A Talk With Chief Finch

Dec. 1, 1999

The Air Force’s transition from a Cold War garrison force to the Expeditionary Aerospace Force of the future will entail much more than the structural realignment now under way, the new Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force believes. “We have to change the mind-set and the culture of what we are and what we’re trying to achieve as an Air Force,” said CMSAF Frederick J. “Jim” Finch.

Helping the enlisted men and women of the Air Force make those changes is one of the top goals Finch set for himself as he moved into his job as the service’s top enlisted representative.

Finch also wants to continue the effort to improve pay, benefits, and quality of life for Air Force personnel and hopes to clear away the misinformation that he believes is behind some of the concerns about deteriorating benefits.

Moreover, as the Air Force struggles to attract the high-quality young men and women it needs, Finch hopes to persuade his comrades that “we all have to be recruiters.”

While the service will be “throwing dollars” at the problem by increasing advertising and recruiters, “the bigger message in all of this is that recruiting is everybody’s responsibility, not just those in the recruiting force,” he said.

Finch, 43, joined the Air Force in 1974. In his career, he has had numerous assignments in missile maintenance and several positions in professional military education, including one as the commandant of the Pacific Air Forces Noncommissioned Officers Academy. He also has two assignments as a command chief master sergeant.

After 25 years in the Air Force, the East Hampton, N.Y., native moved into USAF’s top enlisted post on Aug. 2. Finch said the transition was made easier by his previous four years as command chief master sergeant for Air Combat Command, Langley AFB, Va.

Most of the issues affecting Air Force enlisted personnel “don’t vary much from command to command,” he said during an interview in his Pentagon office. The biggest concerns he has heard during his initial trips around the force, Finch said, involve “optempo, pay and compensation issues, and career and training concerns.”

The Great Transition

One of the big challenges that he faces, Finch said, is the one confronting the entire service. “The whole Air Force is in transition to an Expeditionary Aerospace Force concept,” he said.

Although the service has been working through that shift in the 10 years since the Cold War thawed, “we finally have figured out how we can get our arms around this, to get organized, and to structure our Air Force to be able to handle what our nation has asked us to do.”

That restructuring primarily involves formation of 10 Aerospace Expeditionary Forces. Together, these 10 units, another five mobility forces, and two on-call Aerospace Expeditionary Wings will form the basis of the Expeditionary Aerospace Force. The AEFs are composite units that will take turns being “in the box” to handle the kinds of known, rotational deployments, such as Operations Northern and Southern Watch in Southwest Asia, that have driven the operational and personnel tempos almost to the breaking point. The two on-call AEWs will share the responsibility for pop-up contingencies. The first two AEFs of the EAF concept went operational Oct. 1.

While others in the Air Force leadership deal with the organizational transition, Finch is focusing on the mental and cultural changes he believes the new concept requires.

A key part of that, he said, is determining “how we get an NCO in 2010, what that person is expected to do.” The leadership’s responsibility “is not just to take care of today’s NCOs and missions but to make sure we grow NCOs for the future. … If we want to grow E-9s [chief master sergeants] for 2010, we have to start talking to staff sergeants today. We’re doing that.”

The cultural change on the horizon, said Finch, means “we’re going to spend a lot of time away from our families,” and that means “we’ll have to put a lot more attention on how we take care of the families while they [the troops] are deployed. That wasn’t a major concern in the past.”

Finch went on, “We also have to make people understand that this is the norm that we’re going to have for the future. It’s not an anomaly … that’s going to go away in two years.”

To make sure that Air Force people understand that reality, the message will be conveyed “from Day 1,” starting at Basic Military Training at Lackland AFB, Texas, Finch said.

Finch in early October went to Lackland to speak to the first recruits graduating from “Warrior Week,” the intense period of field training recently added to BMT.

“We created Warrior Week … to let people know and have a mind-set when they first come into the Air Force that this is what the Air Force is all about: We deploy,” he said.

See the World

Finch recalled that when he enlisted in 1974, “I expected to deploy a lot. I found that we did a lot of training to do that … but never really went anywhere.” Now, the new training should send a strong message that “people who come into the Air Force will get a chance to deploy, to see a lot of the world,” he said.

In his meetings with the troops in his current job, as at ACC, the issues that seem to come up the most concern optempo, Finch said. “We’ve downsized our force to the point that there are not enough people around to do the things we have to do to meet our daily requirements,” he said. That means people “have to find creative ways to do things. … I think that’s what people refer to when they talk about optempo.”

As far as deployments and being away from home, “we approach that by creating the AEF, by packaging the force,” Finch said.

Pay and benefits have been another top concern, he said. “What it really comes down to, we’re asking people to do things and do they feel that they’re being appreciated,” reported Finch. Convincing the airmen that they are appreciated has been “a difficult sell” recently, he conceded.

