Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.’s keynote address helped set the tone at the Air Force Association’s 2020 virtual Air, Space & Cyber 2020 Conference on Sept. 14, 2020. Here is a transcript of his speech and the interview with Air Force Magazine Editor-in-Chief Tobias Naegele that followed immediately afterward:
“As the new Chief of Staff of the Air Force, many of you are wondering what I’m thinking about, or where we’re going to head as an Air Force. I’m going to tell you, but I want to put it first in context. You know, I’m a fan of the Marvel Universe, Spiderman in particular, but I’m also, in this time, I want to talk about the Avengers. In the Avengers, in Infinity War, Thanos turned half the world’s population into dust. In Avengers, the Endgame, the screenshot you see right now, the Avengers all come together and now decide they’re going to go out and retrieve the infinity stones, use the quantum realm, and do a time heist to restore balance to the universe. Well, our United States Air Force doesn’t have infinity stones, we can’t use the quantum realm, and we can’t do a time heist. As a matter of fact, we can’t even predict the future. But we can shape it, and shaping the future is what I want to talk about today.
“I’ll tell you, it’s a distinct honor to be your 22nd Chief of Staff of our Air Force. I’m very humbled, in fact, to hear my name and Chief of Staff in the same sentence. I’m still in awe.
“I’d like to thank the Air Force Association for this first-ever virtual conference, to allow us to continue our professional development with our Airmen that are piping in from around our Air Force. I’d like to thank Secretary Barrett for her trust and confidence, and the opportunity to be her teammate. She has no bigger heart for our Airmen and our families. I’d like to thank our vice chief, Gen. Seve Wilson, for being a real champion of innovation and our longest-serving vice chief of staff of our United States Air Force. And to also Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force No. 19, Jo Bass. In selection for the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, I went through a very extensive selection process, I talked to the prior Chief Master Sergeants of the Air Force, we had several boards, we reviewed records, we did a series of interviews. And when it came down to it, Chief Bass had the right credentials, the right strength of character, and the right passion to be Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force for me, and for our Air Force.
“Now, I will tell you, there’s one thing that did not come across in the interview process: She’s a pretty rabid Kansas City Chiefs fan. And, I’m not. You know, it was pretty interesting last Friday morning after the first NFL game, as we were walking through the halls of the Pentagon, you didn’t have to ask who won the game. Chief Bass would tell you. And again, I’m not a Chiefs fan, but I will tell you, I do like their quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, a fellow Texas Tech grad.
“I want to thank the President, the Vice President, the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the Senate for my nomination and my confirmation. I appreciate your trust and confidence. I also want to thank my teammate, the Chief of Space Operations. You know, I first met Gen. Raymond when we were majors at Air Command and Staff College. We’ve had a chance to work together over our careers. It’s interesting that the two of us now are the top uniformed members for our respective services. There’s some things we may agree or disagree on, but the one thing we can agree on: At this age, hair is highly overrated.
“I want to thank industry, and Congress, for all they do for our Airmen, to put capability into their hands. I want to thank our Airmen and families, for all the sacrifice, their dedication, and for what they do. I am extremely proud to work for you, and I owe it to you to provide the quality of service and quality of life that you deserve.
“I want to thank my wife, Sharene. She’s been with me for 31 years, and when she said, ‘I do,’ she joined this Air Force family. We’ve had 20 different moves, and bounced all around our country and the world. I also want to thank our sons, Sean and Ross, who’ve grown up to be two outstanding young men. You know, I recall a dinner we had when I was a one-star, and we were at a fork in the road, determining whether I was going to stick with the Air Force, or retire and go on and do something else. And I asked the boys, ‘Hey Sean and Ross, what do you think? What should I do?’ And they said, ‘Dad, you should keep going.’ And so I did. And today, here I am.
“I also want to thank the former Chiefs of Staff of the Air Force, in particular Gen. Ron Fogleman. Gen. Fogleman took a chance on me and made me his aide-de-camp. Very interesting, because I did not actually volunteer, I didn’t put in a package, I just got notified by my commander when he called me in and said, ‘Hey, you’re being considered to be the aide to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force.’ I’ll be honest with you, I was completely clueless. I had to ask, ‘So what does an aide do?’ And I figured it out pretty quickly, what an aide does, and also I learned a lot about our Air Force. I want to thank Gen. Fogleman for giving me the opportunity.
“I also want to thank some of the other Chiefs of Staff I had the chance to either work for or be mentored by: Gen. [T. Michael] Moseley, Gen. [Norton A.] Schwartz, and Gen. [Mark A.] Welsh. You know, Gen. Welsh, for the past nine months served as my executive coach, preparing me for confirmation and the transition into the job. Most importantly, I want to thank Gen. Dave Goldfein and his wife, Dawn. You know, I first met Dave Goldfein when we were aides together. I’ve had a chance to work with him and serve with him throughout my Air Force career, most notably serving as his deputy when he was commander of [U.S. Air Forces Central Command]. I want to thank Dave and Dawn for their leadership, and for allowing a smooth transition for Sharene and I. And thanks to all of our prior Chief Master Sergeants of the Air Force and Chiefs of Staff of the Air Force for setting the foundation for me as I come into the job. I will tell you, our Air Force has been busy. Even with COVID, there has been no slowdown. So I’d like to share a short video with you, it’ll show you a little bit of where we’ve been, but it will also show you where we’re going.”
