Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Shades of Tony McPeak

Anyone who served in the U.S. Air Force over the past 20 years experienced their share of unit reorganizations. Beginning in the early 1990s, the service initiated a series of efforts to restructure wing-level organizations. Among other things, the various schemes saw the resurrection of groups (as an intermediate-level organization, controlling operations, maintenance, or support squadrons), and the creation of new units that directed functions as diverse as weather and intelligence.

The mastermind of the reorganization effort was General Merrill "Tony" McPeak. As the Commander of Pacific Air Forces in the late 1980s, McPeak began tinkering with various reorganization concepts, including the so-called "Composite Wing," which melded diverse aircraft, missions and personnel into a single unit. When McPeak became the Air Force Chief of Staff in 1991 (after the unfortunate dismissal of General Mike Dugan), the experiment was expanded across the service.

General McPeak retired from active duty in 1994, but even today, Air Force veterans of that era still shudder at the changes he tried to impose. The truly unfortunate served in the afore-mentioned composite wings, which created maintenance, personnel and logistical nightmares. Wings that operated a single type of aircraft were also reorganized, with the addition of new groups to manage functionally-grouped squadrons, and enlarged squadrons that, in some cases, absorbed tasks and duties that were previously beyond their control.

Many of us recognized the "reorganization" for what it was--nothing more than a shell game, designed to preserve command billets for the pilot community. With force down-sizing after the Cold War, the Air Force lost both aircraft and units. Implementing new wing organizational structures allowed the service to retain commander's positions that would have otherwise been lost. Under one variant of the McPeak plan, virtually every wing in the Air Force was led by a brigadier general, despite the fact that Colonels had been filling those positions for years.

McPeak and his minions also had the bright idea of consolidating operations and maintenance functions under flying squadron commanders. Overnight, hundreds of enlisted airmen and maintenance officers were placed under the control of ops commanders who had little, if any, experience in managing aircraft repair, or the specialists who performed those tasks.

As you might expect, the "merger" of maintenance and ops created numerous headaches, and more than a few maintenance officers got passed over for promotion, usually because their boss --the flying squadron commander--favored aircrew personnel in the appraisal and selection process. But, directing a larger squadron certainly looked good on a commander's resume, so the marriage of ops and maintenance continued long after McPeak's departure.

Fortunately, sanity ultimately prevailed. Five years ago, then-Chief of Staff General John Jumper removed the maintainers from flying squadrons, and put them back into logistics units, where they belonged. By all accounts, the move was a success. With the demands of frequent exercises and deployments, flying squadrons commanders were happy to focus on operations, while maintenance personnel blended seamlessly into units dedicated to aircraft and component repair. The service had come full-circle on the issue of maintenance and ops integration, or so it seemed.

Not so fast. According to Air Force Times, thousands of flight-line maintenance personnel in fighter and CSAR (combat search-and-rescue) units will move back under operations squadrons next year, under a plan approved by the current Chief of Staff, General Mike Moseley. And, similar changes could come to all flying wings by 2009:

After months of discussions, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley gave the green light Dec. 7 to putting crew chiefs and weapons loaders back into fighter and combat search-and-rescue squadrons. The change, which will take effect between July and November. includes Guard and reserve wings.

Moseley also opened the door to moving crew chiefs from other types of aircraft, such as airlifters and bombers, out of maintenance squadrons and into flying squadrons.

Beyond flight-line maintenance, Moseley approved shifting logistics readiness squadrons and aerial port squadrons out of mission support groups and into a new version of a maintenance group called the “materiel group” by November. The move of the logistics and aerial port squadrons is Air Force-wide.


Driving much of the latest change is Moseley’s belief that squadrons should be organized at their home bases the same way they work while deployed.

“With focus on the mission, we can resource our squadrons with all the elements necessary to accomplish their mission and ensure a consistent structure at home and deployed,” Moseley told major command bosses in the Dec. 7 letter.

Moseley said he believes that if a fighter or combat search-and-rescue squadron commander is going to be responsible for meeting the daily demands of the air war, then the squadron commander also must control the maintenance of his squadron’s planes or helicopters.

“Aircraft maintenance is a vital element of a flying squadron’s mission, and the maintainers that directly support sortie generation belong in that chain of command,” Moseley said.

But Moseley's directive begs an essential question: is it necessary? By all accounts, the old system was working well. There have been no reports of sorties being lost because of the "dual chain" system. A retired maintenance Colonel--who spoke with the Times on the condition of anonymity--notes that the flying squadron commander and maintenance unit commander ultimately work for the same boss, the wing commander. Other experts note that, as a rule, flying squadron commanders have little expertise in functions they will soon assume responsibility for, including long-term maintenance planning.

For what it's worth, the earlier experiment with reorganized and composite wings was largely a bust. In the early 1990s, a GAO study concluded that the Air Force's composite wing concept had been poorly conceived, with virtually no advance analysis of potential problems, or cost benefits. Yet, the service plunged ahead with the experiment, largely at the insistence of General McPeak.

