"History shows that when standards erode, military capabilities and readiness decline," wrote Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass in a message to all Airmen. "We can’t afford to let this happen and still expect to keep pace with the rapid expansion of the Chinese military, Russian aggression, and other emerging global challenges." Mike Tsukamoto/staff
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WORLD: Leadership

July 28, 2023

CMSAF Bass to Airmen: We Must Enforce Standards 

By David Roza

Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass joined the Air Force in the 1990s, the years that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the overwhelming victory in Desert Shield/Desert Storm, the post-Cold War drawdown, the reduction of barriers to combat service by women, and the introduction of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell, the first step allowing open service by LGBTQ troops. 

It was a lot of change in a short period of time, and the resulting tumult and distractions ultimately led to breakdowns in discipline—and safety. Now, nearly 30 years later, Bass wants to head off breakdowns in discipline and the trouble they can yield. In a June 20  letter Airmen, she wrote: 

“We live in extraordinary times and I remain proud of how our Air Force responds to each challenge. Yet, based on my travels and conversations with Airmen of all ranks, I have noticed a common concern regarding standards. History shows that when standards erode, military capabilities and readiness decline. We can’t afford to let this happen and still expect to keep pace with the rapid expansion of the Chinese military, Russian aggression, and other emerging global challenges.”  

Bass went on to urge Airmen to answer the “higher calling” of their service: “What sets us apart from everyone else,” she wrote, “is a relentless adherence to standards. This is what makes us the world’s greatest Air Force.” 

In an exclusive interview with Air & Space Forces Magazine, Bass said the trigger for her message was really the number of questions about discipline—and how and when to correct other Airmen—that kept coming up wherever she went. 

“All healthy organizations, all strong teams, [need to] take a step back and reflect on what is good and what things they can do to continue to get better at their profession and at their trade,” she said in the interview. “There wasn’t one thing that triggered this, it really was more, ‘Hey, we’ve got to always police ourselves up to make sure that we remember that we are part of a profession of arms and that we are holding ourselves to a higher standard than an everyday American.’”

What resonated for Bass was history: Two deadly incidents in 1994 that led to the 1996 publication of USAF’s “Blue Book,” which was revised and republished in 2022. In the first incident, a pair of F-15s mistakenly shot down two Army Black Hawk helicopters, killing 26 Americans after an AWACS crew misidentified the choppers as Iraqi Mi-24 Hinds. Two months later, aircrew lost control of a B-52 while pushing the aircraft beyond its limits during practice for an airshow. 

The two incidents raised fears that the post-drawdown force itself had been pushed beyond its capacity. But they may only have been the beginning of what turned out to be a tumultuous decade. Opposition to new rules encouraging women to fly combat aircraft, mandatory sexual harassment training, political discord over gays in the military, and deployments that involved the U.S. military in Somalia, Haiti, and the Middle East shook the force. 

Then-Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald Fogleman decided the Air Force needed to be shaken up. He applied the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Core Values—Integrity First, Service Before Self, Excellence In All We Do—to the entire service. That’s when he and his personnel chief, Lt. Gen. Billy J. Boles, published the original “Blue Book.”

Bass acknowledged that today’s Air Force is also juggling momentous changes and political upheaval, all while undergoing a massive modernization push, developing new concepts like Agile Combat Employment, and gearing up for a different kind of security posture in which China looms as a peer and pacing military threat. The COVID-19 pandemic, polarizing politics, and rapidly changing societal attitudes, including toward military service, shifted the ground below. An unprecedented recruiting shortfall adds to the challenge. 

At the same time, the Air Force has made accommodations to attract and retain the force of today. Major changes to appearance standards, including looser regulations on hair length, color, and styles; facial hair; tattoos; uniforms; morale patches; handbags; physical fitness testing; and new rules allowing Airmen to keep their hands in their pockets have generated controversy.

One security forces master sergeant, who asked that his name be withheld, told Air & Space Forces Magazine: “The past five years there have been so many changes, it’s hard to keep up.” Worse, he added, “as a senior NCO, trying to keep up with the new standards, if you make the wrong correction now you look like you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Bass said she is well aware of such concerns.

“I have absolutely heard from our Airmen that there are too many changes … and they don’t know what those standards are,” she said. “What I would offer is, we cannot rationalize that ‘there are too many changes and that’s why we can’t uphold standards.’ We, as Airmen, absolutely know what right is and what right looks like, and [if unsure] we can look up what those standards are.”

Another Airman told Air & Space Forces Magazine that he worried he might be accused of being racist or sexist if he tried to enforce particular grooming and appearance standards. Asked about that concern, Bass said the key is to enforce standards fairly and with respect.

“If you’re being fair, just, and true, then good order and discipline is going to prevail,” she said. Airmen should not be afraid to share high expectations and to hold each other accountable. 

“We can’t be afraid to do those things,” Bass stated. “That gets back to being a disciplined force, … [NCOs] just have to be fair and you can do so in a way that is respectful.”