“You know, we’re at an inflection point, and we can’t defer change. You probably noticed the video, towards the end, the photos got faster, and faster, and faster. Remember the movie Talladega Nights with Ricky Bobby, just like Ricky Bobby, I want to go fast. And so I’ve laid out my strategic approach, basically my central theme as your Chief of Staff: Accelerate change, or lose.
“You know, the world is changing. We’re in a very dynamic environment, we’re taking various actions in response. And so we’re changing. And we have a window of opportunity, a window of opportunity to change, to control and exploit the air domain to the standard our nation expects and requires of its Air Force. We don’t change, if we fail to adapt, we risk losing. We risk losing in a great power competition, we risk losing in a high-end fight, we risk losing quality Airmen, losing budget dollars, our credibility and aspects of our national security.
“Now I fully realize we won’t do this alone. It will require collaboration with all of our key stakeholders, both internal and external to the Air Force, and for all of us. We need to remove any of the internal impediments that will stop us from moving forward. We are moving out, and moving with a purpose. You know, we have a number of challenges. Some that are familiar, and some that are new. And several factors that are driving us to change. I characterize these as accelerants.
“The national defense strategy, national defense strategy published in January 2018 talks about how we form our priorities across the Department of Defense. That includes our United States Air Force. The stand-up of the Space Force gives us an opportunity to take a look at the ourselves as the Air Force, and how we might change. COVID, as tragic as it may be, it’s actually driven us to do some things we had planned to do for a while, particularly on our information technology systems. This is an opportunity. There’s a racial disparity within our nation and the reviews we’re doing inside of the Air Force, another opportunity to drive change. And I fully expect that there will be pressures on our budget, that too will drive change for our United States Air Force. We have two options. We can admire the problem and talk about how tough it’s going, how hard the decision to be able to make. Or we can take action. I vote for the latter. We must take action. We must accelerate change, or lose. Accelerate change or lose is the why. Today, I want to go into the what.
“But before I do, let me put some things in context. You know, I’ve had a chance to serve as a joint officer throughout my career. My first opportunity was as a major. I will tell you, it wasn’t by choice. I had been serving as the aide for 21 months for Gen. Fogleman. I went to Air Command and Staff College, and my whole master plan was to go back to flying. And I got redirected to go to a joint job at United States Central Command as a major. It wasn’t by choice, partly because I wasn’t gonna fly again for a while, it was exactly four years and 11 months before I got back in the cockpit. That set the stage for me to be a joint officer as a GO. As a general officer, I’ve spent most of my time at the air component, commanding air components, and at the combatant commands, to include being the deputy commander of United States Central Command. Part of that aspect is we use the five paragraph operation order in how we communicate our guidance to our joint leaders. A key aspect of this is, in order to do that, and understand and develop joint leaders, we’ve got to do a little bit of the same inside our Air Force. And so I’m laying out some action orders that are in that format. Now the one thing I did find as we work through those is that typically these op orders would have an end-state. And I often found that our end-states were aspirational and sometimes unachievable. And so, I’ve actually used the term pass-through states. With this infinite game that we’re in, as the environment and threat change, changes, we have to adapt. And so we’re passing through different states and hitting different way points on the journey. And that’s the way I’m approaching this with our action orders. And so my focus is pretty simple. It’s as simple as A, B, C, and D. Airmen, Bureaucracy, Competition and Design Implementation.
“So the first action order is A, Airmen, our most valuable resource. You know, as I came into this job, I purposely selected where I wanted to go on my first couple of trips. I went to Lackland [Air Force Base, Texas] with the Secretary and Chief Bass, then the following week I went to Maxwell: Two locations where we develop our new Airmen, and develop leaders. Our mission is to empower and develop leaders. All Airmen: officer, enlisted, and civilian, we need to recruit, assess, retain, and develop each one of them. We’ve made some progress in our talent management as we develop our Airmen. We established My Vector, we eliminated below-the-zone for our officers. We also set up developmental categories. Eliminated promotion testing for our senior NCOs and raised high-year tenure. We also accelerated our civilian hiring processes. As a matter of fact, I was in a meeting here just a week or so ago, and we’re leading the way for the Department of Defense. Now all these, are they all about right? We will continue to adjust and evaluate and continue to move forward on our talent management processes.
“The key aspect, though, is you need to build leaders. Leaders that have a culture that can build and articulate intent, that feel comfortable enough that they can delegate down to the lowest capable and competent level. And then we have trust throughout all levels of command. Trust so that our Airmen trust our leadership, and trust that our leaders trust their Airmen, that they can delegate down and they can get the job done. We need to empower Airmen with confidence: confidence to lead, confidence to make decisions. When communication is contested, when the guidance is unclear, or the situation is uncertain. How we do that is how we communicate, how we pass information back and forth. You know, I had the chance to work with Gen. [James] Mattis when he was the commander of United States Central Command, and one of the things he talked about instead of command and control, it was command and feedback. He actually even talks about it in his most recent book. That really resonates with me. It’s really the dialogue that happens between different levels of command. Through all times, no matter what the environment’s like, we’ve got to continue that communication so we have that conference, so that we can delegate down.
