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Shades of Tony McPeak

Dec 2, 2017
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Anyone who served in the U.S. Air Force over the past 20 years experienced their share of unit reorganizations. Beginning in the early 1990s, the service initiated a series of efforts to restructure wing-level organizations. Among other things, the various schemes saw the resurrection of groups (as an intermediate-level organization, controlling operations, maintenance, or support squadrons), and the creation of new units that directed functions as diverse as weather and intelligence.

The mastermind of the reorganization effort was General Merrill “Tony” McPeak. As the Commander of Pacific Air Forces in the late 1980s, McPeak began tinkering with various reorganization concepts, including the so-called “Composite Wing,” which melded diverse aircraft, missions and personnel into a single unit. When McPeak became the Air Force Chief of Staff in 1991 (after the unfortunate dismissal of General Mike Dugan), the experiment was expanded across the service.

General McPeak retired from active duty in 1994, but even today, Air Force veterans of that era still shudder at the changes he tried to impose. The truly unfortunate served in the afore-mentioned composite wings, which created maintenance, personnel and logistical nightmares. Wings that operated a single type of aircraft were also reorganized, with the addition of new groups to manage functionally-grouped squadrons, and enlarged squadrons that, in some cases, absorbed tasks and duties that were previously beyond their control.

Many of us recognized the “reorganization” for what it was–nothing more than a shell game, designed to preserve command billets for the pilot community. With force down-sizing after the Cold War, the Air Force lost both aircraft and units. Implementing new wing organizational structures allowed the service to retain commander’s positions that would have otherwise been lost. Under one variant of the McPeak plan, virtually every wing in the Air Force was led by a brigadier general, despite the fact that Colonels had been filling those positions for years.

McPeak and his minions also had the bright idea of consolidating operations and maintenance functions under flying squadron commanders. Overnight, hundreds of enlisted airmen and maintenance officers were placed under the control of ops commanders who had little, if any, experience in managing aircraft repair, or the specialists who performed those tasks.

As you might expect, the “merger” of maintenance and ops created numerous headaches, and more than a few maintenance officers got passed over for promotion, usually because their boss –the flying squadron commander–favored aircrew personnel in the appraisal and selection process. But, directing a larger squadron certainly looked good on a commander’s resume, so the marriage of ops and maintenance continued long after McPeak’s departure.

Fortunately, sanity ultimately prevailed. Five years ago, then-Chief of Staff General John Jumper removed the maintainers from flying squadrons, and put them back into logistics units, where they belonged. By all accounts, the move was a success. With the demands of frequent exercises and deployments, flying squadrons commanders were happy to focus on operations, while maintenance personnel blended seamlessly into units dedicated to aircraft and component repair. The service had come full-circle on the issue of maintenance and ops integration, or so it seemed.

Not so fast. According to Air Force Times, thousands of flight-line maintenance personnel in fighter and CSAR (combat search-and-rescue) units will move back under operations squadrons next year, under a plan approved by the current Chief of Staff, General Mike Moseley. And, similar changes could come to all flying wings by 2009:

After months of discussions, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley gave the green light Dec. 7 to putting crew chiefs and weapons loaders back into fighter and combat search-and-rescue squadrons. The change, which will take effect between July and November. includes Guard and reserve wings.

Moseley also opened the door to moving crew chiefs from other types of aircraft, such as airlifters and bombers, out of maintenance squadrons and into flying squadrons.

Beyond flight-line maintenance, Moseley approved shifting logistics readiness squadrons and aerial port squadrons out of mission support groups and into a new version of a maintenance group called the “materiel group” by November. The move of the logistics and aerial port squadrons is Air Force-wide.

[snip]

Driving much of the latest change is Moseley’s belief that squadrons should be organized at their home bases the same way they work while deployed.

“With focus on the mission, we can resource our squadrons with all the elements necessary to accomplish their mission and ensure a consistent structure at home and deployed,” Moseley told major command bosses in the Dec. 7 letter.

Moseley said he believes that if a fighter or combat search-and-rescue squadron commander is going to be responsible for meeting the daily demands of the air war, then the squadron commander also must control the maintenance of his squadron’s planes or helicopters.

“Aircraft maintenance is a vital element of a flying squadron’s mission, and the maintainers that directly support sortie generation belong in that chain of command,” Moseley said.
But Moseley’s directive begs an essential question: is it necessary? By all accounts, the old system was working well. There have been no reports of sorties being lost because of the “dual chain” system. A retired maintenance Colonel–who spoke with the Times on the condition of anonymity–notes that the flying squadron commander and maintenance unit commander ultimately work for the same boss, the wing commander. Other experts note that, as a rule, flying squadron commanders have little expertise in functions they will soon assume responsibility for, including long-term maintenance planning.

For what it’s worth, the earlier experiment with reorganized and composite wings was largely a bust. In the early 1990s, a GAO study concluded that the Air Force’s composite wing concept had been poorly conceived, with virtually no advance analysis of potential problems, or cost benefits. Yet, the service plunged ahead with the experiment, largely at the insistence of General McPeak.

Two decades later, the plan to move flight line maintainers back into flying squadrons strikes us as an equally bad idea; a return to the dubious practices of the 1990s, with no proof that the latest “reorganization” will improve sortie generation rates, or any other benchmark of efficiency.

Somewhere, Tony McPeak must be smiling. And, in case you’re wondering, the retired Chief of Staff is now serving as a senior advisor to the presidential campaign of Barrack Obama. Given General McPeak’s history, we can only imagine what the Air Force would look like under an Obama administration.

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