Saturday, August 18, 2012

What Not to Wear

What's wrong with this picture?

It was taken at the recent change-of-command ceremony for the new Air Force Chief of Staff, General Mark Welsh III. That's General Welsh on the right; Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Roy is in the center (holding the service guidon), and the Air Force Secretary, Michael Donley, is on the left.

If you said, "what's up with those uniforms," give yourself a pat on the back and move to the head of the class. But don't congratulate yourself too much. It doesn't take a career airmen to see that General Welsh and Chief Roy are wearing uniforms that most us had never viewed before.

So, what's up with the uniforms?

Turns out they are special ceremonial uniforms, reserved for the Chief of Staff and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force. So, at the change-of-command ceremony on 10 August, there were three people attired in the new threads, Welsh, Roy and General Norton Schwartz, the outgoing Chief of Staff.

To say the least, the design is rather unique. It looks like a variation of the "Billy Mitchell" and "Hap Arnold"-style uniforms the service was experimenting with a few years ago, with elements of the Air Force Band uniform thrown in for good measure.

Reaction to the ceremonial uniform has been decidedly mixed. One wag suggested that the USAF had raided "John Phillip Sousa's closet" in its search for ceremonial garb. In fairness to the late composer, we should note that he built the Marine Corps Band into a world-renowned ensemble, playing his unforgettable marches. And years later, when he returned to service as a Navy band leader during World War I, he donated his year pay (minus one dollar) to a military charity. So, there was a definite plan behind Sousa's fondness for fine uniforms.

As for those dandies at the change-of-command ceremony, we find it rather odd that two four star generals (and the CMSAF) couldn't figure out the "optics" of their appearance. Lest we forget, the Air Force--along with the rest of DoD--is facing significant cutbacks in funding and personnel. Beyond that, there's a growing sex scandal at Lackland involving more than a dozen basic training instructors that threatens to tar the service. And did we mention that the USAF has other concerns, such as fixing the F-22, and getting the F-35 and the new tanker into operational service?

So, with all those issues on the table, why did the Air Force find it appropriate to outfit the current and outgoing Chiefs of Staff (along with the service's senior enlisted leader) in uniforms that were custom-made and can only be worn for a handful of events? So far, the USAF hasn't said how much was spent on the ceremonial uniforms, but we're guessing they didn't come cheap.

As for a rationale, the Air Force says the leaders of the other services have their own, special ceremonial uniforms, so apparently the boys and girls in blue need them as well, even if they're worn by only a tiny fraction of the force (0.00000607 percent, to be exact, or two out of 329,000 airmen). With that kind of thinking, the USAF might as well put in an order for an aircraft carrier, a tank and light armored vehicle. The other services have those items in their inventories, and we wouldn't want the Air Force to feel left out.

The new ceremonial garb is the latest in a long series of uniform disasters for the USAF. Many of us who served in the 1990s can remember some of the other sartorial mistakes, including the infamous "airline" uniform, which combined the "style" of U.S. Air with Navy-style rank on the sleeves. Legend has it that support for that uniform began to wane when a senior general was asked if he was piloting the 5 o'clock flight to Cleveland. It was the same era when the service also experimented with a white ceremonial uniform, complete with white shoes. As we recall, the entire rig cost more than $500, and there were cheers when it was phased out before most of us had to buy one.

More recently, the Air Force produced another clunker with its "airman combat uniform" or ACU. Most airmen hated the thing; the material felt like canvas against their skin and tended to rip in the crotch. Earlier this summer, the service unveiled a modified version of the ACU, made from material similar to that used in the Army's MultiCam uniform, which was previously issued to airmen stationed in Afghanistan. The USAF has also struggled to field the "right" boot for its ACU; a green suede model (which stained easily) has been replaced by a green leather boot (yes, we said green leather).

Airmen in combat zones deserve the best-quality gear, so it's appropriate that service devotes resources to fixing the ACU and fielding better footwear. But spending money on a ceremonial uniform for two members of the USAF is patently ridiculous, and it sends the wrong signal at the wrong time. Previous Chiefs of Staff and Chief Master Sergeants of the Air Force have made do with the standard service dress uniform--the same one worn by all airmen. That "fashion statement" is much closer to the message of General Welsh's inaugural speech as CSAF, when he stressed the "well being" of the force, and the need for innovative thinking to solve problems faced by the service.

Unfortunately, Welsh's remarks were all-but-drowned-out by those "new uniforms." And nothing smacks of elitism, a military caste system, or misplaced priorities like silly-looking ceremonial garb reserved for a select few.

Mark Welsh is a good man, and the right choice to lead the Air Force at this critical juncture. But he got off on the wrong foot with his Sousa-style uniform and the image it conveyed. General Welsh should consider a NOTAM to the force, announcing that the ceremonial uniform is being shelved, once and for all, and follow it up with a public burning of the duds. At this point, as airmen shake their heads and wonder if the USAF can ever get its uniforms (or priorities) "right," a little disposal ceremony couldn't hurt.


Neil said...

They look like cops. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Freud might have a field day analyzing the fashion-design difficulties of a relatively new service that is always attempting to establish itself as the "senior service".

bongobear said...

What is wrong with these people? The normal dress uniform is fine for all occasions and the service doesn't need to be spending money on something so trivial as a special dress uniform. It reminds me of Patton's 'tank uniform'. Stupid.

billmill said...

The uniforms are a joke, Green leather boots, just ridiculous. Why can't the Air Force piggy back on one of the other service uniforms like we did for BDU's? I manged to wear them for 15 years after phase in up until I retired and they were great, durable and much more functional for us flightline maintenance personnel than the old solid green fatigues.
I hope your right about the General, The Air Force is in bad shape and the continuing joke of the F-35 is not helping as it sucks up all available resources and is what 4 years late and sliding further to the right.

Consul-At-Arms said...

In fairness: if the _outgoing_ AF chief was wearing his special duds, then it's a serious diss if the incoming chief doesn't wear his too.

That being said, your other suggestions in reference _retiring_ these special uniforms are completely on point.

It's one thing (and wholly understandable) to have special insignia or appurtenances for special office-holders (such as the chief-of-staff or the grand-poobah-master-chief); it's quite another to have a completely different uniform.

This uniform variant isn't that bad-looking; either authorize it for everyone or discard it.

BK Price said...

You mean "Airman's Battlefield Uniform" right? The ABU belongs to the Air Force. The ACU belongs to the Army. And I haven't heard about the crotch ripping in ABUs. That was true of the Army's ACUs, though.

Having worn both, the ACU is far more comfortable but doesn't last nearly as long. The ABU will last a long time, but it is extremely hot and is already being replaced by a lighter "summer weight" version that will not last.

Of course, the Army is now ditching their ACUs in favor of the mutli-cam or something similar. And the Navy appears to be moving away from their "blue berries" to a more conventional green camo pattern.

Only the USMC is sticking with their design. Although they claim (incorrectly) that they have the uniform patented and therefore it cannot be used by anyone else. The uniform is patented by the US government, not the USMC (or Navy) and so except for the Anchor and Globe, the uniform could be appropriated by the other services.

tommyt said...

My first reaction was "WTF? Is this a joke?" I think the author of this article nailed it. The German Luftwaffe in WW II had the coolest uniforms. Let's just copy theirs.