“You know, when I was the [Combined Force Air Component Commander] at Al Udeid [Air Base, Qatar], I had a British officer working for me, and he used the term ‘proceed until apprehended.’ I think that’s a pretty appropriate approach, you’re not always going to have the right guidance or clear guidance. And so, in some cases, you need to figure out what to do on your own. You need to proceed until apprehended. But that communication ensures we have good dialogue so you’re moving out in the right direction. We need to create the right environment, where we value perspectives from all of our Airmen and the diversity of thought. Key and important is developing and permitting sustainable diversity, inclusion, belonging programs across everything we do for Airmen and families. This cannot be a flash in the pan. It can’t be something that fades away after a couple years. It’s something we’ve got to sustain for the long haul. We must focus on developing Airmen that are ready to lead in future crises, contingencies, and conflicts. We’ve got to make the Air Force an attractive career choice, where all Airmen can see themselves at all levels and all career fields, and that they have the quality of service and the quality of life that they deserve. We have to empower them, and in order to do that we need to address bureaucracy, which takes me to the second of the action orders.
“B. We need to take a different approach, we need to make decisions at the speed of relevance. Those decisions need to be informed by analysis, and they need to be made in a timely manner to outpace our competitor’s decision cycle. Remember John Boyd and the OODA loop? We need to do that at the strategic level. The first step, though, is we need to look ourselves in the mirror and make, clean up our own house, and that starts on the Air Staff. We need to amend our decision processes. We need to make decisions with an enterprise-wide approach versus in silos. I want to make decisions for the good of the entire Air Force, not for just parts of the Air Force. How we do that is we increase collaboration and communication across our staffs. You know, I had the opportunity as a general officer, particularly in my time with United States Central Command, to work with our Joint Special Operations Command. One thing I found is they know how to communicate. They know how to break down those barriers to push information back and forth. When they do their updates to their commanding general. yes, there’s some PowerPoint slides, but at the same time, most of the staff is plugged in, sitting in front of a computer, and they’re on chat. And while the conversation is going on, there’s a sub conversation that’s going on across the staff, to break down barriers, cut bureaucracy, and drive decisions.
“The other key aspect I want to make sure we do is, you know, the challenge I have as a senior officer is, as information comes to me it’s usually filtered. And folks bring this up to you once we actually have consensus, once we’ve got to a point where everybody can agree. We do that, we sub-optimize, maybe cut out some of the options we might have. You know, I often talk about having the meeting after the meeting in the meeting. How often have you gone into a meeting and no one says anything, but as soon as you get in the hallway, now everybody has an opinion? The same thing happens in a video teleconference, and no one says anything during the conference because you’re following protocol, but as soon as the mic drops and we cut the VTC, now everybody has an opinion. We must have the meeting after the meeting in the meeting so we can have some hard conversations. One of the things I’ll do is review our roles and roles and responsibilities between our Headquarters Air Force staff and our majcoms. We do have some overlap. Some of that’s good, but some of it may be redundant. We need to eliminate some of those redundancies. And it might drive some levels of reorganization. And if we do reorg, form must follow function. Any efficiency we gain, we need to turn into an opportunity to repurpose manpower. So we can put, put that manpower against emerging missions, or under-resourced missions. We also need to cut the restrictions to our allies and partners. We can’t make it so hard to actually share information to get the foreign military sales or for interoperability. We’ve got to work on that. We also need to work very closely with industry partners to deliver warfighting capability into the hands of our Airmen faster. Our decision-making process should not impede the potential of our Airmen. They should be able to operate at a sustainable pace and manpower-healthy organization so we can generate the airpower our nation needs. We must get action order A and action order B right so I can better compete, which takes me to the third of the action orders: C, competition.
“You know, the national defense strategy outlined that China and Russia are our great power competitors. And as we look at the national defense strategy, I’m sure it’ll evolve over time. Even with that evolution, China and Russia will still be our great power competitors. For all of us, we need to understand competition. We also need for every one of our Airmen to understand our connection to the mission, and how we contribute to competition. It doesn’t matter if you’re aircrew, medical technician, an intel analyst, or a maintainer. You need to understand your connection to the mission and how it helps competition. If you’re not sure, ask your commander. And I expect our commanders to be able to articulate and share that with their Airmen, how they contribute to competition and to the mission of the United States Air Force. For every single one of us, we need to accelerate our understanding of our competitors. We need to drive competition to our advantage. And we need to understand and exploit the vulnerabilities of our competitors.