Two decades later, the plan to move flight line maintainers back into flying squadrons strikes us as an equally bad idea; a return to the dubious practices of the 1990s, with no proof that the latest "reorganization" will improve sortie generation rates, or any other benchmark of efficiency.

Somewhere, Tony McPeak must be smiling. And, in case you're wondering, the retired Chief of Staff is now serving as a senior advisor to the presidential campaign of Barrack Obama. Given General McPeak's history, we can only imagine what the Air Force would look like under an Obama administration.


Mick Kraut said...

Perhaps its my personal biases showing but why is it that so many of those who have proven the Peter Principle as true, created undo stress and disruption to military operations or damn near ruined everything they touched always end up working on the left side of the aisle? Clark comes to mind and now McPeak does as well...

Ken Prescott said...

The truly ironic point in the whole composite wing debacle was that the Air Force went about reinventing the wheel--and getting everything wrong in the process, right down to the value of pi--when there was a perfectly usable example of a composite wing organization already available, fully operational, and working very nicely.

That example was the United States Navy Carrier Air Wing.

It was a glaringly obvious mistake--to the point that it was commented on at least once (and perhaps more than once) in the Naval Institute Proceedings.

George Smiley said...

Ken--your example is quite correct, but it presumes that the USAF was genuinely interested in developing an effective composite wing concept. I would argue that it was more about preserving command billets and promotion opportunities for fighter pilots. As the GAO noted (and I'm not a big fan of that agency), the composite wing concept was poorly-formulated, at best.

McPeak was the worst CofS in my Air Force career, bar none. We're still trying to repair some of the damage he created. It's astonishing that he's been able to rehabilitate himself. Then again, he's cast his lot with the Democrats, whose only requirement is that retired flag officers despise GWB. If they meet that criteria, they're welcomed with open arms.

RM said...

Prior to the MX move announcement, other changes were making it look like we should rename the fighter squadrons to flights. All life support troops have moved to the OSS, and the orderly room types to the OSS or Personnel. That was leaving a FS of 35-ish officers and probably 4-5 enlisted. So I wasn't surprised when this announcement followed.

SMSgt Mac said...

I've got a copy of one of the latest briefs (27 Nov)if you want it.
About all they need to do to get back to the 'old' way now is move the Ops and Support Group Commanders into Wing HQ and slap DCO and DCM on their doors and you're 'good to go'.

billmill said...

During my 20 plus year career in maintenance I was in both and AMU as part of the AGS and the Fighter Squadron. After I retired I was very happy to see that maintenance was going back to an AGS setup. I can tell you putting fighter pilots in charge of all maintainers was and is a joke. Most of the LtCol pilot type squadron commanders when we combined had no idea how to deal with a large number of enlisted personnel never mind having a clue about maintenance practice and requirements. This coupled with having a herd of maintenance officers who also had know idea of what was going on made life challenging to say the least for all of us SNCO’s who were the flight chiefs and line superintendents. For the most part the maintenance officers were harmless and it really wasn’t their fault that they were clueless. Their very limited training and an absolute lack of any systems expertise, this made them very vulnerable to being leaned on by the Squadron CO to make bad decisions. I can remember many a morning at Seymour Johnson before I retired having to explain, like talking to a child why today’s air to ground radar write up was in fact a different problem than the air to air break lock we had the day before. Or having to defend a write up sign off by digging out the tech data and showing the CO and the maintenance officer in detail why this was a normal indication. Those days made me long for a warrant officer program in the Air Force. Which when you look at really makes sense especially with the high tech equipment we have and will continue to field. Having a no kidding weapon system experts in charge would make a huge difference. Of course whenever the subject of warrant officers is brought up I get the old “this is why we have Seniors and Chiefs”. But sadly the last 6 Chiefs I worked for were either weapons or crew chiefs so we get right back to lack of weapon system expertise. I wish my brothers on the line good luck; they will need it in the upcoming months and years until we reinvent the wheel again.

George Smiley said...

Bill--I've heard similar horror stories from others who lived through our last effort to put pilots in charge of maintenance, by grafting the AMUs onto the flying squadrons.

As you point out, it simply doesn't work. Unless the squadron commander has a prior MX background, as an airman or junior officer, he or she is clueless. And, there's nothing in our current training system that will give them the requisite knowledge to effectively manage operations and maintenance.

I also agree with your comment regarding warrant officers. The Air Force's decision to get rid of them (in the early 1960s) was a colossal blunder, and we're still feeling the effects of that one. With all due respect to seniors and chiefs, they're not the same thing as a warrant, and they don't have the same authority. And, as you point out, what better incentive for a young maintenance troop to stay in the career field, than the prospect of becoming a warrant, and being rewarded for years of accumulated expertise and experience.

I was never a maintainer, but I can certainly make the case that a CWO-4 would be far more effective as a section OIC, and a CWO-5 would be better than an inexperienced Captain in running an AMU. In my experience as a crew dog, the only maintenance officers worth a damn were prior enlisted. The ones who entered the career field fresh from a commissioning source had zero credibility, and usually wound up as the Chief's aide-de-camp.

