The Colonel flagged down the bartender and relayed the order across the crowded club bar. A digital clock hung above the bar reflecting the date, August 31, 2035, and a time of 17:24.
“Thank you, sir, and I appreciate you taking some time out of your day to meet with me.”
“Absolutely, Jane, it’s my pleasure. Now what is it that you wanted to talk to me about?”
“Well, sir, I want to talk about what went wrong when you were a Major, about the time before the war.”
“Before the war, huh?” the Colonel replied, drink in hand moving away from the boisterous bar.
“When we were Majors?” the Colonel repeated as much for himself as for the young inquisitive officer waiting for his reply. He took a long draw of his drink. “Where should I begin…”
“Jane, before we get to your question, I need to give you some context. Let’s go back to the twenty-teens—when I wasn’t much more senior than you. I know you’re a big reader… Where were we engaged in operations at the time, Jane?”
“Sir, you mean deployed?”
“Yes,” the Colonel responded.
“The Middle East, sir.”
“Yes, but I think you could also say ‘everywhere’ and I’d tend to agree. We were in Afghanistan, Iraq, and multiple countries in Africa. We had major logistics operations in Qatar and other bases across the Levant. Units deployed to Europe and Asia. We had a global footprint and deployment rotations that meant certain career fields were away as much as they were home. The fight of the day was the ‘Global War on Terror’ and it took us to every corner of the globe,” the Colonel explained.
“It was a different kind of war than what you’ve seen in recent history—a blend of military operations with elements of law enforcement and building partner capacity. We called it ‘counterinsurgency’ and operated in largely uncontested environments.”
“Uncontested, sir?” Jane asked.
“Yes, uncontested. Not in the sense that these environments were secure or even safe, but we had relatively open lines of communication, logistics, and resupply capabilities. We rotated aircraft into and out of the theater on timelines scheduled months and years in advance. Air superiority was never in question, and we frequently engaged combatants at opportunities of our choosing.”
The Colonel paused and took a sip.
“Colonel, how did that period end?”
“Did it end, Jane?”
“Sir?” Jane replied.
“I would argue that this fight continues today… It never ended. It became a question of priorities. Our Nation’s leadership started to recognize that the global balance of power was shifting. They recognized that the days of American military personnel operating in permissive environments were coming to an end. You heard mention of names like Mearsheimer and terms like ‘near-peer competitors.’ We never hung up the mantle of counterterror operations, but we shifted our primary focus to meet the threat posed by nation-state rivals.”
“This was a totally different kind of thinking, Captain. Senior Air Force leaders were calling for us to ‘Accelerate Change or Lose.’ Adversaries rising to knock us off had the luxury of studying our way of fighting for decades and they took full advantage of the weaknesses in our system. Don’t get me wrong, we had grown up following Cold War warriors who grasped great power competition, but the world had changed considerably since then and frankly, passed us by,” the Colonel explained.
“What do you mean, sir?”
“In the race for technological capability and research and development, Jane, we fell well behind industry. Held back by antiquated acquisitions regulations and capability development processes, we struggled to integrate even industry standard technology and our hands were Congressionally bound to weapons systems that wouldn’t be relevant. It felt like we were sustaining the unsustainable. Take logistics IT for example, it took decades. Does the Expeditionary Combat Support System ring a bell?”
“Yes sir,” Captain Smith replied.
“Then you know. It was a billion-dollar failure. But these IT challenges were not just functional. Everyone with a CAC card could tell you the problems with our computer systems. From the speed of standard computers to the hundreds of systems on the network, there was considerable frustration across the Force. At one point, the Air Force’s Chief Software Officer left his position because of the lack of support… Even at the highest levels, we made little progress at delivering IT worthy of the 21st century.”
“Why was it so difficult, sir?”
“Many asked that question, Jane. The truth is, I’m not sure, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Many Generals attempted it. Some challenges are so foundational, they require unanimous consensus. Maybe they couldn’t muster it.”
The Colonel sipped his drink and Jane did also.
“There were other problems and many of them had nothing to do with technology. We started to recognize that our culture around AFSCs was hurting our ability to recognize talent and outstanding achievement.”
“Really?” Jane enquired.
“Yes. As we were pulling out of Afghanistan, our Airmen executed one of the largest humanitarian airlift operations in history. While wrestling with the emotion of watching the country fall, our Airmen pulled off the incredible. But the achievement was overshadowed by thousands of Airmen who perceived that lesser medals were awarded to maintenance and support personnel relative to their ops counterparts.”
“Ouch,” muttered Jane.
“These cultural views also shaped how we managed talent across the Force. Beholden to our functional silos, we had glass ceilings for AFSCs… An officer’s trajectory was limited by her functional training and the badge on her uniform—regardless of her leadership potential. We were finally talking about diversity and inclusion, but only in terms of demographics people are born with—not diversity of ideas and experiences. Some General Officers refrained from wearing their functional badges in quiet protest.”
The Colonel continued.
“Though it wasn’t just the operations-support dynamic. There were even cultural hierarchies amongst support career fields too. Some seen as ‘greater’ or more difficult than others. It colored our judgement of talent and limited our ability to think differently… It hurt us, Jane.”