“This it will help us to enhance our deterrence credibility and assure our national security. We need to improve our approach, with renewed emphasis on competitive thinking, competitive analysis, and decision processes. And we’ve got to be willing to take some risk. You know, just a couple weeks ago, I had a chance to be at the Doolittle Leadership Center dedication, and that dedication, the son of Dick Cole, Rich Cole was with us. You know, Dick Cole was the last surviving member of the Doolittle Raiders, who passed away, sadly, last year. And Rich had a quote, and it really resonated with me, because after the ceremony, I went to Rich and I said, I really liked your quote, and if you don’t mind, I’m going to use that here in the future. And today I want to share that with you. And Rich said, ‘Leadership without risk is called management.’ We don’t need more managers in the Air Force, we need more leaders. I don’t plan to manage change. I plan to lead change. And by leading change, we’re going to have to take some risks. I’m gonna have to take some risks, as we take that risk, it needs to be measured and informed. And I hope that you’ll come with some of these risk decisions. We need to make these risk decisions and lead change, so we can compete at the right place, at the right time, with the right capability.
“You know, when my boys were much younger and they played soccer, and many of you can relate. You can’t wake up on a Saturday morning, you’re rushing to get to this big soccer complex, it’s got, you know, 20, 30 different fields, hundreds of kids running around. And just as you get there, just before game start, you figure out, shucks, we’re at the wrong field. It frustrates you, it frustrates your kids, their game’s off, they’re not going to compete. The same thing happens in great power competition. If we don’t understand our adversary, we will show up with the wrong capability, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, competing on the wrong field. We’ve got to compete on the right field, and that starts in our accession programs. It starts also in our professional military education. We need to think deeper about our competitors and understand what makes them tick, how they think about warfighting. We’re already down that path. Our major commands are doing this. I was just at Air University, we had a good discussion about what they’re incorporating into our academic programs. All this so we can compete, deter, and win. But also adapt, because things will change. The facts and assumptions will always change, our adversary will change, our competitors will change. You’ve got to be able to be willing to adapt.
“You know, often in our professional military education programs, we talk about Sun Tzu. And one of his quotes is, ‘If you know the enemy, and you know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt.’ We need to take those words to heart. You just can’t study ‘em, we’ve got to live ‘em. We’ve gotta know our enemy, we also need to know ourselves, so we can remove doubt. Which takes me to the last of the action orders, D. Design implementation.
“We stood up the Air Force warfighting integration capability, and we need to continue that future design work. We must accelerate the operational concepts and the force structure that they’re laying out. I fully realize that future budgets will force us to make some difficult force structure decisions. Whatever decisions we make, they need to be affordable, defensible based on analysis, and congressionally supported. We must transition for the force we have today to the force that’s required, that’s focused on China and Russia. Accepting various levels of risk: risk to mission, risk to force, and some risk to our security, all within budget constraints.
“You know, as the PACAF commander, one of the things I would show was a slide that showed the comparison between number of platforms China would have in 2025, the number of platforms the U.S. and our allies and partners in the region would have by 2025. We’re outnumbered. But it’s not about the platforms. It’s about the capabilities. We need you to elevate our thinking, when you start talking about capability, it’s not only the platforms, but it’s the outstanding Airmen we have, it’s the outstanding allies and partners we have, it’s our ability to use that capability. That’s the force multiplier for us. We need to learn from previous modernization efforts and ensure we’re making enterprise, enterprise-wide decisions to provide the best Air Force our taxpayer dollars can buy.
“That’s going to force some hard conversations. We’re going to have to assess those programs that are underperforming, that are no longer affordable, or those that won’t deliver relevant capability for 2030 and beyond. Those are going to be some hard conversations and some very tough decisions. We need to maximize our capabilities so we have a full up round. You can’t have a platform that’s incomplete. You’ve got to have with that platform the manpower, the sensors, the command and control, the weapons, and the sustainment. I think it’s better to have a force of quality than a force of quantity that is missing parts, parts like manpower, sensors, command and control, weapon systems, and sustainment. At the same time, we need to think about how we do our force generation and force presentation to the Joint Force. Our A3 team has been on a sprint, and now under the leadership of [Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations Lt. Gen. Joseph T. Guastella], we’re going to conclude that sprint. Now, I sit down with Gus on Friday to say, when are we going to get this thing done so we can go ahead and deliver? My goal is to get this done by the end of the year. We want to make our force generation and force presentation model easy for us to understand and to articulate inside of our Air Force, [and] easy to understand in our joint force, to ensure we’ve provided the right capabilities, at the right place, at the right time, while we maintain readiness for now and into the future.
“As we do this and we do design implementation, we’re going to have to balance risk. We’re going to have to balance investments across our various mission sets and our various capabilities. We’re going to have to be more proactive than reactive. If you go back to ‘Accelerate change, or lose, on the last page, there’s a quote from Giulio Douhet, and he says, ‘Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the change in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the change occurs.’ We have to be proactive. Not reactive. And so, we’re proactive. We’re already moving out. The air staff already has the action orders. Our first update will be at Corona here in just a couple weeks. I realize that first update won’t be the end-all, be-all. It is a waypoint on the journey. We’re going to iterate. We’re going to adapt. But any fact, no matter how this plays out, I’m going to keep the throttle forward. Remember Ricky Bobby? I wanna go fast, I wanna go fast, I wanna go fast.
