The Organization and its Priority
Organizational Behavior is the study of how both group and individual performance and activity with an organization. Obviously there are at least two perspectives of this study. The first is to view the organization from an external aspect, the other is to study the organization’s internal workings and structure.
If we look at the Air Force, the youngest of services, we see a rather unique organization within the Defense bureaucracy. It came to life as an evolution of the technology that created it. Although the use of airships to create “a high ground” to observe the enemy can be traced back to the Civil War, it was not until the Wright Brothers created their Flyer that the potential for true military application was possible. Even then the US Army and the Navy were not the first to recognize the potential.
Prior to the second world war the US Army Air Corp made up about 12% of the Army’s total strength. There were strategic thinkers, a few zealots, and a bunch of young officers they would mentor. Their principle battles were with the civilian and senior Army leadership to show how air power could serve as a strategic weapon and decide the outcome of conflict without putting vast numbers of soldiers at risk. Their most significant goal of the 1930’s was to build a bomber capable of reaching deep into an enemy’s homeland, inflicting definitive damage and returning home. They believed these bombers would be capable of defending themselves, protecting their crews, and overcoming whatever defenses the enemy put before them.
What we discovered in the war was regardless of how many guns they had the bombers where vulnerable to the air defenses and needed protection from escorting aircraft to help fight off the attacking fighters. If you have ever seen a flock of small birds driving off a hawk, then you can picture the way the bomber-interceptor conflict works.
Following the war, proponents for the US Army Air Forces commissioned a study of the affects of strategic bombing.[i] This comprehensive study found, not surprisingly, that the role of the Air Force was “decisive” in determining the final outcome of the war. This study would be one of the principle tools used by advocates for a separate Air Force as justification for its creation.
So what we see from the very origin of the Air Force was an organizational belief that technology was the foundation of the service. The employment of the most modern technology would allow the Air Force to deter a conflict or win it decisively. This is a nice fit for a civilian leadership that is always looking for a way to reduce defense costs. The purchase of hardware is manageable and measurable by the bean counters. The costs of the personnel are not quite as neat and simple. The escalating costs of pay and benefits have long term implications that last long after the the personnel leave. I believe this is one of the real reasons the Veterans Administration was created. To take the burden of long-term responsibility and pigeon hole it into a location where the Secretary of Defense didn’t have to worry so much about it.
This belief in the inherent quality of technology is a two-edged sword. On the one hand it appeals to those who believe advanced technology holds the keys to the future, on the other it argues against the value of the humans who are the life-blood of any organization.
From its formation the Air Force has wrestled with the issue of funding as it fought for legitimacy. We need only look back at the battles with the US Navy over funding of the B-36 Peacemaker to recognize the cost of the technology and its importance to the long-term success and survival of the service. Those battles exist today, just as they existed in the post WW II era. Each new technology comes with a cost that says something else will not be funded. Today we look at F-35 vs F-16/A-10 and a new high performance pilot trainer, or B-21 vs B-52/B-1/B-2. The cost of each new generation of technology is no longer an incremental increase but almost an order of magnitude higher. The current bill payers for these new “golden BB’s” is manpower, for that is the only other source left to draw from.
Over the course of its history the US Army has come to define the organizations that make up the Army as one of three types. There are of course, the combat arms, those forces that will actually engage the enemy in combat these are the Infantry, Armor, Artillery (field and air defense), Aviation, Combat Engineers, and Special Forces (Rangers and SF). Recently Cyber Forces have are being viewed by some as part of the Combat Arms. Then there are the Combat Support forces, those organizations and personnel who directly support the combat arms. These include the Chemical Corps, Corp of Engineers, Military Intelligence, Military Police, Signal and some components of Aviation (e.g. battlefield reconnaissance).[ii] Finally, everything else falls into Combat Service Support. These would be the personnel troops, finance, acquisition, transportation, and food services.
