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.