“In order to do that, we need to incentivize and recognize innovation. And I will tell you, there’s few better that understand competition and the need for innovation than our longest-serving vice chief of our United States Air Force, Gen. Seve Wilson. So in partnership with the Air Force Association, we’re establishing an award: The Gen. Stephen W. Wilson Advanced Concept Engagement Award. You know, the Air Force has a culture with innovative thought leaders, bold leaders, and sometimes mavericks, like Billy Mitchell and John Boyd. This award is for those thought leaders, willing to drive emerging ideas, not to take no as the final answer. And take cutting-edge technology, put those in the hands of our warfighters faster. This award is designed to incentivize and recognize those that are innovative, bold thought leaders and mavericks.
“In closing, in order to move forward and accelerate change, we’re going to have to collaborate, in constant dialogue with all our key stakeholders, both internal and external to the Air Force. Like the Avengers: Each Avenger has its own superpower. Each of our key stakeholders has a vested interest. We need to come together and use our superpowers for good. We’ve done this before, now we can do it again. If we don’t change today, we lose tomorrow. We must accelerate change now. How do we do that?
- A. Empower and develop Airmen to lead.
- B. Addressing bureaucracy.
- C. Be better prepared to compete.
- And D. Make hard choices with design implementation.
“We can’t predict the future. We can shape it, just like the Avengers. You know, the Avengers, in the End Game, just before parting ways to retrieve the Infinity Stone, Captain America said, ‘We need to get this right. We only have one shot. No do overs.’ For our United States Air Force, we need to get this right. We only have one shot. No do overs. Accelerate change, or lose.”
Tobias Naegele: Well, we’re going to have a chance now to ask Gen. Brown some questions. I hope you’ve used Slido to roll some questions toward us. General, thanks for doing this, and really interesting to get to hear your, your extended take on accelerate change now or lose. First question we’ll take is from an anonymous submitter, it says, ‘Sir, Chief Goldfein truly believed reinvigorating squadrons was key, but the frozen middle these days seems to be O-6 through O-8. How will you address this?’
Gen. Brown: This is why I talk about having the meeting after the meeting in the meeting. I want to figure out where those pockets of resistance are and address what their concerns are. And we gotta be willing to take risks. That’s the challenge: Folks are risk averse. You know, we can’t be innovative and risk averse at the same time. OK? So part of this is is, I’m willing to take those risks and figure out how we do things. Are we going to fail on some of this? Maybe on some of it. But the big part of it is we’ve got to empower our Airmen to do this. And we’ve got outstanding Airmen that are chomping at the bit to go forward, and I think I owe that to them, to be able to do that.”
Naegele: “You talked about trust, and I think trust is a key there, right, because if, if your subordinates trust you, they can feel like they can say something, and if they don’t, they won’t. And vice versa, if you trust your subordinates, you can let them speak. Some people are a little afraid to, to let that happen.”
Brown: “Well, true. But you know, part of this is we’re always worried about some aspect that they may get in trouble. Actually, I want some folks that figure out when best to move forward, and do things that are going to actually do things a little bit differently. That’s why that dialogue is important, to figure out how best to do this. The more you understand about what folks are trying to achieve, the more trust you’ll have. That requires that dialogue back and forth. It also takes time to sit down, you know, take time to sit down and engage with folks. You know, one of the things I’ve done as a senior leader is I would do brown bag lunches with different parts of my staff, just so I could hear from the lower levels, and so I could get it unfiltered. And that’s why I talk about the culture of consensus. By the time I get information, it’s already been baked, and I can’t influence it.”
Naegele: “So, you mentioned a need to create a force where Airmen at all levels can see themselves able to do anything. So do you foresee, perhaps, a future Chief of Staff who’s not been a pilot?
Brown: “I do. I mean, I honestly do. We need to be thinking about that. You start taking a look at what we’re doing with cyber and other aspects of our Air Force that are leading some of the operational aspects of what we’re doing, or information warfare, I mean, those kinds of things we’ve got to be thinking about. Having the right person with the right skill set, and it’s really about leadership as well. When you become a general, you’re a generalist as well, but you have some background, and I think that’s a key aspect.”
Naegele: “So, what do you see as the biggest hurdle to overcome fear of failure, at whatever level, you know, and to really drive that decision making at the lowest levels?”
Brown: “Well, part of it is as we work with all of our stakeholders, because each has an interest, and they all want us to be successful. But if we take so hard to make everything perfect, we never move forward. And so part of this is we all gotta be willing to take risks. It can’t be just me and parts of the United States Air Force. It’s how we work with our combatant commands, how we work with the Department of Defense, how we work with industry for all of us to take a little bit of risk as we move forward, and do things a bit differently.”
Naegele: “This, the whole thing about accelerating change sort of can be taken as, well, what have we been doing, have we’ve been complacent? I don’t think that’s where you’re going. So what does this say about sort of the culture of the Air Force, as, as you’ve seen today and that you’re inheriting?”
