Reflecting on Air Force Leadership & Diversity – Three Years Later

The Air Force must become more diverse in its highest leadership positions to overcome the challenges of modern warfare.

Estimated Reading Time: 11 minutes

By: Jerry “Marvin” Gay

“Broad education and experience and a diversity of views at the senior executive level are necessary to cultivate visionary leaders.”

Col Mike Worden (1998)

In late 2015, I penned an article entitled “Reflecting on Leadership and Diversity.” As one might expect, there was considerable feedback to the op-ed, both positive and negative. My favorite response remains one that some might consider negative. It was a candid, albeit pugnacious assessment by an Air Force Lieutenant General that my arguments advocating for diversity of thought were “petty and sophomoric.” In the 2015 article, I reviewed the academic writings of Col Mike Worden and Maj Bruce Danskine whose military treatises offer valuable insights on the evolution of Air Force leadership and diversity. Moreover, following recent Secretary of the Air Force (SECAF) and Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF) speeches and initiatives promoting diversity, this article will expand on some of my thoughts from 2015 in an effort to continue the discussion on this important topic.

Here is the uncomfortable truth: The Air Force has a very poor track record at cultivating diversity, especially within the officer corps. The failure to engender diversity via recruiting, training, professional development, or otherwise results in a USAF unable to most effectively leverage our talented personnel and generate a sufficiently diverse pool of senior leaders. Compounding this struggle is the fact that diversity tends to be a topic often devoid of honesty and candor, and chock full of denial and defensiveness. Renewed attention and top-down driven efforts are all positive signs; however, only time will tell if we have the moral courage to cast aside a professional development and promotion framework systemically inequitable to particular demographics.

“The mission of the United States Air Force is to fly, fight and win … in air, space and cyberspace.

To achieve that mission, the Air Force has a vision of Global Vigilance, Reach and Power. That vision orbits around three core competencies: developing Airmen, technology to war fighting and integrating operations.”

It has been 17 years since then Maj “Moose” Danskine published his SAASS thesis, “Fall of the Fighter General: The Future of USAF Leadership.” Danskine’s title is a play on Col Mike Worden’s book, “Rise of the Fighter Generals: The Problem of Air Force Leadership.” In his writings, Worden stipulates, “Broad education and experience and a diversity of views at the senior executive level are necessary to cultivate visionary leaders.” Worden later adds, “In today’s time of geostrategic change… institutions that maintain broad, pluralistic, and pragmatic perspectives can better recognize and adjust to the new paradigm or realities.” Although referring to the Cold War period, Worden’s judgments remain relevant for today’s force.

Both Worden and Danskine provide unique and valuable perspectives from two different eras. Based on historical trends, Worden seeks to answer fundamental questions about how over time USAF leadership transitioned from one demographic (bomber pilots) to another (fighter pilots). Conversely, Danskine wants to understand how the USAF develops officers into leaders, specifically honing in on the manner in which individuals from specific tribes are selected for executive-level leadership roles. Throughout his research, Danskine challenges the organizational status quo by suggesting that in the future, the USAF fighter pilot tribe may not retain a monopoly on the preponderance of our senior most leadership positions. While Danskine concludes that institutionally perpetuated tribal bias will persist, he also offers a more optimistic assessment that in the future the Air Force will eventually implement a more equitable and effective system at achieving diversity. Both Worden and Danskine agree that our nation is best served by an Air Force led by a professionally diverse senior leadership cadre. Meanwhile, the Air Force retains a professional development model that consistently grooms and promotes a disproportionate number of its senior-most Air Force leaders from a proportionally small pool of white male pilots, most often from the fighter pilot tribe. This tribal bias model, while deeply entrenched in the Air Force’s identity and culture, is outdated and misaligned with the USAF’s core values, core competencies, and overarching mission.