Times are always changing, and generations are always shifting. Bass urged that it’s important to remember that and try to understand the world as younger Airmen see it.

“When I was a young Airman 30 years ago, I remember the folks who’d been in a long time talked about my generation and how we lacked standards,” Bass noted. “So it’s interesting how history repeats itself. … I’m excited for this generation, because this generation is going to help us get after and tackle some of the toughest challenges that we’ve ever had, and we need to make sure that we cultivate the landscape so that they’re able to be the best versions of themselves.”

Bass said her letter was intended to remind Airmen of the rigid discipline required to be the best Air Force in the world, the best possible warfighting organization. “We must set high standards and execute to them because the line between average and elite airpower is razor thin,” she wrote. “In our profession, second-best won’t cut it.”

The objective is to ensure the U.S. Air Force can win wars and what will make that possible is the core values and high standards that helped build that force in the first place, Bass said. But she admitted those issues may not always be at the front of every junior Airman’s mind.

“When I was young Airman Bass, I wasn’t necessarily reflecting on core values, I was just trying to do my job and do it well,” she recalled. “But as leaders, it’s important to understand the broader picture. … This uniform is a reminder to myself that this is a commitment to duty, it’s a profession of arms, and in that we must hold ourselves to higher standards.”

Among the deadly mishaps in 1994 that prompted Fogleman’s focus on values was a deadly friendly fire incident in which two Air Force F-15 pilots mistook two Army Black Hawk helicopters for Iraqi aircraft, and shot them down. The helicopters were carrying international military and diplomatic officials over Iraq; all 26 on board were killed. The Government Accountability Office concluded that discipline problems in the F-15 community at the time played a role in the incident.

That same year, a B-52 pilot flying over Washington state took the bomber beyond its operational limits, losing control of the aircraft, and killing all four officers aboard.

“When leadership fails and a command climate breaks down, tragic things can happen,” Air Force Maj. Tony Kern wrote in a 1995 case study about the crash. “This is the story of failed leadership and a command climate which had degenerated into an unhealthy state of apathy and non-compliance—a state which contributed to the tragic crash.”

Those events played a role in the original rollout of the Air Force Blue Book, which codified the branch’s three core values: Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence In All We Do.

“The small things led to bigger things,” Bass said. “We can’t ever allow ourselves to go back.”

Still, tying the styling of hair to safety seems a stretch to some Airmen. An aircraft armaments master sergeant who spoke with Air & Space Forces Magazine noted that in his experience, different career fields adhere to grooming standards differently.

“What gets me is this assumption that if you have a slip up in grooming standards then you’re going to slip up at work,” said the master sergeant, who asked not to be named publicly. “Correlation doesn’t always equal causation.”

“In our profession, second best won’t cut it. We must hold ourselves and others accountable. When any of us walk by or tolerate something below our standards, we damage our credibility. Our Nation is counting on us to remain the world’s greatest Air Force. Together let’s rise to the challenge of upholding the highest standards. … When something isn’t right … not up to standards, have the moral courage to do something about it.”

For her part, Bass emphasized that standards are about professionalism: taking pride in the service means embracing the rules as they exist and applying them fairly and consistently to the Airmen around you. Bass argued that attitude is key to ensuring the Air Force remains the best in the world.

Unlike those crashes, Bass said her letter had no single triggering event. “We needed just a quick vector check,” she said. “And we needed to put that out there for all Airmen.”

6 Key Insights from the Next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown, testifying during his confirmation to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is expected to be confirmed by the Senate. He would succeed Army Gen. Mark Milley, whose term ends on Sept. 30. Image from C-SPAN video

By Greg Hadley

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on July 11 at his confirmation hearing to become the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff offered extensive statements from lawmakers in between questions to the general. Over the course of two and a half hours, Brown answered questions about topics ranging from the potential sale electromagnetic spectrum to the future of Homestead Air Reserve Base in Florida.

But among his responses common themes emerged, offering new insight into how Brown will approach the Chairman’s role.  

An Operator’s Perspective  

Brown emphasized his operational experience repeatedly—as well as his relative outsider status in the Pentagon, where he has spent comparatively little time for such a high-ranking officer. 

“For the 11 years prior [to becoming Chief of Staff], I served in seven assignments across four combatant commands—EUCOM, AFRICOM, CENTCOM, and INDOPACOM. I’ve held leadership positions focused on our five national security challenges—China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and violent extremists,” said Brown. “So, I arrive before you having spent less time as a general officer in Washington, D.C., and more time with our fielded forces allies and partners, either in conflict or preparing for conflict. Having led warfighters abroad shapes my thinking. As a result, I’m mindful of the security challenges at this consequential time and the need to accelerate to stay ahead of the growing threat.” 

Brown’s experience in Command of Pacific Air Forces, at Air Forces Central, and as Deputy Commander of U.S. Central Command exposed him to allies’ top military leaders, an asset for any Chairman seeking to build international consensus. 