Brown: “Well there’s a couple things. Just think about, folks don’t want to change once they’re in their comfort zone. You’ve got to have a forcing function that drives change. And I laid out all these factors, or accelerants. You have all these things that are forcing us to change anyway. And we also know about the National Defense Strategy. The key aspect of this is, to prepare ourselves for 2030, there’s things we’ve got to do now. And I just foresee, if we don’t start doing things a bit faster, we’re going to be behind. And the advantages we have are going to continue to erode. And that’s my concern. You know, I may not succeed on everything I’m trying to push, but it won’t be due to lack of trying.”
Naegele: “So you want to go fast, fast, fast…”
Brown: “Just like Ricky Bobby.”
Naegele: “China and Russia are gaining power and influence by taking actions below the threshold and eliciting a violent response. How do we combat that?”
Brown: “This is part of us understanding our adversaries and understanding our competitors and how they operate, and, you know, how we work together with different aspects of interagency. So we, because the Department of Defense doesn’t have all the authorities to do things. So how do we work with different aspects of the, our government, to identify and then be proactive. The key aspect for us is we’ve got to be thinking ahead of where Russia and China may be going, so we can put things in place to allow us a better chance to compete, versus being reactive after it’s already happened, and then figuring out what we’re going to do, because they’ve already moved on to the next event. We’ve got to stay one step ahead of them.”
Naegele: “Sometimes change is, is held back by outside forces. You want to retire an aging aircraft, but you don’t have the ability. How do you address those kinds of institutional forces that you can’t always take care of on your own?”
Brown: “Well, it’s funny, one of the areas I want to get away from is, we really get focused on platforms. We need to talk about capability. And so whether it’s airlift, our combat air forces, mobility, cyber, all these kind of come together, and each of these platforms contributes to that. And we start talking about individual platforms, we start to do what I call almost like a Jenga puzzle, we start pulling out parts, and then we have an incomplete capability. What I need to do is talk about risk. And we don’t do that very well. So what’s the risk to the Air Force and to the Joint Force when we have incomplete capability? We’ve got to have that dialogue. And if we as a nation are willing to buy that risk, then I’m going to provide my best military advice, just so we understand the risk we’re taking if we don’t change. And that’s a key aspect, I think. We don’t have those conversations all the time. We get into the details of, down into the weeds of the platform, and not talk about the risk and the impact it’s going to have to the nation and our security.”
Naegele: “So you and Gen. Raymond may have agreed that hair is no longer the most important thing in life, but what you still have to do is kind of feel your way in something that’s really totally brand new. Two guys who are Chiefs of their services and one department and ultimately kind of one budget pot, right? So how do you work through that and, and be joint, and be mutually supportive, and still look out for the things that are really your needs and his needs?”
Brown: “Well, you know, Tobias, we’re into the first year of this, and so it is stated tradition, you know, I wasn’t around back in 1947, but I can imagine a little bit of the same, where you’re trying to figure out who does what. And that’s a key aspect that I’ve laid out is, we’ve got to take a look at the roles and missions inside of the Department of the Air Force, because there’s certain things Gen. Raymond’s going to do, certain things that I’m going to do, and certain things we’re going to do together. And I’ll just tell you, I think our staffs are working through it fairly well, but there’s still some areas where there’s some overlap and maybe some redundancies. What I want to make sure is there are no gaps and seams as we go forward. At the same time, I want to make sure I’m providing Gen. Raymond the right support and allow them to stand out as a separate service, while we do things for our United States Air Force as well.”
Naegele: “When you talked about risk, and you had that great Dick Cole quote about, you know, if you’re not, if you’re just, and now I’m going to mess it up. ‘Leadership without risk is management.’ And you said, I’m not going to manage, I’m going to lead risk. How do you really drive that down and get other people below you to understand that, yes, you should take risks but, you know, if you took an unreasonable risk, we’re gonna hold you accountable?”
Brown: “There’s a balance there, and this is why I really like the concept from Gen. Mattis of command and feedback. And so, one of the things I’ve always done as a senior leader and as a commander, I typically when I would send off things to my boss, versus asking for permission or saying, or leaving it hanging I would actually go, here’s what I’m planning on doing. And here’s when I’m planning on moving out. So I don’t have to wait for a response, and if they don’t respond, you know, I give them at least 48 hours, and if they didn’t respond, I was gonna move out. That’s the same kind of approach that I think our Airmen need to take. They need to be thinking about what they’re doing, communicating what their intent is, and then wait a little bit of time, give their supervision a chance to respond, and if they don’t respond, they need to move.”
Naegele: “So, in that same realm you talked about Gen. Mattis, and, and the idea of command and control versus command and feedback. So, JADC2 is, is, you know, that C2 is command and control. How do you work feedback into that?”
Brown: “Well it’s all the data that goes into that. It’s what you’re seeing. And that’s the beauty. We just did the Advanced Battle Management System demo number two. It’s all about the data, and how you break that data, and package that data, and use some of our AI capability to lay out options for a commander. And so, part of that aspect is, how are you using that information back and forth and to get feedback. And so, as a lower-level element sorta doing things, and they’re just providing, here’s what we’re doing. You can just sit back and kinda watch versus trying to direct. That’s the worst thing we can do with all this data is a senior leader trying to micromanage what’s going on. They’ve really got to be thinking about their intent and lay that out, and then trust our Airmen to do their job. Are they going to get it exactly right? Probably not. I say, we’re going to have some ‘aw shucks’ moments here and there. We learn from those, OK? But our Airmen are going to be trying to do the right thing to get the mission done. I expect that’s what they’ll do, and I expect them to do that.”
