This post actually originates from a suggestion by a colleague who laments the lack of good leadership in the Air Force. He suggested I read Brigadier General Robin Olds’ letter to an ACSC student who had written to him on the topic back in 1981. General Olds is a celebrated fighter pilot with 16 air to air victories in World War II and Vietnam.[i] He was commander of the 8th Fighter Wing (Wolf Pack) in the Vietnam conflict where he led OPERATION BOLO, intended to surprise the North Vietnamese AF and engage attacking Migs in air to air combat to reduce the threats they posed to the F-105 strike forces. He was promoted to Brigadier General on his completion of command and return to the States.
From 1967 to 73 he served as the Air Force Academy Commandant of Cadets, and his final job in the AF was as Director of Aerospace Safety for the HQ USAF. While there he conducted an inspection tour of AF combat units in Southeast Asia where he warned that if the combat operations over North Vietnam were resumed AF losses would be heavy based on the “systemic lack of interest in air to air combat training for fighter aircrews.”[ii] His report proved prophetic. With the initiation of OPERATION LINEBACKER in 1972 the Air Force aircrews fared far worse than USMC and USN crews and had a miserable 1:1 kill to loss ratio.[iii] He retired in 1973.[iv]
As a part of the 1981 Air Command and Staff Curriculum, Major Terry Schwalier was tasked with completing a research project and writing what would amount to a Masters thesis. As part of his research he wrote several senior officers seeking advice on what qualities went into making a good flight commander? For those not familiar with AF structure a fighter flight commander is generally a Captain put in administrative charge of a number of younger officers. He should be well qualified in his aircraft, and able to lead at least the formation of his/her flight. This is the first "leadership" position for a rated officer in the AF. By all accounts General Olds’ response went well beyond answering the original question, and has been widely circulated among those dissatisfied with today's climate.
30 Nov 1981
Dear Major Schwalier,
Your question, or better request, is provocative, to say the least. I have thought much since receiving your Oct 21 letter, and the more I consider your topic, the more difficult it becomes to frame a reasonable or even useful response. I’ll try to boil down my thoughts, hoping something useful may distill.
First, let me get some negatives in perspective. In my view, current Air Force philosophy and practice have all but eliminated any meaningful role playable by an officer placed in a so-called position of command. Authority has evaporated, sucked up to the rarified heights of “they,” who are somehow felt to exist in the echelons above. For your information, “they” do not exist. Neither is there any “he” fulfilling that role. Authority is expressed through the medium of committee consensus, leadership has become a watered down adherence to the principles of camp counsellorship, with a 90% emphasis on avoiding any action that may in any way be questioned by any one of hundreds of piss ants on the administrative ladder above. In fact, leadership (and I use that term with contempt) has become a process of looking busy as hell while doing nothing, avoiding personal commitment, and above all, making no decision without prior approval.
Historical example: as a 22 year old Major, commanding a squadron in 1945, I was responsible for and empowered to: pay the troops; feed them; house them; train them; clothe them; promote; demote; reward; punish; maintain their personnel files, etc. When I retired as a BG in 1973, I possessed not one of those authorities or responsibilities. Get the drift?
And you ask the importance of a flight commander. I am tempted to say NONE. But that is not true, for in spite of the system, in spite of the executive and administrative castration, a man instinctively looks to a system of military authority in a military situation or system. If that authority is waffled or watered, he still looks to those appointed to the military echelons to do their best under the circumstances. A man (a nation for that matter) wants, demands, leadership. So today’s flight leader/commander leads and commands by example, by appeal to basic instinct, and by light footed avoidance of error, like walking a tightrope. He has responsibility, for sure. But he does not have authority, or freedom of discretion/interpretation. Unfortunately, in some units he really isn’t given much voice. Yet he functions, and if he is successful (perhaps a better word is “effective”) it is greatly to his credit for having done so under the prevailing circumstances.
Another thought. All else to the contrary, two basic demands are faced by the Flight Commander. One is PEACE, the other is WAR. It has been my experience, in the fighter business I hasten to add, that the man who may excel under the one is not necessarily worth a damn under the other. Many examples come to mind. I do not (and did not) condemn one man or the other, rather I accepted the challenge of recognizing the difference and choosing accordingly.
I hope some of this makes sense.
P.S. For your information, there is no such thing as HQ, USAF. The highest echelon is a faceless entity, composed of thousands of diverse individuals loosely arranged by a system of interlocking committees and headed by an individual technically labeled the “Chief of Staff.” Note he is not called the Commander. By law, he cannot be. By nature he is forced to be the consummate bureaucrat, fighting for the all mighty dollar, serving as a buffer between Sec Def / Congress and the people and mission of his service – a demanding, demeaning role playable by very few.[v]
As General Olds points out the role of a squadron commander has changed dramatically from what it was in 1945. The responsibility to actually run all aspects of the squadron has been eliminated as bureaucracy has grown, but for me the singularly most distinctive point is kind of glossed over in the paragraph. He was a 22-year old Major in charge of the lives of his men. He was not, as we have today, a 35-year old Lt Col who has spent the first 16 years of his or her career trying to figure out how to get to this point. When the nation is 100% committed to war, and the Army had grown from its pre-war strength of 180,000 (22,000 in the Air Corp) to its war time strength of over 8.2 million (2.2 million in the US Army Air Force) promotions came fast and went to men who performed. Loss rates during the war kept that flow of commanders moving up as those above them were lost to promotion or combat.
The responsibilities Major Olds had were impressive and probably did much to help shape him as an effective combat leader and perhaps an effective peacetime leader as well, but would they work for today’s Air Force Officer, or even today’s Air Force? If not, what is the problem we have with growing effective leaders?[To be continued]