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'We trust you'


Gen. David L. Goldfein is a published author. 

Eighteen years ago, he penned a guide to becoming a squadron commander as a research report while attending a seminar at the National Foreign Affairs Training Center in Arlington, Virginia. It’s now available on Amazon in paperback.

In Sharing Success, Owning Failure: Preparing to Command in the 21st Century Air Force, then-Colonel Goldfein described squadron command as the “greatest job you will ever have.” 

He’s had some great jobs since, but never lost his affinity for service at the squadron level or their importance to the nation’s aerospace force. In fact, one of his priorities as Air Force chief of staff is to revitalize the squadrons, which he calls “the beating heart of the United States Air Force.”

Goldfein, a familiar face to regular NGAUS conference attendees, sat down with NATIONAL GUARD last month to talk about squadrons, squadron command and other issues of importance to the Air National Guard.    

You spoke at the last three NGAUS annual conferences. At the last two, you took the time to meet with a dozen or so Air National Guard squadron commanders. It was just you and them. No one else in the room. What did you learn?

The culmination of command is command, certain things are the same, but there are certain unique aspects of command in the Air National Guard that I, as chief, need to make sure I always take into account. The “what’s common” is setting the culture of the organization and their responsibility, and we talked a lot about that. 

I said, “Hey, in our businesses, six weeks after you take command, I guarantee I can walk into your squadron and they’re going to have your personality. They’re going to be thinking about what you’re thinking about, focused on what you think is important. You set the culture of the organization. And my question to you is, when I talk to your airmen and I ask them the question, What does it mean to be in your squadron? What’s their answer going to be? Because you set the culture, they ought to be able to answer that. What does it mean? Not what do we do. Not what do we strap on. But what does it mean to be part of your squadron?” And so that’s common, I think, to the business of command. 

The part that’s unique, and you see this somewhat in the active-duty but nowhere near what you see in the Air National Guard, they’ll share, Hey chief, the opportunity for me to get my entire squadron together at one time is really challenging. Generally speaking, we’re coming in in pockets and small groups at different times to get the mission done. It’s a combination of part-time, full-time and different statuses. We have challenges of managing a mission with the same time. We’ve got folks who have civilian employment and we have to work with their civilian employers. All those challenges that are somewhat unique to the Air National Guard are really good for me as a chief to know. 

We had that kind of discussion and it was really helpful. Important for me. You get one chief of staff of the Air Force, and so I take my responsibility as the chief for active, Guard, Reserve and Air Force civilians very seriously. And I want all of our Air National Guardsmen to know that I see myself as their chief every day. 



You mentioned when you spoke at the conference in New Orleans that you and Secretary Heather Wilson are taking “an axe” to additional duties. But Air National Guard commanders at all levels say they still have problems finding time for traditional airmen to train on mission tasks during weekend drills. What’s your advice to them?

Very simply: Don’t wait for us. I make sure this message is out there loud and clear. It starts with trust up and down the organization. The secretary and I continue to transmit to commanders every chance we can, especially at the most essential level of command, squadron command, which is our fundamental fighting formation, that “Hey, we trust you. We developed you for command. We’ve given you the tools you need, we’ve selected you through a selection process, and you’ve proven to us that you have what it takes to command, so we trust you. And because we trust you, we’re pushing decision-authority down to you every chance we can and we’re pushing resources to you every chance we can, and we need you to move out and go along.”

And so when it comes to additional duties we’re doing everything we can at our level, but quite frankly, it’s commanders in the field who will always have the best sense of those duties that are required to accomplish their mission. Those are not additional. They’re part of the J-O-B, and those have got to be performed. And so anybody who comes to me and says, Hey I don’t want to be a squadron scheduler anymore, I say, “Well you know, someone’s got to schedule the squadron.” When someone says, I don’t want to be stan/eval, that is not an additional duty to me. That’s the job. 

The additional duties are the ones that are not directly tied to the mission of that unit, and don’t contribute to the readiness or lethality of that unit’s mission. And what we’re giving commanders is decision authority to stop doing those. There are lots of examples and I try to celebrate when I hear about them or see about them. I’ll give you an example: the former 1st Special Operations Wing commander [at Hurlbert Field, Florida], Col. Tom Palenske, who’s now working here in the glass doors, he was the first wing commander, was the first to put out a memo to his wing on this. The memo essentially was: Hey, the chief and secretary, just in case you haven’t heard, gave us decision authority to make decisions to get rid of additional duties. I’m authorizing you to do that and I’m your top cover. If anybody tells you otherwise, let’s move out. We reposted that to send the word out to everybody and say this is a guy who gets it. Don’t wait for us.

Follow his lead?

Follow his lead.

You mentioned lethality. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis spoke often about lethality. Most airmen across the force ― active, Guard and Reserve ― are not directly involved in putting bombs on target. How can they contribute to a more lethal Air Force?  