Naegele: “So, we have a question here, it asks, ‘You mentioned reorgs and harvesting efficiency. Can we also reorganize to increase effectiveness? For example, take out intermediate levels of command. The Space Force in its reorganization, or it’s establishing a new organization, has done that. Is there an opportunity there for the Air Force?”
Brown: “You know, I want to learn from what the Space Force is doing. I think there is an opportunity. The key aspect of this is, you know, when you’re talking about change, how much change do you do, how much, as I say, how much can the market bear? Where, you know, we’re changing so much we’re confusing ourselves and we can’t figure out what’s up and what’s down. The key aspect of this is, if we do any reorganization, we’ve got to make sure it kinda comes in with the joint force, with our combatant commands, and don’t, really do no harm. We can be more efficient. That’s for sure. And there’s an opportunity to cut down different levels of command. That’s something I’m actually interested in looking at. You know, I don’t have all the answers on that right now, but it is something as we look at, you know, our bureaucracy aspect of this is, how might we reorg if we had the opportunity?”
Naegele: “And will you have folks working on, kind of, concepts for that? Do you expect to have plans? Or is that sort of more notional at this stage?”
Brown: “There’s already some discussion inside the Pentagon, even before I came into the chair. We’re building on some of the work that’s already been done, as we take a look at the Air Staff, we look at our major commands, and how we might approach those. And then, additionally, the work that was done in Air Combat Command under Gen. [James M. “Mike”] Holmes, under our wing construct. I want to take a look at all those, and see what is the best way we can do this. At the same time, we’ve got to do it smartly. And my concern there is, again, if we do too much, we’ll be completely disconnected. And so I’ve got to do this in a more methodical way as we go forward.”
Naegele: “Innovation. I mean, it’s like everybody’s talked about innovation for the last few years, and, almost to the point, maybe, of deflating its meaning, but, you know, the idea of accelerating change is innovation. It’s innovating faster. How do we do that in the acquisition system, for example?”
Brown: “Well, there’s two parts. It’s really, again, working with our industry partners. They may drive us to change some of our business models to actually do, like the eT-7. That’s an aspect of change. The other thing I’d offer up, and this really came to me after I went to Lackland and looked at our Basic Military Training and what they had to do for COVID. That’s innovation. I mean, there was really, virtually very little technology involved in that approach. It was Airmen thinking differently about how to execute our Basic Military Training. So innovation’s not just technology, but it’s also how we do things differently inside of our Air Force and cut down some of the inefficiencies of things that we’ve asked the Airmen to do that, you know. As I look at COVID, there may be some things that we’re not doing, I’m not so sure we should go back and do them once we get past, and get a vaccine.”
Naegele: “So, it’s interesting what you said about COVID, because I think that’s kind of the classic outside shift that drives innovation, because everybody has to respond to that forcing function that you talked about earlier.”
Brown: “Right, right. You know, COVID actually drives a wave … you know, I just came from Hawaii and my goal was to learn how to surf. I didn’t do so well, but the goal is to ride the wave of change and accelerate what we’re already doing. And that’s the aspect. We’re already making some changes, whether we want to or not. And so, don’t fight the feeling. I mean, we’ve got to keep moving. And so that’s the way I’m thinking about change, is taking advantage of this window of opportunity that’s already driving change and moving ourselves in a different direction, and we need to accelerate.”
Naegele: “What steps is the Air Force taking now, or planning to pursue, to improve inclusion? You talked before, before you even became Chief, you addressed some of those issues. What do you think needs to happen now, and what is happening right now?”
Brown: “Well, I think the key part is, you know, our Airmen are really talking about this. And you look at what our inspector general, [Lt.] Gen. [Sami D.] Said, and all that information that he’s pulling in, and it’s really telling us a lot about ourselves. And I think the first way you solve a problem is to admit there is a problem. And it may have been buried, not talked about as much, but because of the events with George Floyd and the other aspects across our nation, it’s driving a conversation. Our Airmen feel much more comfortable talking about it. The key aspect is, we just can’t talk. We’ve got to implement some programs. So there are some things that we’ve already done. But this is a long-term journey. We didn’t get here overnight, we’re not going to change overnight. And so part of this is, we have to take a look at some of the aspects of, things [Air Force] Secretary [Barbara M. Barrett] highlighted in her comments, but it’s also the things we can do longer term so it just becomes part of our culture as an Air Force, on how we select and promote our Airmen, how we allow them different opportunities and career fields. And then how we ensure that we have good representation across the force, at all levels and all career fields.”
Naegele: “Suicides continue to be an issue. This is a very stressful time, COVID has been stressful, the political situation has been stressful, the protests have been stressful. What are you doing to try to address that problem?”
