The Weak Link in the Air Force Is Me
An organization under strain will fail at its weakest link. As the U.S. Air Force faces possible wars with China and Russia, I have a bad feeling that I know where its weakest link is. If the Air Force loses its next battle, campaign, or war, it will not lose it in the air, despite some inevitable casualties, delays, and degradation. If the Air Force is truly defeated, it will be defeated on the ground. It will be defeated because the service’s combat support elements won’t be able to provide the logistics, protection, and infrastructure required while under attack. My uneasy feeling is that the Air Force’s weakest link is the tactical level leadership of its combat support units, their company-grade officers — officers like me.
At this point, the threats posed by the anti-access/area denial, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities of America’s rivals have been discussed in great depth. For the first time in a long time, the Air Force is facing the possibility of adversaries that can hit back. The roles that potential enemies seek to target and disrupt are largely those filled by Air Force combat support. Flowing forces into theater, establishing infrastructure and networks, then sustaining and protecting it all, is my job. However, for reasons of experience, training, and culture, I am not ready to accomplish that job during the kind of conflict that the Air Force may very soon face. As a service, the Air Force tends to assume that its support squadrons will always be there with what it needs. It is time to take a hard look at that assumption.
Combat Support’s Competing Tasks
The opening phase of a war with China or Russia would be chaotic and generally miserable. Preparing for anything else is setting the conditions for failure, but that is what the Air Force has unintentionally done for many of its junior officers. To understand how this has happened, and what might be done to fix it, it’s first necessary to understand the competing tasks that an Air Force combat support squadron must balance.
Combat support in the Air Force is best thought of as the middle piece that connects the pointy end of the spear with the rest of the defense establishment, almost always through some form of airbase. Logistics readiness, airfield operations, security forces, civil engineering, force support, contracting, finance, maintenance and the remaining pieces of communications, constitute the Air Force’s combat support element.
A base-level combat support squadron has three main tasks. The first is preparing and presenting forces for scheduled rotational deployment. For a combat support squadron, this mainly consists of the administrative work of deployment folders, medical readiness, and commonly required computer-based training. Specialized, combat-type training (with some exceptions) is conducted just-in-time, as specified by location reporting instructions. As combat missions have ended, this training is less often required as deployment becomes more like home-station.
The second task of an Air Force combat support squadron is the day-to-day activity required for a military service to function, and just exist, between deployments. The maintenance of vehicles and infrastructure, law enforcement, acquisition, supply, contract oversight, housing and feeding, and everything else that goes into sustaining a large group of people, and their equipment, is a never-ending job. The task is even more consuming for mission-support groups who provide services for civilian employees, dependents, and retirees as well. The major difference between operational and support elements of the Air Force are the installation requirements. An operational squadron generally trains as a unit, deploys as a unit, and returns as a unit. A support squadron splits its forces, deploying some and retaining some in order to cover its home-station responsibilities. When a deployment rotation returns, they return to those home-station responsibilities, not preparation for future deployment. This is also the big difference in how the Air Force does combat support versus the other services, who normally separate their installation and combat support functions.
The third task that a combat support squadron must balance has gained importance as the Defense Department focuses more on great powers. Even five years ago (outside of Pacific Air Forces) training for a high-intensity conflict was a quick check-the-box exercise, if it happened at all. Now, squadrons are trying to develop airmen to fight a future great-power war. This may seem interchangeable with presenting forces for rotational deployments. However, the differences between a scheduled deployment to an aligned Persian Gulf state and a scrambling deployment into a contested environment in the Western Pacific or Eastern Europe mean that preparing for the first doesn’t cover the second. The ability to survive and operate a base under attack requires a skillset that needs to be intentionally built. Add in chemical, biological, and nuclear threats and cyber disruption, and you have a significant training requirement.
The possibility of high-intensity conflict has also driven the Air Force to develop new concepts to operate when contested throughout a theater. Agile combat employment, agile combat support, distributed operations, and multi-capable airmen all aim to make the flying service more flexible and resilient. All center on using smaller, distributed teams to quickly establish bases that present too many targets for an enemy to effectively suppress. All require combat support that can work independently and flexibly across large distances. The junior officers responsible for that support will have to make decisions, solve problems, and balance risks while under attack. However, the training and experience of officers like myself, and the culture we come up in, isn’t preparing us to meet that challenge. The Department of Defense talks about deployment into a future theater as a movement to contact. Unless the Air Force’s combat support communities make conscious decisions to change, failure when making that movement is a real possibility.
Efficiency Over Experience
A combination of limited budgets and the need to fund modernization has obliged the Air Force to find efficiencies in providing installation support. In practice this has meant centralization and “data driven,” decision-making. These changes may have increased efficiency, but it has been at the expense of learning experience for combat support company-grade officers, who have increasingly become providers of data and certifiers of compliance for decision-makers who are often not even at the same base. Lieutenants spend their time building slide decks and inputting numbers into web-based tools, rather than learning and practicing leadership. Captains wrestle with using the correct process and documentation to get base priorities taken care of, rather than working toward a solution with their teams. The contracting-out of base functions, such as information technology and utilities, has added to the problem by making junior officers monitors of someone else, instead of being responsible for executing programs themselves. Compounding everything is the natural increase of micromanagement as the Air Force returns to a peacetime footing. Even decisions that can be made at base level often turn into a morass of meetings and consensus-building. Until recently, deployment offered a more varied experience, but the move towards enduring bases in the Middle East has extended home-station bureaucracy to those locations as well. The result is that combat support company-grade officers build expertise in navigating the Air Force’s bureaucracy at the expense of other skills. It is unrealistic to expect an officer who has been tied to Microsoft Outlook his or her whole career to suddenly conduct their mission without reliable communications. Even more unrealistic is expecting a junior officer who has only ever built slide decks for decision-makers to start thinking on their feet and making quick, independent decisions under pressure.
