this level are high, compounded by an ever-changing threat environment. Fighter pilots are proud of a winning streak that dates to April 15, 1953, the last time a U.S. ground troop was killed by an aerial attack. This culture of conviction is what drives them.
Whether through purpose or neglect, cultural shifts are driving the Air Force towards a mediocracy. As the service shrank and assumed increasingly diverse missions, it neglected culture and went adrift. Without the capability or the willpower to effectively prioritize, everything is important. This means nothing is important. As Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein says, “Air superiority is not an American birthright. It’s actually something you have to fight for and maintain.” Well, it’s not an Air Force birthright, either. It’s one thing to be driven to be the best, and commendable to try to do it without proper resources. However, it’s entirely different to strive to be the best, lack the resources, and have an organization that doesn’t seem to value your efforts to execute the service’s raison d’être — to fly, fight, and win. It shakes conviction and causes people to question their motivation to serve.
This is why retention has been declining. Thousands of comments from pilots in a 2015 retention survey reveal that the underlying issue is a lack of value, real or perceived. This has pushed fighter pilots away, right into the arms of the airlines — and no amount of money can compete. In a recent internal poll of 2,620 aviators across all communities, 66 percent of respondents said if they could change one thing in squadrons right now to keep them from leaving, it would be to prioritize the mission. One pilot explained the service’s failure to eliminate obstacles that detract from his primary duty: “The Air Force expects me to work two fulltime jobs. I have a fulltime office job, and I have a fulltime job as a pilot.”
Despite the Air Force’s efforts to address quality of life and quality of service issues, the cultural decay continues. In another internal poll of 200 fighter pilots in flying assignments, a whopping 93 percent said they work more than 50 hours a week but don’t spend enough time focusing on their primary mission. Sixty-two percent said they exceed 60 hours a week and still lack the mission-centric time to train. Mission-focused leadership instills a mission-focused culture, but both are lacking because they are not valued in a mediocracy.
Given the organization’s misplaced priorities, would you stay, ceding control of where you live, how you live, and when you move for the next nine years? What if you could fly the F-22, the preeminent fifth-generation air superiority fighter in the world? According to internal data from the Aircrew Crisis Task Force, last year even that community retained just 30 percent of pilots eligible to leave.
With culture adrift and priorities awry, even the greatest of institutions will devolve into a mediocracy. One attribute of a mediocracy is that equal opportunity mutates into equal outcomes.
Even while the service has lamented retention woes in recent years, highly qualified instructor and evaluator pilots continued to be passed over for promotion. Local leaders were left to draw their own conclusions: Aviators were not being judged by the performance of their primary duties. Since I’ve been in the Air Force, aviators have been told to highlight relatable and translatable experience — that is, experiences other than flying. Promotion boards don’t understand aviation because they are mostly not comprised of aviators or warfighters. Highly skilled professionals like doctors and lawyers generally do not have to morph their record or discount their profession to become promotable — but aviators do.
Trying to take care of their people, commanders pushed aviators to take on more ground-related ancillary work so their performance reports would be competitive. This created a disconnect between the front line and the organization. Year after year, the actions of the Air Force told aviators their primary job was not a priority. Decisions reflect values, values shape culture, and culture ultimately reflects an organization’s identity. Somewhere along the way, being able to lead a strike package in combat and make life and death decisions became secondary to things like planning a Christmas party.
Last year, the Air Force put in place a promotion policy change that allowed pilots to achieve the rank of major, but this was a Band-Aid solution. Despite the change, promotions above that rank still lag. According to the internal Aircrew Crisis Task Force, non-flying officers have out-promoted aviators to lieutenant colonel for five years in a row. As the Navy learned last year, this is not how to incentivize retention for a group of people who have received enormous financial investment — the millions of dollars to train them and America’s reliance on them to fight its wars. The disparity between this investment and how the organization values said investment has led to a growing cynicism in the flying squadrons. As the sense of purpose slowly evaporates, it makes it far easier to take off the uniform and walk away.
Meanwhile, seemingly small actions quietly ate away at the morale, esprit de corps, and tribal culture inherent to being a fighter pilot in the world’s most powerful air force. In particular, two incidents in 2012 brought things to a boiling point.
First, Nellis Air Force Base — the soul of the tactical Air Force — proudly removed “Home of the Fighter Pilot” from its sign at the front gate to promote a more holistic approach to warfighting. This would be equivalent of the Army removing “Home of the Airborne and Special Operations Forces” from the sign at Fort Bragg to emphasize combat arms writ large. I knew hundreds of fighter pilots who were furious about this, and so was I. We saw the removal as another move towards mediocrity and the continuance of the service’s cultural decay. The Army never would have allowed it. The Air Force celebrated it.