Sadly, we'll never see a return of warrant officers in the Air Force, and I wonder how long it will take us to conclude that the pending ops squadron/AMU merger isn't working, and go back to our "current" system.

The Air Force's insistence on reinventing the wheel--when it ain't broke--never fails to amaze me.

Ken Prescott said...

I also agree with your comment regarding warrant officers. The Air Force's decision to get rid of them (in the early 1960s) was a colossal blunder, and we're still feeling the effects of that one.

There is a line about Marine Corps warrant officers that explains the roles very succinctly:

"God made the warrant officer to give the junior enlisted Marine someone to worship, the senior enlisted Marine someone to envy, the junior Marine officer someone to tolerate, and the senior Marine officer someone to respect."

Unknown said...

(Full disclosure: I am a fighter pilot)
I found this site while doing research for an AWC paper. I can surely see all your points about the downsides of this organizational structure. But, we should also look at the downsides of the other side, especially from the force development perspective.

Like it or not, pilots are the "operators" (for lack of a better term)of the AF. As such, they will be promoted to combat commands (also a poor choice of words, but gets the point across)and will compete for joint combat commands and billets.
As buzz said, our operators are currently clueless about leading enlisted and large organizations in general. This puts them at a distinct disadvantage when they compete for joint leadership positions. I know, since I currently sit on the Joint Staff and see how our Army and USMC brethren utilize and relate to the enlisted force.

Whether you buy my argument or not, the fact is that the decision is here to stay for at least the forseeable future. So, the question is how can we improve the process by beter preparing our pilots to command maintenance (mx)? Someone above mentioned the Navy model. I beleive that they have pilots in charge of mx early on, basicaly performing the role of our old SMO (senior maintenance officer) as an O-4, before they are a DO or Sq/cc. I would be most interested in your thoughts along this line.

Greg Walker said...

Apparently, Barack Obama just received the who-gives-a-shit endorsement of Merrill A. "Tony" McPeak. McPeak was the Air Force Chief of Staff during my first few years in the Air Force. So, if you didn't have a reason to not vote for Obama, now you do. McPeak was also the jerkoff who came up with the ridiculous idea of changing the Air Force uniform to include leather name patches with only your "nickname" and AF specialty badge (no last rank insignia). His opinion was that everyone in the Air Force really wanted to be an F-16 pilot. So, if you can't be one, it would be great if you could at least dress like one (sort of). During my first few years in the military, you would walk around inside buildings and couldn't tell the difference between an NCO and a Colonel. I'll never forget this one kid who worked at the base personnel office had a leather name patch that just said "Showtime" on it. I remember thinking, "Yeah, this will last." McPeak also changed the Air Force blue service dress uniform to match the Navy whites which made us all look like bus drivers or airline pilots. When McPeak retired in '94 and General Ron Fogelman took over, Fogelman (in not so many words) told McPeak he was an asshole and an idiot (at his own retirement ceremony!) and then announced we were switching back to the old uniforms. The next time anyone heard from McPeak was when he endorsed John Kerry in '04...adding to his legacy of at least being consistently stupid.

Spares said...

I served under McPeak and i was a member of the Rivet Workforce team. I can tell you that McPeak may very well be the one person who single handedly brought dow the Air force. The Air Force use to be strong and agile before McPeak. Now it is weak and disjointed and quite frankly more like civilians in uniform. I retired over 20 years ago and i can tell you that McPeak was more political that military. He is the "nightmare" in Doolittle's "dream". I do not know how the USAF will ever recover. There are civilian unions at Hill AFB dictating policy to the USAF on how they will supply and maintain the USAF fleets. This is only due to McPeaks dismantling of the force we all loved and cherished back in the day. I am saddened and appalled at what my Air Force has become.

Unknown said...

Spares: I can't disagree, and I'll echo what George Smiley said seven years ago; McPeak was the worst CofS in the history of the service, bar none.

According to the GAO, the composite wing "experiment" was nothing more than a colossal waste of at least $5 billion tax dollars--and the real total was much higher.

It was also deadly. We're just past the 20th anniversary of the Pope AFB disaster. Under the composite wing concept, the Air Force decided to put F-16s and C-130s in the same unit at Pope. On any given day, you had fast movers and very slow movers in a small overhead pattern at the same time.

When this "concept" was first floated, everyone warned the air staff that mixing F-16s and C-130s was a disaster waiting to happen. And they were right; on 23 March 1994, a Viper simulating a flameout landing collided with a C-130; the F-16 began to disintegrate and the two pilots (it was a D model) punched out. In an effort to save the jet (before ejecting) the pilot applied full afterburner; that carried the plummeting F-16 into the Green Ramp, where hundreds of paratroopers were waiting to board a C-141 for a jump. Many were engulfed in the fireball when the jet hit the ground; 23 died and 80 more were seriously injured.

Who was held responsible? The enlisted ATC and a civilian ATC in the tower that day. The pilots were never held accountable, and of course, Tony McPeak and his composite wing concept never entered the conversation.