I point out the Army constructs because they are relevant to the challenging nature of the Air Force and the demands of internal organization and leadership. Since its creation the combat forces of the Air Force were those fighter, bomber, and eventually missile crews who would be expected to directly engage the enemy. These were a relatively small portion of the total service. The dilemma for senior officers, drawn predominately from the bomber, or then the fighter force, was how to make an inclusive organization where everyone felt part of the primary mission? A reflection of the nature of this reality is seen in the relationship between AF Officers and NCO/Airman, especially when compared to other services. There has been, since I joined in 1974 a more relaxed relationship in the AF between its leaders and its junior members. I wondered about this for a long time, and have come to the conclusion that it was because it was principally the officers that went into harms way and they were not ordering their man to the sounds of the cannon. In the Army a 2nd Lieutenant could be ordered to send his platoon of 15-30 men into harms way. He would lead them, but he or she knows the brunt of the battle will be borne by them. This holds true for all levels up to the Corp Commander. [Note: This current war has changed things for the AF, but our leadership has not fully grasped that change. Today our warriors are not the pilots or aircrew flying well above the battlefield, but they are the junior officers and enlisted of the combat controller, tactical air control party, pararescue and combat weather career fields who are embedded with the Army units on the ground. If you doubt this -- look at the Air Force Crosses and Silver Stars awarded since 2001.]
A second point, as noted above from the time an Army officer enters the service he or she is trained to deal with people. Those who are effective in this role are then trained to do staff work, but always they come back to dealing with people. In the Navy, officers are trained in their skill set but even the flying junior officers are assigned personnel to lead, manage, direct and discipline. Unlike those other services, the rated officers of the Air Force are not routinely assigned jobs that require the leadership, management or direction of junior personnel, rather they will work within their squadron as glorified administrative assistants to the commander. For almost all rated officers the first opportunity to actually be responsible for the lives and welfare of their personnel is as a 38-year-old Lieutenant Colonel squadron commander (something General Olds did as a 22 year old Major).
Next, like all organizations the AF struggles to find the best management practices to improve its operational efficiency. Unfortunately for the the AF this means that every new Secretary or Chief of Staff that comes in finds a need to either tweak or completely revamp the management style. In the forty plus years I’ve been associated with the organization I’ve seen us change management philosophies about every 8 years. Usually these changes are caused by some new management fad that is sweeping industry and is introduced by the civilian leadership as a one size fits all solution to the perceived ills of the organization. Perhaps my favorite example is at the conclusion of Desert Storm, where the down-sizing Air Force had just demonstrated the actual strategic benefits of its cold war force we implemented a version of Total Quality Management, a system to improve production of items by empowering the workers on the manufacturing line to implement continuous improvement to reduce manufacturing errors. In the civil sector you heard such things as “Quality is Job 1” and “Zero Defect.” I am not sure the Air Force ever came to grips with how to measure sortie effectiveness to avoid pilot error and loss of an aircraft, or avoid a mistake on a travel voucher, but we did have classes and instruction that most of the higher level leaders never embraced. When this routinely occurs even the lowest A1C recognizes this as a lip service effort and leadership credibility goes out the window. At that point leadership within the organization becomes little more than cheerleaders for the latest jingle.
Finally, what General Olds' notes as his authority as a 22-year-old Major was not strictly authority so much as responsibility. The authority rested in levels above him, just as it did when he was a General. The responsibility to do all the things he did as a Major shifted because others didn’t want to do them and the AF created organizations ostensibly so the Squadron Commander’s could focus on accomplishing the primary mission of the unit. He never captures the real issue: he was a major at the same age today’s officers are second lieutenants. He led men into combat who were peers and he was one of them, he learned to lead because he and his flight commanders were all trying to hack the mission, survive, and bring their friends home. They were not trying to reach the next grade or worry about the responsibilities of pay, housing, and chow. Today’s flying squadron commanders are not peers with their most proficient aircrew. They are, in the best cases, former great pilots, navigators/CSOs, and aircrew who have been recognized and promoted for their abilities, or they are, in many cases, marginal aircrew who have demonstrated good staff skills and found senior mentors who will pull them along.
That will be the focus of the next part.