There's a remarkable bit of correspondence over at the Air Force Times website. It's an open letter from a group of noncommissioned officers to the service's senior enlisted man, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force (CMSAF) James A. Roy. Fed up with inactivity on issues of critical importance to the service--and the enlisted corps--the NCOs are looking for answers from Roy himself.
According to the paper, the letter began as a discussion on one of their forums. With Roy scheduled to visit Ramstein AB, Germany, a senior master sergeant at that installation asked other forum participants what they would ask the CMSAF, if they were in the crowd.
Over a three-week period, the thread received more than 3,000 views and 90 suggestions. Based on that level of interest, retired Chief Master Sergeant David Butson and the senior master sergeant (who has remained anonymous) fashioned the comments into an open letter, which can be viewed at the AFT website.
As a retired Air Force officer (and former NCO), the document is nothing less than remarkable. What's most surprising isn't the issues addressed in the letter, but rather, the willingness of career NCOs to "call out" Chief Roy over his failure to address hot-button topics for the enlisted force, and the service as a whole.
Below are a few excerpts from the letter, which is organized topically. Based on what I've read so far, I can't disagree with the NCOs on a single point. In Air Force terms, they "shacked the target."
Physical Training (PT)
"...One of the hottest points of contention in the enlisted corps today is that of our Physical Fitness standards. The Air Force has had a program in place of some variety for a very long time now. Still, the program changes ad nausea; what is it that drives the change? Has the service failed to exceed expectations — ever, in history — due to our fitness levels? We understand the need for military members to be physically fit, but the current emphasis serves to assert that physical standards are the most important measure of a “whole person” concept (as evidenced by its’ extraction from the “standards” block as a stand-alone unit of measure in the Enlisted Performance Report). No other personal standard stands alone as a measure of our worth.
Know that we are not questioning the need for physical fitness; rather, we are questioning the intense emphasis over other standards such as job proficiency. We motivate our subordinates to stay fit with positive reinforcement, but that is becoming increasingly difficult with the continued threat of a career-ending result for a failure. We talk to our people about integrity, but then we hire civilians to scrutinize their form.
Enlisted Performance Reports (EPRs)
The big career impact of fitness is on the EPR. It appears that we would presume to use fitness levels as the discerning trait to identify the good and the great. Obviously, the EPR is not working as designed to provide an honest evaluation. However, when we bring this forward, we’re told that the EPR must be fixed from the “bottom up”. That is a tall order; we know, based on history, that the consequence of rating a subordinate as well above average — but not “truly among the best” — will have an adverse career impact. If our No. 3 of 10 Master Sergeants is rated honestly, and receives a “4” on his EPR, he will never be promoted again. That is a basic truth and our ability to motivate him will be quite limited at that point. It is also basically wrong; as that No. 3 Master Sergeant might easily be our best the next year. Why can we not develop an evaluation that truly captures the attributes of an Airman — with some balance — and get back to evaluating the whole person? And — how can we hold raters accountable for their ratings?
Why conduct force reduction during increased manning pressure, deployment tempo increases, and war? Coalitions are drawing down; NATO’s future plan cuts the in-place force almost in half over the next 10 years, with the goal to rely on nations to provide manning when an operation is undertaken (such as ISAF). While we comprise 30 percent of this 28-nation organization — how will we be prepared to answer this call when we are already on a 1-to-1 dwell with no relief in sight?
On the topic of deployments — We’d like to know; why do some get “deployed” AEF credit for such locations as Stuttgart, Guam, Shaw or Hickam? The same could be said for places like Doha and Abu Dhabi. We understand that this is probably just a funding thing, but to those serving in austere locations and coming under fire every day, seeing others get AEF credit for “soft deployments” seems to be unfair.
Recently, we have seen many examples of what appears to be a double standard between the enlisted ranks and the officer corps. We’ve read about Generals getting away with DUIs and JAG officers that breeze through false official statements, while at the same time having to watch enlisted careers end for the same indiscretion. How can we justify this to the junior enlisted that look to us for guidance … and protection?
The open letter also addresses other issues, ranging from the poor quality of Air Force battle uniforms and PT gear, to actual goals for the service's highly-publicized "Year of the Family." And, the NCOs make it very clear: they have been unimpressed with Roy's performance as CMSAF, and they want him to step up.
Chief Roy, it isn’t our intent to criticize — but the truth is, most of us have no idea what you are accomplishing other than touring, glad-handing and giving speeches. We would like to know about your input, and impact on events, policies and programs. We read all the articles published on your activities but, frankly, they don’t tell us much. Would you consider an in-depth, “no fluff,” article that covers you and your efforts and accomplishments in making a difference in what concerns our Airmen? Many of the things you endeavor to do have a diminished effect if people don’t know about them. The enlisted want to see their “Chief” making a difference, as it motivates and inspires them. This letter is our effort to capture and forward the concerns of a large group of Air Force people — specifically, those that care enough to spend their time looking for ways to improve their Air Force.
During three decades as an Air Force member, DoD civilian and defense contractor, I've never seen anything quite like it. But, I believe the letter honestly captures the concerns shared by many NCOs and their officer counter-parts. Increasingly, they view Air Force leadership as imperial and out-of-touch, with the CMSAF serving as little more than a mouthpiece for the Chief of Staff, and failing to impact issues of great importance to the enlisted force.
Contacted by AFT, Chief Roy declined to comment on the letter. Needless to say, his standing with the NCO corps has slipped a few more notches. Still, his response is anything but surprising; the first rule of Air Force crisis management is to hunker down and hope it all goes away.
But the open letter can't be easily dismissed. Since the post was established more than 40 years ago, no CMSAF has been challenged so openly--or aggressively--as Chief Roy. If the letter-writers are reflective of the service as a whole (and I believe they are), the Air Force is reaching a tipping point. Without wholesale changes--including many of those outlined in the letter--many airmen will begin voting with their feet, even during an economic downturn.
Not that the brass (and their CMSAF mouth-piece) would actually care. The service is currently in the midst of a major draw down, eliminating thousands of personnel billets (most of them enlisted) to save money and free up more funds for acquisition programs. It's been tried before; back in the mid-1990s, the Air Force got rid of 10,000 airmen, NCOs and junior officers to help pay for the F-22 program.
Then, about seven years later, some of the service's senior leaders were complaining about decreased experience levels in certain enlisted career fields. Apparently, they couldn't (or would not) make the connection between the 1995 draw down and the shortage of trained E-5s and E-6s a few years later.
Those concerned NCOs deserve great credit for writing their letter. Unfortunately, their missive will likely fall on deaf ears, unless Congress decides to hold the service accountable. Chief Roy's next appearance before a Congressional committee should be very interesting, indeed.