“One of the benefits that I’ve had as having served as a commander of Pacific Air Forces is the number of air chiefs and chiefs of defense and in some cases, ministers of defense that I’ve known personally, had a chance to engage with,” said Brown. “That dialogue to me is hugely important to determine how best we can move forward and break down barriers and identify areas that we can work together on … not only as a military, but also between our nations, as well. And that’s where my focus will be: to continue that dialogue to ensure we can work together and then highlight where the challenges may be and then work with the right entities to be able to move forward to ensure that we are able to win the next war if called upon to do so, but definitely deter or avoid war.” 

Analytical Engineer  

Brown’s studious reputation is that of analytical thinker who studies issues deeply, tendencies that were on full display in his confirmation hearing. 

“I’m an engineer by background, so doing assessments and doing analysis is how I think about things,” Brown told Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) when asked about shifting resources within Europe. “And that’s something we do need to do not just for Europe, but I would say for all of our major security challenges, to continue to reassess.” 

Brown’s analytical approach melded well with that of Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, and his toward analysis helped shaped the Air Force’s modernization program, including divesting older platforms to fund the development of future systems.  

“I’ve often talked about how we have to balance risk over time and look at capability and capacity,” Brown explained. “Because we can’t just try to modernize completely at the risk of today’s operations, and at the same time, we can’t maintain all capability for today’s operations and not have the capabilities [needed for] the threats we see forthcoming. And so between that, as you look at that iron triangle, it’s the balance between those.  

“We can work on emotion, but emotion doesn’t work. It’s really the analysis that we have to go through to be able to determine how we make those tough calls.” 

If confirmed, Brown pledged to foster an environment as Chairman in which “you step away from your own empirical interests and then we do what’s best, not just for your part of the organization, but what’s best for the entire organization.” 

China and the Indo-Pacific 

Brown mentioned China—America’s “pacing challenge,” according to the National Defense Strategy—just once by name throughout his entire testimony.  Yet he had plenty to say about the Indo-Pacific region and offered hints about his views on deterrence and readiness for conflict with the Chinese. 

“You cannot wait until the crisis occurs to be able to deploy capability,” Brown said. “You have to pre-position capability and have that in place. You have to work with allies and partners to have access to locations, so you can put capability into place. And that’s an area that we are focused on not only as an Air Force, but I’d also say as a joint force.” 

Brown highlighted Air Mobility Command’s massive Mobility Guardian exercise, as well as CORONA South, a recent logistics-focused tabletop exercise held in June among senior leaders.  

Russia’s War on Ukraine 

Brown said logistics figures high on the list of lessons from the war in Ukraine. 

“I think the Russians learned if you don’t pay attention to the logistics, it’s hard to win and hard to move forward,” he said. “I think we also learned that the timeline for military operations, particularly in a conflict, sometimes takes longer than we might expect, and that is also a challenge.” 

But Brown also noted how NATO allies came together to support Ukraine with arms and intelligence, the importance of Ukrainians’ intense will to fight, and the enduring lessons about airpower and the need to achieve air superiority, are the war’s key takeaways. 

Industrial Base 

Questions regarding America’s defense industrial base have grown more urgent in recent months, and Brown himself said during the hearing that he believes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has “exposed” cracks in the base as U.S. weapons stockpiles dwindle. To combat that, he urged lawmakers to approve the Pentagon’s request for multiyear procurement buys of certain munitions, saying they are necessary to offer steady demand to contractors. 

“Just based on experience when I was air commander for United States Central Command during the defeat ISIS campaign, and we had some similar conversations back in 2017-ish time frame when North Korea was very active. We did some reviews and did highlight it then,” Brown said of the industrial base’s problems. “Now it’s highlighting even more so. And it’s the aspect of why it’s important for us to not only invest in the platforms but invest in munitions that they have enough stockpile, particularly the advanced munitions that are most effective.” 

The Apolitical Meritocracy 

Brown sought to stay above political debates during his hearing, declaring that he would set a “personal example” of staying apolitical and urging civilian leaders to keep the military out of political fights. But several senators pressed him on Air Force diversity, equity, and inclusion policies, with some lawmakers suggesting the service was engaging in what Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.) called “race-based politics.” 

Brown responded that he believes service members simply want a “fair opportunity to perform” and that they must be qualified for the positions they fill. 

“I’ll just tell you from my own career: When I came in, and flying F-16s, I didn’t want to be the best African American F-16 pilot; I want to be the best F-16 pilot,” Brown said. “I would say the same thing when I went to be an instructor at the weapons school … [and in] every position I’ve had throughout my career. I wanted it because I was the best and qualified. I did not want to be provided a position of promotion based on my background. I wanted it to be based on the quality of my work. And I think that’s the aspect that all of our service members look for: They want a fair opportunity, but they also be rewarded for their performance.”