A few months later, a senior enlisted airman at Shaw Air Force Base came forward with charges of sexual harassment and assault that she endured while assigned to fighter squadrons. Eight officers were eventually reprimanded, but the incident evoked bad memories from the Navy’s Tailhook scandal. Leadership at the top rightfully responded swiftly to the charges, but leadership at the bottom was caught at the tail end of the whip. It was a difficult situation, but local commanders instituted measures that largely over-corrected. Collectively, this fostered a widely held perception that the Air Force (albeit unintentionally) blamed all fighter squadrons for a culture of sexual assault and misogyny.
The trend toward mediocrity helps explain today’s poor retention numbers. Of the pilots it produces, the Air Force’s institutional requirements require 65 percent of them to remain for a full 20-year career. Right now, internal data reveals that fighter pilot retention was 34 percent last year and trending downward.
Compare this with overall Air Force officer retention. On average, only 49 percent of active duty officers reach 20 years of service. Removing officers who left active duty for continued service in the reserves from this figure, the percentage of officers who remain on active duty for 20 years falls to just 41 percent (service variances are minimal).
In summary, 41 percent of Air Force officers serve a 20-year career, yet the service needs 65 percent of pilots to do the same. And only 34 percent of fighter pilots are staying. While it may seem obvious, you can’t expect above-average retention of a subgroup unless you target those members with a compelling reason to stay — and cash isn’t it.
Recall that 66 percent of aviators stated that if the Air Force properly prioritized their mission, they would continue to serve. The solution is obvious, so why hasn’t it happened? Intense cultural malaise and institutional inertia are byproducts of a mediocracy.
Leadership drives culture. Right now, there is nothing to anchor either.
Unlike the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps, the Air Force has never saw fit to define or codify leadership traits, leadership principles, or even an overarching leadership philosophy. It took the time to author an entire doctrine volume on leadership and a little blue book on expectations, but neither document contains these principles. They should be developed immediately — not by doctrine writers or Pentagon staffers, but by warfighters at the Air Force Weapons School.
The Weapons School sits at the crossroads of tactical leadership and the warfighting Air Force. It comprises ground, air, space, and cyber warfighters who represent the best of their communities. The Weapons School’s mission is to develop tactical leaders who will build, teach, and lead warfighters in their units. Who better to determine what the Air Force should value in its leaders? To capture the heritage and ethos of the Air Force brand of leadership, this ethos should be called flight leadership.
Next, fix the culture and everything else will fall in place. One of Gen. Goldfein’s top priorities is revitalizing the squadron. As he explains, “It is at the squadron level where we succeed or fail as an Air Force. It’s where our culture resides.” Fixing the culture and squadrons sounds easy, but both are continually moving targets, since the Air Force has physically changed over time.
At the end of the Cold War, the Air Force had 362 flying squadrons, including 134 fighter and 18 bomber squadrons. Today there are 332 flying squadrons, but just 55 fighter and nine bomber squadrons. That doesn’t include the additions of ground, space, cyber, and support squadrons to support mission growth over the same period. This shift in composition inevitably influences culture of the organization.
To rebuild culture, start with principles — not policies and processes. Culturally, the Air Force should think of fighter squadrons how the Army and Navy think about their special operations forces. The parallels are uncanny. The Navy has 319,000 sailors, but only 8,200 personnel in SEAL teams. The Army has 476,000 soldiers, but only 3,500 soldiers assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment. The Air Force has 318,000 airmen — and only 2,800 fighter pilots.
Thinking of fighter pilots in this light is nothing new, it’s just not embraced by the Air Force. Note that while the tribal culture of these small units doesn’t scale across their respective services, the ethos of these elite teams does trickle-down to those who desire to emulate their esprit de corps. This is how you build a powerful team of teams without sacrificing culture or identity.
The final step is to act. Make the bold but unpopular decisions that need to be made. Give teams of pilots in fighter squadrons the same level of resources and fanatical support that teams of Army and Navy special operators have. Fence off distractions that counter their purpose. In short, lead.
Retention is the result of a collective satisfaction with the challenge in front of you, doing it with the people around you, enabled by the leadership above you, and minimizing the impact on the family behind you.
Today, Nellis Air Force Base once again declares itself “home of the fighter pilot” to visitors approaching the gate. Nametags with call signs were reinstituted and annual Air Force-level fighter pilot awards were also reinstated. While these are positive steps, they are small ones.
The Air Force has a pilot retention crisis because it has an identity crisis. The vanguard of the service has become a small nucleus of warfighters who have been devalued. Without vigilant effort to sustain the warfighting culture and ethos that founded the Air Force, it will quietly die. If this happens, the mutation to mediocracy will be complete.
Restart the foundry, relight the fire, and reforge the culture. Lead and the people will follow.
Mike Benitez is an F-15E Strike Eagle Weapons Systems Officer in the U.S. Air Force. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.