Brown: “Well the key part, you know, is under Gen. Goldfein and Chief Wright, we did the tactical pause. I think that was helpful, because each of the wing’s leadership teams had a chance to figure out how best to do this. COVID has made that a bit challenging, because you can’t bring people together like you did in the past, and my concern here is, you know, we’re teleworking, not seeing people as often, we miss that connection. I’ll tell you what I did see when I was there at PACAF, was a real drop in suicide attempts and suicides. And then after we got into about the beginning of the summer, then things started to pick up again. And the key aspect is, how do we provide help, further help with our agencies. I think in some cases, our Airmen, they want to talk to somebody, but they don’t always want to talk to someone right there on their base, or have to go, you know, pull up into the chapel parking lot or over at the clinic to see a mental health provider. And so what I’m looking at is how we do this somewhat anonymously, where you can actually talk to somebody, you know, at a different base. You just want to talk to somebody. The key part is how we engage as leaders at all levels with our Airmen.”
Naegele: “So maybe there are ways to leverage what we’ve learned during COVID with telemental health and that sort of thing.”
Brown: “Exactly. You know, before you couldn’t do mental health via telemedicine. Well, now we are. And so, it’s broken a paradigm where we restrict ourselves in the past, and so we can use this in the future, and expand on that as well. The last thing I’ll say on that, one of the key things I find is, when I look at the trend information, relationship issues are typically one of the, close to the top of what drives some of the challenges for our Airmen. How do we better help our Airmen with relationships? You know, don’t just say to them, ‘Hey, go see the chaplain.’ Are there other ways for us to do this. You know, I don’t have the answers, but these are the kinds of things I’m thinking about.”
Naegele: “I mean, mentorship, right? Mentorship often is focused so much on the work and how you get to the next level in your career, but it could be, ‘Are you taking care of your family?’”
Brown: “I’ll tell you, we, all of us, even at this level, we all have life challenges. We’re an [Exceptional Family Member Program] family, and so I’ve done this throughout my career and understood some of the challenges associated with that. And so the key aspect of this is we need to understand, every one of our Airmen has something going on in their life that’s outside of what they do when they’re in uniform, and we’ve got to be paying attention to that and understand and know our Airmen so we can help them out in their time of need.”
Naegele: “So, interesting question here. Someone poses, ‘Proceed until apprehended seems like a euphemism for operate without guidance. Can you articulate the difference?’ And I think this is an important one for people who could misinterpret what you’re messaging.”
Brown: “Right, and so, proceed until apprehended? You’ve got to have some commander’s intent in there, OK? And so you need to be following intent, and when you think about intent, you need to think about the intent not only from your boss, but also from your boss’s boss, and that’s the way to approach things. It’s incumbent on our leaders to actually understand their vision and their intent and articulate it. You can’t get upset with people in your organization because they didn’t meet your expectations, particularly if they don’t know your expectations. And so it’s incumbent, particularly in a fast-paced environment, that our leadership needs to be thinking about their intent well ahead of, well ahead of need. You know, the example I use is, when I came into the Air Force, we didn’t have email. When I was an aide, I didn’t have a smart phone, I had a flip phone. And so I couldn’t text people. And so when we said we were going to meet someplace at 10:30, we showed up at 10:30. We didn’t wait till the last minute to text, hey, give me five more minutes. We’ve got to move back to what we were doing in the past and be able to lay enough intent out so that when they proceed, they’re in between, really between the lines of intent that’s been laid out by the commander. Will they get it exactly right? Not necessarily, but they’ll be moving in the right direction. And so when I apprehend them, they’re not pulling off, you know, 90 left or 90 right.”
Naegele: “So, Gen. Goldfein was all about JADC2. It was multidomain operations, multidomain operations, and gradually that became JADC2, you just did ABMS. That’s sort of the grand experiment, it’s all about the digits, but it is really about a major shift. How does that fit into the accelerate change? Are we accelerating toward that? Or are we going to accelerate experimentation? What’s its importance?”
Brown: “Well, you look at the demos. You know, instead of doing ABMS and using PowerPoint slides and putting lightning bolts on slides and talking about it, we’re actually going out doing demos. And is everything going perfectly? No. But you learn something. We’re probably learning faster than if we were actually just sitting in a conference room looking at PowerPoint slides and talking about what we’re going to do two years from now. We’re doing it right now. So that’s the key aspect. The other part of this, it’s really about how we move data. And that’s the key aspect. And we already do that outside, you know, outside of the Air Force, outside of the Department of Defense. I mean, just think about, when you’re Googling and searching for something, the next thing you know, the ads show up for the exact thing you were looking for. That’s the kind of concept that we could do inside our Department of Defense. The key aspect that we look at, though, we’ve got to take a look at our mission requirements, we’ve got to look at our information technology systems, and then we need to look at our policies. So for me, it’s kind of a little bit of a triad. And often we don’t have all those same folks sitting in the same room. So they all have, we’re not making enterprise-wide solutions, or decisions. We’re looking at it from each of our perspectives, which is slowing us down. And that’s an area where we’ve got to bring all the right people into the room and have the meeting after the meeting in the meeting.”
Naegele: “And change faster.”
Brown: “Exactly. Exactly.”
Naegele: “Thank you very much sir. Really appreciate it.”
Brown: “Thanks Tobias.”