Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Aiming High (Again)?

What's in a slogan? Plenty, as the Air Force has discovered.

For years, the service used "Aim High" as its catch-phrase, neatly summarizing the USAF's dominance in air and space operations, and the dedication of its personnel in maintaining that standard.

But somewhere along the way, the brass decided that "Aim High" had lost its cachet. It was replaced, in no particular order, by "Cross into the Blue;" "Above and Beyond," and most recently, "Above All."

None of those filled the bill, either, and the Air Force has been looking for yet (another) slogan since earlier this year. In fact, the service has been soliciting ideas from the ranks and commercial marketing firms, which have been conducting focus-group research.

According to Air Force Times, some of the ideas could be unveiled next month, at the semi-annual "Corona" meeting of the service's senior leaders. So far, the USAF hasn't revealed how much is being spent on the search for a new slogan, but having dealt with marketing experts for a number of years, they don't work cheap.

Of course, that begs another question, namely, why is so much time and effort being devoted to development of a new catch-phrase? Apparently, it's all about "branding," even for the world's preeminent air and space force. Service leaders believe they need a slogan that effectively captures the capabilities and spirit of the USAF, preferably in seven words or less.

And it's not a matter of recruiting, either. For years, Air Force recruiters have easily met their quotas, referring individuals who don't meet service standards to other branches of the military. In fact, when AFT asked about the slogan's potential impact on recruiting, a public affairs officer said "We don't want people coming in thinking about tag lines."

Which brings us back to our original query: why does the service need a new slogan right now?

The answer is actually rooted in the Pentagon budget wars and the scramble for a shrinking defense pie. Almost a decade into the War on Terror (or whatever the Obama Adminstration is calling it these days), there is a public perception--completely inaccurate--that the Air Force is largely a bystander in the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaida. Meanwhile, the Army and the Marine Corps are actively engaged, putting them in line for more resources--at the expense of the Air Force.

In other words, the USAF really wants a slogan to show its relevance to the current fight. That's why many of those surveyed (both by the Air Force and AFT) favor something along the lines of "Fly, Fight and Win." That's a pretty succinct summation of the Air Force mission. However, more than a few airmen favor a return to "Aim High," which suggests an organization that sets--and achieves--the ultimate performance standards in air, space and cyber-space.

But there's only one problem with this process. Truly successful and memorable slogans are often rooted in the culture and values of the organization, and the quality of the goods and services that are delivered.

From our perspective, the Air Force is only half-way there. Obviously, the USAF is the preeminent air and space force in the world, and its contributions to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan often go unnoticed. Air Force security forces, EOD technicians and transporters are among the many airmen who are outside the wire every day, performing dangerous missions that are vital to the war effort.

Likewise, the public (and the pundit class) often forget the Air Force's pioneering efforts in fielding and networking unmanned aerial vehicles. Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk operations in the AOR represent more than a pilot and sensor operator, controlling the craft from thousands of miles away. Every mission they fly is supported by at least one USAF Distributed Common Ground Station (DCGS), the intel architecture that allows analysts to monitor events in real-time and provide threat warning to troops on the ground. The other services are now scrambling to duplicate DCGS capabilities that have existed in the Air Force for years. Clearly, the service needs to do a better job of telling its story, a process that has been aided by its recent foray into social media.

Unfortunately, the problem isn't limited to story-telling skills, or needed improvements in the USAF's public affairs organization. Much of the service's heroic and pioneering combat efforts have been overshadowed by scandals and snafus that have haunted the service for almost a decade. Do names like Darlene Druyun, Thomas Fiscus, Jill Metzger and Michael Murphy ring a bell? Or how about the Minot nuclear incident, the KC-X controversy or failed attempts to field a new rescue helicopter?

And the list of shame doesn't end there. What about Thunder Vision, or the simultaneous firing of the Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff for repeated failures in the service's nuclear enterprise? Or, more recently, the courts-martial of a Command Chief Master Sergeant who (allegedly) engaged in orgies with women in his organization and his wife.

We could go on, but you get the idea. Whatever new slogan the service comes up with may be tainted by years of scandal and misconduct. Admittedly, the number of convicts and screw-ups in the ranks is overwhelmingly small, but their misconduct has resonated across the USAF and throughout the U.S. military. Small wonder that many Americans know that Mike Murphy served as a JAG for 20 years (without a law license), but most have never heard of TSgt John Chapman, or SrA Jason Cunningham. That imbalance speaks volumes about the current climate inside the USAF.

If the Air Force wants a new slogan that resonates with the American public (and inside The Beltway), then a little house-cleaning is in order. Stop letting the snakes slither out the door, pensions and benefits intact, and get serious about discipline and core values, once and for all.

Put another way: it's hard to "Aim High" when some senior leaders are setting the bar so low.

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