Dugan’s “Heavy Equipment Operators”

Feb. 1, 2012

“Roles and Missions”

Gen. Michael J. Dugan, USAF (Ret.)

Address to Air Warfare Symposium

Orlando, FL

Feb. 5, 1999


Gen. Michael J. Dugan had been USAF Chief of Staff for 79 days when, on Sept. 17, 1990, he was dismissed. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney had found fault with some of Dugan’s public remarks about the possible course of war with Iraq. Dugan mostly withdrew from Air Force affairs, but years later, he gave a much-quoted speech, warning about the danger to the Air Force of a growing “heavy equipment operator” mentality, in which airmen identified mostly with hardware rather than with concepts of operations and national service. The speech only served to underscore anew how much the Air Force lost when Dugan was fired.

I’ve long believed that airpower, space power, and now aerospace power are more about thinking and about ideas than they are about technology or hardware or systems or platforms or programs. Aerospace power is a state of mind. …

Over the years when I would meet people, particularly in a civilian setting, one of the early questions that I’d get [was], “And what do you do?”

If I happened to meet an officer with experience in the United States Army, invariably the answer would get down to, “I served my country in the Army,” and sometimes, “and I’ve commanded a battalion,” or a “company in combat.”

And if I happened to run into a naval officer and asked the same questions, I’d get a similar answer, and it would get down to “served my country,” sometimes at sea, sometimes ashore.

If I happened to ask an individual who’d been a Marine, … I got a much more extensive answer, but it always included the idea about service to country and probably service to the corps.

If I happened to ask a member of the United States Air Force, particularly an individual whom we call an operator, the reply I got turned early to hardware: “I’m a C-141 copilot.” … “I’m an F-16C Block 42B, X, Q officer,” “I’m a launch control officer.”

Now the point of this story is many people in leadership—and in senior leadership tracks for the aerospace forces of this nation—think of themselves—thought of themselves in my time—in relationship to their equipment. They thought of themselves, in many cases, as heavy equipment operators, and it just irritated the hell out of them when I told them that.

They had an equipment orientation, rather than a national or a service or an institutional orientation. Now they were very, very good at what they did—competent, professional, reliable, courageous. And I continue to be thrilled to be in the company of valiant men and women of the United States Air Force, heavy equipment operators or others, who regularly accept the risks and rigors of service life. And global engagement operations will be well-managed and well-effected by these men and women.

They are very good at what they do, very good at the here and now, at exploiting the capability inherent in the tools and equipment at their disposal.

Their linkages to the larger whole, to the longer term, however, were frequently invisible, and sometimes they were invisible to heavy equipment operators.

Even heavy equipment operators benefit from the vision and the coherence and the integration provided by a skilled architect, and one of the failures of my brief administration and one of the opportunities I never got to work on—but meant to—was an effort to shape and reshape the way air and space men and women view themselves, and then, of course, to grow a few more skilled architects.

This is a cultural issue. It affects the whole institution, and over a long period of time it will diminish the capacity of the institution to think about and to prepare for the longer term future.

In some regards the Air Force did address this situation. It had a plan and a program and a place to do longer range and deeper thinking about air and space power. In some regards the Air Force functionalized its responsibility for forward thinking. It organized around the inclinations of heavy equipment operators. Of course, the organization may have contributed, however, to the larger problem. …

One of the significant changes during the 1990s has been the apparent decline in the Air Force institutional structure for thinking about the future of air and space power, for thinking about vital aerospace contributions to the nation as a whole.

Our ability 10 years ago, by the way, was not perfect, but it was visible and it was vigorous. In my view, the impact of this change is apparent, but that’s another whole speech, and I’m not going to cover it here today. …

I think that aerospace power is more about thinking and ideas than about technology or hardware or systems or platforms. I do believe the golden age of airpower and space power has not yet arrived, and the potential for the future is virtually unlimited. I believe that the heavy equipment operator syndrome can and must be converted into a spirit of service.