OTH, Emerging Security Environment, multi-domain operations

Does the fact that a USAF senior leadership cadre with disproportionate representation from a particular race, gender, or tribe matter? After all, the Air Force goes to great lengths to select the most talented pilots the US has to offer. On this topic, I believe Danskine provides a compelling argument for why not having a more diverse force and senior leadership cadre matters:

“This group mindthink of a single dominant tribe can have serious repercussions for the service. It can lead to skewed doctrine: the Vietnam War is often portrayed as a war the Air Force was not prepared to fight because its doctrine was focused on strategic bombing and nuclear deterrence. Similarly, today’s USAF doctrine may be skewed to tactical aviation, at the expense of space or information operations. Senior leadership has also lost budget battles, due to differing budget priorities between the Air Force and its civilian leaders. The cancellation of the B-70 bomber program in the early 1960s in favor of intercontinental missiles, much to the disappointment of USAF leadership, may portend a similar situation with the F-22 and Joint Strike Fighter programs vis-a-vis space systems and UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] development. Even during force employment, target lists for air campaigns may be skewed toward achieving “air superiority” when this may not always be a priority mission if it is at the expense of maintaining space or information superiority. Discordant, possibly “heretical,” ideas are not cultivated. Tribes out of favor are taken over by representatives of the dominant tribe. The direction of these tribes may be led by senior leaders who do not share the communal vision of that tribe. It becomes a struggle: do the senior leaders change the culture of the tribe, or does the tribe eventually produce its own senior leadership to represent its own worldview? Unbalanced tribal dominance thus breeds discontent among the remaining tribes; such self-serving elitism sows the seeds of discontent among those whose contributions to mission have been denigrated and who have been excluded from any hope of leadership.”

“In tomorrow’s air and space community, combat aviators will increasingly find themselves sharing the operator spotlight with UAV pilots, space controllers, and information warriors…”

Since 2001, when Danskine’s thesis was published, there have been a number of papers, articles, and studies published that are focused on diversity in the Air Force. RAND’s thorough 2014 study, “Improving Demographic Diversity in the U.S. Air Force Officer Corps,” provides valuable analytical data that advances the discussion on gender and race/ethnicity vis-à-vis professional opportunity, development throughout a career, and the USAF’s promotion system. Likewise, Col Suzanne Streeter’s exceptional 2013 Air War College paper titled “Air Force and Diversity: The Awkward Embrace” (later translated into an ASPJ article) offers practical recommendations for how we might begin to address diversity shortfalls. Col Streeter highlights diversity imbalances such as the fact that 85% of all Air Force general officers are white males (according to a study produced by the Military Leadership Diversity Commission). She also points out that females make up 20% and minorities make up 24%-28% of the Air Force.

Danskine also observed that “eight of twelve USAF four-star generals are pilots with a background in the fighter community. Almost half, over 46 percent, of all senior leadership are fighter pilots. Five of eight commanders of the major commands are fighter pilots. And yet the fighter pilot community makes up only 5.3 percent of the entire officer corps.” The most recent 2018 numbers posted online by the Air Force Personnel Center show that pilots make up 4% of the total Air Force and approximately 20% of the Air Force officer corps. Additionally, there are currently twelve 4-star Generals in the Air Force, of which five are from the fighter pilot community and only one is a person of color while two are female. Danskine’s paper, the RAND study, Col Streeter’s research, and other works devoted to Air Force diversity reaffirm what we already know. The Air Force has a diversity problem. Furthermore, in 2018, it is inconceivable to think that the USAF’s policies and processes for accession, promotion, professional development, and general officer hiring are not contributing factors to the issue. These realities suggest a military organization ineffectively identifying, grooming, promoting, or providing opportunity for some of its most talented non-white, non-male, and non-fighter pilot Airmen.

