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Equipping our Airmen

F.E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyo. -- When I entered the Air Force 16 years ago, my father-in-law, who is retired Army, shared a bit of service rivalry with me. He said that it's well known the Air Force "mans equipment" while the Army "equips men."

For those of us in blue, it's an insulting idea. When I look in the mirror though, I have to admit that there is some truth to it. We need to better equip our Airmen for the mission and the future by developing them as thinkers and leaders.

Chief Master Sgt. Darrel Shelton, 90th Security Forces Group command chief, challenged the promotees during the November enlisted promotion ceremony to take responsibility for those Airmen junior to them. He didn't focus on taking responsibility for expensive equipment or for ensuring good outcomes; he focused on taking responsibility for the people who will come after you in the Air Force - for their training, their development and their well-being.

This is different from taking responsibility for things. When we take responsibility for things, we try to control them. When we take responsibility for people, we coach them, guide them and prepare them for more.

In our effort to do more with less, we lost this piece. I've been part of a career field focused almost exclusively on equipment and process for the past 16 years. We have been perfecting processes in order to eliminate the potential for human error since World War II.

At initial training, I was taught that perfection was not only possible, but it was "the standard." Perfection could be achieved with an unrelenting focus on technical proficiency. If our processes were good enough, we could guarantee a perfect outcome. Over time, we lost sight of the fact that it takes people to make it happen.

Contrast this with the way the Navy managed its nuclear reactor program during the same period under command of Admiral Hyman Rickover. The Admiral is reputed to have interviewed every applicant for nuclear power training personally. The stories about the grueling interviews he put sailors through are incredible, but behind them is a fundamental difference in approach.

The Admiral recognized once a ship left port, the ship had "sailed." Therefore he had to focus on ensuring he had the right people and they were trained to think and adapt independently.

Over the past few years our nuclear enterprise endured several rounds of scrutiny both internally and externally. In an attempt to deliver the highest level of nuclear surety, our culture has focused narrowly on processes - sometimes to the exclusion of people. In many ways, we have acted as though our tools were the most important part of our profession. We've been manning equipment.

Instead, we need to focus on equipping our Airmen with the right physical and mental tools to do the mission and lead us into the future. We're off to a good start with the Force Improvement Program: we are equipping our security forces with new gear, bolstering our maintenance budgets, and reinventing operations training and evaluation. But this is just a start.

The next change we need is to see ourselves in a new way at every level. Supervisors need to create an environment where Airmen are trusted to make decisions, are mentored when they stumble and are encouraged to take responsibility for people as well as things.

We can't just develop our processes; we have to develop our Airmen. Without their energy, ingenuity and commitment, all the equipment in the world won't matter.

To stay the best in the world, we can't just man equipment; we have to equip our Airmen.