Tech. Sgt. Elliott Wilkins and Senior Airman Quinn Hansen of the 116th Air Control Wing take cover after a simulated attack during an operational readiness inspection Sept. 7 at Robins Air Force Base, Ga. (Master Sgt. Roger Parsons / Air Force)
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Airmen call it "painting the grass green."
Col. Robert Hyde, the Air Force director of inspections, doubts there is much of that going on these days at least literally. But units have, at times, actually painted the grass in preparation for operational readiness inspections, Hyde said.
These days, the phrase is more of a metaphor for the inane drudgery that can accompany ORIs, the process by which the service measures how prepared a wing or unit is for war. Airmen can prepare for up to a year for what Hyde describes as an invasion by as many as 100 people from a major command's inspector general's office "who tell them how they think they are doing."
Three years ago, in the aftermath of a cross-country flight by a B-52 laden with nuclear weapons, some commands ramped up the frequency and difficulty of ORIs. More unsatisfactory grades the lowest rating were handed out in 2009 than in a decade.
"These external inspection teams, frankly, are not the best way for leadership to know how we're doing," Hyde said.
The service is testing a new inspection system at U.S. Air Forces in Europe, one Hyde said will provide a wider, more accurate look at a wing's performance a photo album rather than a snapshot.
"It allows people to stop spending time preparing for inspections and to focus more on mission accomplishment," said Lt. Col. Lisa Craig, a major command liaison. "It gives the wing the opportunity to show off their stuff and go back to work and do their job not to constantly be in inspection mode."
The new system does that in two parts: a wing commander inspection program and an external assessment by the major command's inspector general team every two years.
"The current system … requires significant manpower and money to take all of these external inspection teams to wings all around the Air Force," Hyde said.
He compared it to a major corporation such as Apple bringing in an outsider to measure the quality of its work long after that work has been completed.
"If you wait until the end of the line, it's really expensive to fix it, and it's also really frustrating for the workers who thought they were doing a good job but were actually working on a faulty part," Hyde said.
Under the new system, the wing commander, with the aid of the wing IG and existing experts, will inspect subordinate units and report results to the major command. He will document what the wing does well and where it needs help, all of which will be entered into a new database called the management internal control toolset, MICT for short, Hyde said.
"The wing commander inspects as they go. That wing is not driven by all these external inspectors invading the calendar and the wing and making them show something other than what the wing commander needs to be focused on," Hyde said.
The database allows a commander to track the status of his wing, to identify weaknesses and divert resources, if necessary.
Major command IGs can also use the system to conduct no-notice inspections.
"We have 60,000 compliance requirements rules we need to comply with," Hyde said. "The external IG will randomly sample" MICT data to ensure wings are on task.
MAJCOM inspectors general will make a "capstone visit" to wings every two years.
"IGs down at the wing level really are the ones who should be inspecting units. Major commands should be coming in and spot-checking to make sure the wing is doing its job," she said.
The teams will be far smaller than traditional ORIs and will spend about a week at the wing.
"Mostly, they listen to airmen … just hearing from them," Hyde said. "It's something our IG system got away from. In 1927, the IG system did a lot of what I'm talking about, a lot of listening to airmen. We're getting back to that."
At USAFE, the major command IG inspection gauges more than compliance and readiness the main focus of the old system.
"We've realized that was inadequate," Hyde said. "We needed to be looking at much more: Is this unit properly resourced with manning, funding, equipment, facilities and guidance? Are they good stewards of all these resources? What's the leadership like in this unit? What is the leadership climate? Is it a disciplined unit? Do airmen enjoy a satisfactory quality of life in this unit? Is the commander aware of what's important to the unit? … Do supervisors appear to be considerate of your time?"
Every airman and airman's spouse will fill out a survey. At USAFE, "we've gotten lots of feedback on the survey about the survey. [Airmen] love [that] they are asking these kinds of questions," Hyde said. "We may find a wing commander gets great marks. Somewhere down the line, we might hear a group commander or a squadron chief is not a good steward. The fact is we do need to worry about it. They are an all-voluntary force, and they are humans, and we want to value them."
Hyde described the changes as a culture shift, one that will ideally eliminate prep time, or at least reduce it significantly.
"One of the things we've seen and heard loud and clear from airmen is when they have to stop working on their job and simply prepare, it really devours the human soul," he said.
"We want to eliminate the grass painting, and we want to encourage grass planting and lawn care. We want a wing commander to worry about seeding a great lawn, not painting it so it looks good for inspectors."