OTH, Emerging Security Environment, multi-domain operations

In his conclusion, Danskine shares an observation from Benjamin’s Lambeth’s book The Transformation of Air Power. Lambeth wrote, “In tomorrow’s air and space community, combat aviators will increasingly find themselves sharing the operator spotlight with UAV pilots, space controllers, and information warriors, all of whom will be bona fide trigger pullers with a common operational-level responsibility and outlook.” Danskine adds, “For an organization to be prepared to adapt to a changing environment, it would be preferable to have tribal balance, not dominance, be the norm.” Danskine reached the same conclusion as so much other research before and after him: To maximize diversity, it must first become a priority. In full agreement, Col Streeter stipulates, “Senior leadership advocacy is needed over many years, to ensure the right resources, policies, programs and culture are in place to build the diverse Air Force necessary to tackle increasingly complex mission sets.”

“The Air Force bases its core competencies and distinctive capabilities on a shared commitment to three values: Integrity first, Service before self, and Excellence in all we do.”

During the writing of this article, I reviewed the names of all former Chiefs of Staff of the Air Force. While examining their distinguished careers, I was reminded that there has never been a female Airman (or person of color) who has served as the USAF’s senior most uniformed officer. As a proud Airman and an even prouder father, I am dismayed by the idea that my three daughters cannot aspire to such a lofty and honorable position as CSAF simply because of their gender. Similarly, as I reviewed all of the distinguished Secretaries of the Air Force, it occurred to me that there has never been a person of color to hold the position of SECAF. I am equally disheartened to think my two beautiful nieces of mixed race can never fill that role… unless there is change and diversity truly becomes an Air Force, DoD, and national security imperative.

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So, to that I ask… Are our senior leaders sufficiently diversified to most effectively manage such an increasingly complex Air Force portfolio and maximize the potential of our people? Do we have the right mixture of senior leaders to make the best strategic, doctrinal, budgetary, personnel, or other vital decisions critical to moving the disparate Air Force capabilities and mission sets in the right direction? Are we well postured for an uncertain and complex future that will rely more than ever on Airpower and Air Force ISR, C2, Cyber, Space, and Special Operations? And finally, have Air Force leaders crafted and implemented policies that promote and even demand full-spectrum diversity in order to achieve greater innovation, increased organizational effectiveness, and heightened operational lethality? These are questions that must be contemplated and tackled as an institution. As an ever-changing Air Force that is called on for such critical missions as ISR, C2, Cyber, Space, Special Operations, and Mobility, we must go to great lengths to ensure our service has the right mix of senior leaders at the helm, leading our service, and advising our policy makers. We need our very best, irrespective of race or gender, serving in our most critical roles.

The United States Air Force must adapt. To achieve diversity and find tribal balance, leaders must deviate from historical norms that run counter to our service’s values and our nation’s interests. If we achieve institutional diversity across our great organization, the Air Force will become a stronger, more innovative service. We cannot afford to self-limit in these times that call for innovative, original thought and bold leadership. And, maybe one day, a proud father will see his daughter become the first female CSAF. Or, a gratified mother will witness her son become the first person of color appointed SECAF. In 2018, every child should be afforded an opportunity to achieve even the loftiest of goals and aspirations irrespective of their race, ethnicity, gender, or background-even CSAF or SECAF. Every child, just like every Airman, should be unencumbered by antiquated policies, practices, and mindsets to aim high! Then and only then will we most effectively leverage the talented women and men of the USAF. Furthermore, only then will we establish the conditions to remain the dominant, most lethal air force the world has ever known far into the future.

Major Jerry Gay is an active duty U.S. Air Force officer most recently assigned to the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). He holds an MBA from George Mason University School of Business, a Master of Arts in Strategic Intelligence from American Military University, and a Bachelor of Arts with dual concentrations in Asian Studies and Judaic Studies from the University of Tennessee. Maj Gay is a USAF Weapons School graduate with over 25 years of distinguished military service. A former ISR Tactical Controller (ITC), Airborne Cryptologic Linguist, and Airborne Intelligence Officer (AIO) with over 2,700 flight hours and 1,000 combat hours, Jerry has controlled and served as aircrew onboard a variety of Air Force and special operations intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the US Government.

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