Friday, July 22, 2005

Where Have All the (Intel) Generals Gone?

C4ISR Journal probably isn't on your regular reading list. It's a defense trade publication, specializing (as its name implies) in issues relating to command, control, communications and computers (the C4 element), as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).

A long-time friend (and former co-worker) forwarded a copy of a recent article from the publication, noting the serious loss of intel expertise among the upper ranks of the Air Force. According to Journal reporter Glenn W. Goodman, Jr., a total of 23 career intelligence Colonels will retire from the USAF this year, in part because they virtually no chance of reaching the general officer ranks.

Collectively, these Colonels represent some of the most experienced intelligence officers in the Air Force, with more than four centuries of experience in such vital areas as intel management, analysis, collections, and operations. As a group, they have demonstrated their expertise at the squadron, group, wing, numbered air force, joint and national levels. Based on their performance, some of these officers deserve promotion to brigadier general. But there's a glass ceiling in their way, as Goodman notes:

The facts speak for themselves: The Air Force has selected only one career intelligence officer for promotion to brigadier general since 2001. Following the retirements of two generals with intelligence backgrounds two months ago and another planned on Nov. 1, only three of the Air Force's 274 or so general officers will have come up through the ranks in intelligence-related positions. There has been a steady decline in the number of Air Force intelligence generals from a high of 14 in the early 1990s. The Air Force's personnel officer and finance officer branches even have more generals - five and four, respectively. The three top intelligence posts in the Air Force - each a general's billet - currently are held by "rated" officers (pilots), not by career intelligence officers...The practice of selecting colonels or generals with little or no intelligence experience to fill key Air Force intelligence-related positions began occurring about 1996; it has been one of the contributing factors to the lack of upward mobility for the service's intelligence colonels.

Why does this matter? At a time when the importance of intelligence has never been higher, the Air Force is entrusting leadership of its intel community to officers with virtually no experience in that profession. And, given the USAF's central role in developing and operating ISR platforms, the decisions made by these officers will have a lasting impact on the military's ability to provide timely, accurate intelligence for decades to come.

No one would accuse these newly-minted intel officers of incompetence. But some of the factors behind their appointment deserve serious scrutiny. During my own career, I was told that "General X (a former fighter pilot) can direct an intel function because he's been a consumer of intelligence for over 20 years." By that logic, I guess I was qualified to be an F-16 pilot because I've been watching them fly for at least that long. Fortunately, the Air Force never selected me to lead an F-16 wing, but there is little hesitation to put a pilot in charge of an intelligence function.

There are a number of factors at work here. First of all, there has been something of a "hostile" takeover of AF intel in recent years, with the absorption of the Air Intelligence Agency (AIA) and the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC), by Air Combat Command, which controls much of the Air Force's combat airpower. With a gradual reduction in fighter cockpits (in favor of unmanned aerial vehicles), and the growing importance of intel and information operations, fighter generals decided to exert their influence in those areas, by gaining control of key intelligence and IO organizations. Placing rated officers (mostly pilots) in key positions has allowed them to exert even greater influence and control. Officially, the Air Force claims this relationship improves support to warfighters, but it has potentially disasterous consequences, including fewer promotions for qualified intel officers, and entrusting key ISR decisions to officers who lack the proper background in those areas.

In fairness, the AF intel community is partly to blame for its own predicament. The service has always focused on developing its best and brightest, with little regard for the rest of its officer corps. Additionally, Air Force intelligence has a not-undeserved reputation for internal politics. One AF intel officer estimates that other officers have attempted to derail his career at least four times, and he's witnessed a dozen other examples of professional fratricide. But even the "golden" boys and girls who survive these machinations are now bumping up against a glass ceiling, and too much valuable expertise is walking out the door.

What's the solution? An end to the time-honored, "office politics as usual" approach, and more emphasis on developing (and promoting) future AF intel leaders--beyond the next crop of water-walkers. We could also use some mentorship from General Mike Hayden, the career AF intel officer now serving as Deputy Director of National Intelligence (DDNI). General Hayden, in some respects, has risen above the military food chain, but he still wears a blue suit, and I'm hoping he has a planned appointment with the next Air Force Chief of Staff. The growing leadership crisis in AF intelligence should be on their radar scope, and General Hayden needs to remind the chief that there won't be anymore Mike Haydens unless we do a better job of promoting deserving intelligence officers. If that doesn't happen, we will forfeit management of key intelligence functions to officers without the background or professional experience for the job.

1 comment:

Eunuch said...

Is there any chance you can send me a link to the original article...I remember reading it a few years back, and think I still have a copy from the ISR Journal in my notes, but I can't track it down on the web to share. Let me know!

And by the way, it hasn't gotten any better for AF intel officers.