Finch said he was “much more optimistic today” after enactment of the Fiscal 2000 defense authorization bill that provides the biggest pay and benefits improvements since the early 1980s.

One of the big improvements in that bill was the repeal of the 1986 Redux plan. That plan cut traditional retirement of 50 percent of base pay at 20 years to only 40 percent of base pay at 20 years. Finch thought the objection of those affected by Redux “wasn’t so much the money” as it was the feeling “that you’re not taking care of me as you’re taking care of somebody else. … We created haves and have-nots” based on whether someone came into the service before or after 1986.

A third major issue has been medical care, particularly the Tricare program, Finch said.

He attributed concerns about Tricare mainly to “the confusion that’s been associated with the regions standing up. … There were some hiccups along the way.”

These concerns “have slowed down as issues were worked out,” said Finch. “While there are fewer ones now, there still are some issues to tackle.” So Tricare will be a concern for a little bit longer, he said.

Housing also is a concern, both for married and single personnel, Finch said. Although the goal is “to provide a fair and equitable compensation for housing,” either through on-base quarters or the variable housing allowance, he said, “we’re not there yet.”

Despite the Pentagon’s efforts, the cost of housing has risen faster than compensation, he said.

The number and quality of on-base housing also are concerns, “because we don’t have enough military construction dollars to fix all the housing shortages that we have, both for families and for single airmen.”

There has been a lot of focus in recent years on taking care of the single airmen, attempting to provide the new 1+1 arrangements in the dormitories, Finch said.

“We’re still working to get everyone into single rooms.”

The military leadership has taken great strides, he said, in educating the Administration and Congress on the importance of pay and benefits. “It’s a major factor in keeping people in.”

Mostly Misinformed

But Finch said he has found that some of the perception among Air Force personnel about declining benefits is “mostly a case where people have been misinformed about what action we’ve actually taken.”

“There have been a number of pay and benefit increases during the last eight to 10 years,” he said. “I’m taking an active role to make sure the force knows that.”

The chief said he has found that some of the feeling that benefits have dropped is because people see “a loss of services within the Air Force” resulting from a shortage of support personnel.

When squadrons deploy, they take not only aircrews, mechanics, and technicians but also support personnel, such as administration and finance clerks, engineers, and security people, he said.

That can result in a reduction in services at the home base, he noted.

The shortage of support personnel also becomes part of the optempo/perstempo problems, Finch said.

Deploying the support personnel “leaves the home base with the same amount of work but fewer people.” That has stressed the support personnel left behind, he said.

The Air Force leadership is trying to address that problem by increasing the numbers of people in some of those overstressed support fields, he said.

Because the Air Force is not likely to get added end strength, those extra support troops will have to come from people whose jobs are contracted out, Finch said.

Headquarters is hoping to eliminate between 5,000 and 7,000 jobs through the competitive outsourcing program and to reallocate those authorized personnel numbers into fields such as engineers and security.

The service also is working to eliminate the shortages in spare parts that led to almost unconscionable levels of cannibalization in some of the flying units, Finch said.

When a decision was made some years ago to reduce spending on spare parts to apply the money toward other problems, “we were expecting to take a little hit on readiness,” he said.

“But what we really found was that spare parts, while you think about it from a readiness standpoint, … is really a quality-of-life issue.”

That is true because, despite the lack of parts, “our people still wanted to get the job done.” That forced them to “steal the parts from one aircraft to fix another,” doubling their workload.

“You can do that for a short while. You can’t do it long,” Finch said. “So we’re working on that. The funding levels are up,” he said.

Finch said he no longer finds concerns in the enlisted force that the leadership either does not know or does not care about their problems.

“There was a time when that would come out,” when people were saying they were working very hard but that information was not getting to Congress, he said. Finch attributed that problem to “the way we were getting information up to the senior leadership.”

“There was a time, ultimately, that people questioned whether Congress and the senior leaders were getting the right message,” he said. “I don’t see that any more.”

Finch said he has a “great relationship” with Gen. Michael E. Ryan, the Air Force Chief of Staff. “I can go see him anytime I need to see him and have easy access even when I’m not in town,” he said.

Finch said he has found that when he brings concerns to Ryan and Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters, they “are very much up on most issues. It’s hard to surprise them.”

But Finch said he considers his main job “is to be able to provide both General Ryan and Secretary Peters with basically unfiltered information from the troops.”

“While individuals may be a little reluctant to talk to a general, they have no problem talking to a chief,” he said.

Otto Kreisher is a Washington, D.C.-based military affairs reporter and regular contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “Hawley’s Warning,” appeared in the July 1999 issue.