The Air Force is stressed out, stretched thin and tired, says Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright.
The service’s top enlisted airman has started to work on small initiatives that could help the enlisted force during these difficult and challenging days. But there isn’t one big solution that’s going to fix the problem immediately, he said.
“A bunch of singles — that’s how I kind of describe it,” Wright said in an Aug. 23 interview with Air Force Times. “Don’t look for us to step up to the plate and hit a home run every time. But we’ll just continue to hit … those singles that give folks a little bit more time back, allow us to be a little bit more efficient, and have a little bit more purpose to what we do.”
The slate of solutions Wright and his team are considering could involve changes to the way airmen deploy and receive mental health care, and the delayed implementation of performance reports for junior enlisted.
The Air Force is even taking another look at whether to bring back warrant officers, Wright said.
At the beginning of August, Wright asked the Air Force’s manpower and readiness department to conduct a study into whether having a cadre of warrant officers would make the service more lethal and efficient. That research was expected to be done in six months.
“If so, I’d be OK with implementing that program,” Wright said. “I’m still agnostic [on warrant officers]. I know a lot of people ask for them. But if the research proves that, in today’s Air Force, if we had warrant officers in cyber, if our enlisted pilots someday become warrant officers, in space, in contracting? I can see a couple of areas where it might be beneficial to us.”
Wright said as he travels to bases and talks to airmen about their concerns, he’s been impressed by how smart, motivated and professional they are, adding that they “are doing some amazing things.”
But they’re also struggling with undermanning, underfunding, a lack of resources, high operations tempos and too many extra duties, he said. That has led to feelings of frustration and stress.
To try to relieve some of their burdens, the Air Force is trying to cut down on the amount of additional duties and computer-based training required of airmen.
But more is needed, Wright said.
“I don’t think we can take away mission, right?” he said. “We can’t ask the world to calm down and not be so unstable. Absent that, the best thing we can do to make our force more efficient and more effective and lethal is, with some of these additional requirements that we’ve levied upon them over the years, let’s slowly take them away, right?”
The Air Force is also considering doing away with the EPRs that airmen first class typically receive at 20 months of service, he said. That’s the first time airmen receive an EPR, but in Wright’s estimation, they don’t amount to much.
“Essentially, they go in a file and we don’t ever use them again,” he said. “They’re not up for promotion, they can’t be used for senior airmen below-the-zone consideration, they really can’t be used for any specific purpose. And so the question becomes, why write them?”
Instead, the Air Force is considering having airmen receive their first EPR at 30 months. They will still need to get feedback from their supervisors, he said.
This change could go into effect early next spring, he said, though the Air Force is still conducting research to understand all its possible effects.
Pace of deployments
Wright is worried about the strain frequent deployments place on airmen, and how such pressures could prompt more of them to leave. When crucial personnel leave, that increases the pressure on those who remain, he said.
“We can’t really have a true impact on the deploy-to-dwell ratio unless [we] maintain trained and experienced individuals in those career fields,” Wright said. “If we keep them at a one-to-one ratio — six months [deployed], six months home — that starts to wear on them personally, mentally, [and] it starts to wear on their families.”
The pace is especially concerning to Wright, given the number of suicides.
The Air Force already has lost 62 airmen this year, he said, and is on pace to match the roughly 100 suicides suffered annually in recent years.
Air Force Special Operations Command — which has struggled with the strain of frequent deployments — is improving the mental health and resiliency of its airmen with U.S. Special Operation Command’s Preservation of the Force and Families Program, Wright said.
Mental health professionals, chaplains and their assistants, medics, and social workers are embedded directly with units. That way, an airman facing troubles has someone who can help already there in his squadron, doing PT and other everyday activities alongside him. It also removes the burden and, perhaps, the stigma, of having to go to a hospital or mental health clinic for help. Air Combat Command and some intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance units have also enacted this program, he said.
Wright is hoping to expand that concept with a new program, called Task Force True North. In August, the Air Force finished putting program managers in place at the four test sites: Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota; Beale Air Force Base, California; Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska; and Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri.
By next spring, each base will have a team of 16 licensed clinical social workers and four mental health providers embedded with units and interacting with airmen on a day-to-day basis. After testing the concept for 12 to 18 months, the Air Force will decide whether it should be expanded, he said.
Wright hopes this embedding will normalize the process of seeking help for mental health issues. But it’s incumbent on Air Force leaders to ensure they don’t perpetuate any stigma, he said.
Over the next year and a half, Wright’s office will roll out the new Enlisted Professional Military Education for the 21st Century. It creates a requirement for “professional development units,” which are designed to “capture diverse education, training and life experiences.”
College classes, professional certifications, planning and participating in Air Force, joint and coalition exercises, and deploying and leading teams in combatant command areas of responsibility will all count toward the PDU requirement.
Other changes to EPME include making Airman Leadership School, the Non-Commissioned Officer Academy, and the Senior NCO Academy entirely in-residence, greatly broadening airmen’s opportunity to attend academies, and eliminating time-in-service milestones for distance learning eligibility.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.