“Hmmm,” Captain Smith replied.
“Supply chains were also a problem. We started to realize the difficulties right around the time of the Coronavirus pandemic and the vulnerabilities posed by counterfeit parts. We had forgotten how dependent we were on the defense industry, how much of our readiness and capability comes directly from the quality and quantity of production lines. Relying on data and networked global supply chains to achieve unprecedented efficiency, companies around the world were operating with razor thin inventories that left them with little to none in terms of surge capacity. Relative to a planned, centralized economy, we had little control over how quickly we could ramp up defense production until missiles began to fly and we had a declaration from Congress. Even then, American industry led the charge and our job became to harness their innovation and output to ensure our national security.”
“Was that it, sir?” asked Jane with a hint of irony.
The Colonel chuckled. “I’m sure there’s more, but these loom largest in this Colonel’s memory. When folks like me were Majors, Jane, we were a little too stubborn. The alarm bells were there, but many of us were too accepting that the old ways would get us through and keep us on top. After all, change was not what the institution had raised us to produce. Generate the sortie, issue the part, and leave the rest to higher headquarters. ‘We have enough on our plates,’ we responded as we left meetings where we were asked to overhaul support concepts on how we deliver combat capabilities.”
“’How do you compensate for years of underinvestment in logistics system infrastructure?’ I found myself asking. We were challenged to make data-informed decisions and yet lacked the infrastructure or integration to do it smartly. ‘You and your team need to make it happen, Major. Do more with less’ they said—eager to ask without providing any additional resources. At some point, it becomes too much and we reverted to what we had always done. Generate the sortie, issue the part, and leave the rest to higher headquarters.”
“Colonel Hanson, it sounds like you’re blaming yourself.”
“Maybe a little. It’s not that I was in a position to affect any material change on the state of Air Force computer networks, overhaul our culture around AFSCs, or address all of the vulnerabilities in our supply chains. But I was—and am—a leader in this organization, an officer no less. Are we not responsible for the performance of our Service?”
“Copy, sir, I understand.”
“Jane, this is probably more than you signed up for, but I appreciate that you asked to have this discussion. In the end, it took us far longer than it should have to come to grips with strategic competition and you saw how it turned out. They came at us quickly and attacked in the gaps and seams—exploiting the vulnerabilities in a system perfected for a different way of war. We did a lot, but there is certainly more that we could have done when we were Majors.”
“But before you refill your glass and return to your peers, let me leave you with this. You are what makes our country and our Service great. Your peers may roll their eyes when they hear this, but it’s absolutely true: Airmen are our greatest resource. Airmen like you will figure it out. My generation heard the same thing; I didn’t see it quite so clearly then, but I sure do now. You’ve experienced freedom and you know how valuable it is. The other team doesn’t, which is why my chips are on us. Stay hungry, find a way to deliver what’s important, and make this Force the most capable that humankind has ever known.”
15 April 2022 OGDEN, UTAH
Every Air Force officer leaves a legacy. I am not a Colonel. I am not a Major. I make no presumptions about whether or not the Air Force will see fit to promote to these ranks. As a leader, however, I will someday have a conversation with someone who will sit in the chair I currently hold. What narrative will I—will we—tell? What responsibility do I have for the Air Force that Captain Smith will one day join? How will I contribute to keeping our Service as dominant as it has been?
There are significant challenges facing our Air Force, particularly for logisticians. They are challenges that are going to require intellectual depth, re-evaluation of deep-seated traditions, and clear articulation of the case for change… at all levels. Casting blame isn’t the point, nor is it relevant beyond understanding the underlying causes. It is critical, however, that we address these challenges with open, candid, respectful, and well-thought discussions for the future of our national security. Our country, our Air Force, and Captain Smith deserve nothing less.
About the author
Capt Evan Hanson is currently the Operations Officer at DLA Aviation at Ogden and is a fully qualified Logistics Readiness (21R) and Missile Maintenance (21M) officer.
The Air Force’s Expeditionary Combat Support System (ECSS): A Cautionary Tale on the Need for Business Process Reengineering and Complying with Acquisition best Practices. Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, United States Senate. (July 7, 2014). Retrieved April 19, 2022 from https://www.hsgac.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/PSI%20REPORT%20-%20The%20Air%20Force’s%20ECSS%20(July%207%202014).pdf
What drove Air Force Software chief Chaillan to quit. Air Force Magazine. (2021, September 3). Retrieved April 19, 2022, from https://www.airforcemag.com/what-drove-air-force-chief-software-officer-to-quit/
Global War on Terror. (2022)National Archives. Retrieved April 19, 2022 from https://www.georgewbushlibrary.gov/research/topic-guides/global-war-terror
 Roza, D. (April 8, 2022). Airmen are pissed that an entire C-17 crew except for the maintainer received a Distinguished Flying Cross. Task & Purpose. Retrieved April 19, 2022 from https://taskandpurpose.com/news/air-force-c-17-distinguished-flying-cross-afghanistan/