A seemingly apparent solution to the experience problem is rolling back the burden of centralization and data-gathering, but the fully legitimate need for efficiency and auditability makes this approach unlikely and probably unworkable. The actual solution is more local. Base-level combat support squadrons should make conscious choices to maximize the time of their company-grade officers away from their computers. The goal for these officers should be working short timeline tasks that allow for actual decision-making, and then dealing with the consequences of those decisions. Programming five-year infrastructure plans, overseeing installation service contracts, and managing the civilian personnel system are all essential activities, but are poor preparation for providing agile combat support under fire. Company-grade officers, especially new lieutenants, need to be put in positions where they work directly with the enlisted force and practice their leadership skills. Although it may mean that their names aren’t attached to the high-visibility initiatives that make great performance report bullets, young officers need to be in charge where the authorities are right, and the consequences of failure are low enough, that they can actually be in charge. Last, but not least, leadership throughout the command should resist micromanaging, even if it means some clean-up later on.
More relevant experience is the right place to start, but the skillset for a high-intensity peer conflict is different than for home-station operations or ongoing deployments. Just like aircrew need flight hours to build and maintain proficiency with their aircraft, combat support officers need training hours to build and maintain wartime skills. Developing multi-capable airmen increases the training required by adding skills beyond their functional area for personnel to learn. In theory, training time was to be freed up by reduced rotational deployments to the Middle East and Africa. However, those reductions have been uneven and often reversed. This leaves combat support squadrons in a position where training for both their officers and their enlisted forces has to come out of time normally spent providing installation support and services. That training time is only one day per month and one exercise per year for many squadrons, and often less for individual members. While it can’t be proven short of fighting in an actual war, that time investment likely isn’t sufficient. There is also a less obvious, but equally impactful, problem. Useful training requires extensive time and effort from more senior company-grade officers and non-commissioned officers to plan, teach, and track it. The ongoing demands of deployments and installation support make it a struggle for squadrons to build effective training programs, because the personnel qualified to run them are overwhelmingly focused on other tasks.
Invest in Training and Cultural Change
Assuming no large reductions in deployments, or no drastic changes in how the Air Force manages installations, improved training within combat support squadrons will require a different balance between training and installation responsibilities. Base-level leadership will have to make a conscious decision to limit installation requirements in order to invest in training. In theory this is simple, but in practice it becomes much harder due to the wide reach of a mission support group. However, if the Air Force is going to truly prioritize readiness, it needs to understand that this means a lower priority for other items. Ultimately, installation commanders and communities will have to accept real and visible reductions in the level of service at their home station in order to invest in largely unseen preparations for a future conflict that may not happen. Obviously, installation support is critical to the force, and can’t be just stripped away without thought. The Air Force’s installations are run the way they are because it is reliant on bases in a way unique among the services. However, there needs to be an honest discussion on what the balance should be, knowing that the result may be less than what is desired or has been provided before.
The changes discussed above are impossible in the absence of cultural change within the combat support communities, and the Air Force more broadly. The service ought to move away from viewing its support as something that always just sort of happens. Pilots run the Air Force, and without understanding that failure is truly possible, the necessary action won’t be taken above the group level. This is an area in which I believe there has been positive progress. Unfortunately, my feelings on the culture within the combat support communities, and especially among their officers, are less positive. To a great extent, they have embraced the home-station bureaucracy as their true reason for being. Officers in these units far too often view preparing for a future fight as an unwanted and uncomfortable distraction from their real work. The result is the push for bureaucratic knowledge, often couched as “career development,” at the expense of tactical expertise or leadership skills. This culture especially harms newer officers who don’t have another frame of reference. Building an efficient, transparent, and fully compliant peacetime force is a laudable effort, but if that force fails when the shooting starts, the effort is ultimately pointless.
Cultural change starts with a clear understanding of what will be asked of combat support units in high-intensity conflict. New concepts and threats should be explained in a way that junior officers and younger enlisted will understand, which absolutely does not mean talking down to them but rather removing the mess of buzzwords and arcane jargon that often sticks to these topics. There needs to be an acknowledgement that a future fight will be difficult, and that failure is possible. Combat support squadrons, and their installation leadership, should truly treat readiness for future war as a task that is just as important as the deployments and home-station work that they already balance. A culture that doesn’t focus on its warfighting functions won’t develop officers who can execute those functions in war.
As the U.S. Air Force’s potential enemies build the capabilities to put it under strain in a future conflict, it is up to the service to ensure that it doesn’t fail under that strain. The weak links in the organization should be found and strengthened. I strongly believe that the weakest link in the Air Force is its junior combat support officers, myself included. If our link is going to hold up during conflict, change is needed. More relevant home-station experience and increased emphasis on training, driven by a shift in culture, could develop officers ready to decisively execute the service’s new concepts. However, driving any of those changes is going to require honest, and very likely painful, self-reflection. Hopefully my admission here is a step towards that end.
Capt. Colin Biery is a U.S. Air Force civil engineer officer who has provided support to operations both home-station and deployed, as well as trained officers and enlisted airmen. He recently completed a tour overseeing all mission support for a remote Space Force location.
The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not represent those of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.