They contribute every day, right? This is the body behind the fist, and you can’t throw a punch unless you got the body behind it. So everyone in the Air Force is in the business of lethality. I mean you think about it, we do leaflets to nukes and everything in-between, and we work from 60 feet below the surface up to the northern tiers of the outer reaches to space and every domain in between. It takes the whole body to be able to form the fist that actually gives the punch to the enemy. And it’s never been more important than the era we’re in right now, with this return to great-power competition as we go forward, so everyone contributes. 

Think about an airplane that takes off. There’s a thousand fingerprints on that airplane before it goes airborne. Right? From the fuel specialist who refueled it that morning to the air traffic controller who’s working in the tower to the maintenance technician to the avionics tech to the wheel-and-tire specialist to the battery shop. You go across that whole wing, everybody’s part of the body that produced the fist that got airborne. When the wheels come up and the afterburners are cooking or the props are spinning and that airplane goes airborne, it’s got a thousand fingerprints on it and everyone should feel part of it. 

To include even the airmen that helped prepare the launch? 

Amen. That’s right.

In September, Secretary Wilson announced a plan to grow the Air Force by 74 squadrons to 386 operational squadrons by 2030 to meet the demands of the National Defense Strategy. What role do you foresee the Air National Guard playing in the “Air Force We Need?”  

It’s very simple. The Air National Guard is in every mission we do. You can’t name one that we don’t have Air National Guardsmen performing that mission today. The days of the strategic reserve that we would call upon if we would break glass for World War III are long gone. They actually ended around the time of Desert Storm and it hasn’t been that way since. This is part of the operational Air Force. One of the assumptions going into the Air Force We Need analysis is that the percentages of each component will stay constant in the growth ahead. So as the Air Force grows, so grows the active Guard and Reserve components, and they all grow commensurate with the missions we perform.

Tactical airlift and the C-130 is a cornerstone mission of the Air National Guard. Airlift capacity has seen some near-term reductions to ensure other major modernization programs are preserved. How is the Air Force ensuring stability in the remaining fleet while ensuring future warfighting requirements are met?

You know we’re running out of letters in the alphabet for the C-130. There’s so many versions and there’s a reason for that. I think when you look at the history of air power and aircraft, I don’t know you’re going to find one more versatile, that performs more missions and performs them so well, than the C-130. I’ve spent a lot of time flying in them, I’ve had a chance to fly them a couple times. And they’re not only in the business of tactical airlift. We also use these aircraft in refueling and special operations. Other components have them, Marine Corps C-130s, Navy C-130s. But they are the workhorse of the Air Force, so keeping them viable in the inventory as we transition over time from the H-models into the J-model, I think is going to be a central part of who we are as an Air Force.

Does the Air Force remain committed to fully modernizing the H-model C-130s in the Air National Guard?

We do. As we look at the fleet, there’s always the tradeoff that every Air Force chief and secretary have to make between capability, capacity and readiness. And while we would like to transition faster, we have to maintain capacity while we make the transition. Therefore, we have to keep some number of H-models continuing to fly while we make the transition into the J-model. And if more money were to come available, certainly we would relook at the pace that which we are transitioning to the J’s.

Is the Air Force considering the role of domestic operations, such as firefighting and other disaster response, in the final C-130 Total Aircraft Inventory decision?

We do, and we do that through the director of the Air National Guard, Lt. Gen. L. Scott Rice, and he is working of course with the adjutants general to make sure we identify those missions and look at the responsibility and the requirement. Very often, we’ll look at MQ-9s [a remotely piloted aircraft], C-130s, C-2 platforms and they perform multiple mission sets. And so we’ll get a request from the state or request from the Department of Homeland Security and we have a rather rigorous process that we go through to determine how do we source that request? So we have to take into account homeland missions when we look at the sizing of the fleet and the demand signal.

Innovation is being emphasized across the Air Force to meet the challenges of great-power competition. How is the Air Force changing its processes to enable creative solutions to come up from the field?

This is one of the thousands of reasons why it’s really helpful to have a secretary of the Air Force [Heather Wilson] who just came from being a university president of a major STEM university [South Dakota School of Mines and Technology]. She has worked in the science and engineering and technical arena not only in her time as a university president but also as her time as a congresswoman in a state [New Mexico] that has a lot of the [science and technology] work going on. 

Under her leadership we have been looking really closely at our entire S&T enterprise and making sure we transition quickly, as quickly as possible, to operating at the speed of relevance when it comes to bringing on new technology. And I’ll tell you what, we’ve done a lot of work. I’ll tell you another guy who’s been absolutely spectacular in this is our new [assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics] Dr. [Will] Roper. He just came out of being the Strategic Capabilities Office lead for Department of Defense. If you look at the portfolio that he was working, it was all about innovation. 

It was all about cutting time off of the acquisition process, and now to bring him in to be our lead of AQ was an inspired hire. He is already bowling over obstacles. He set an objective of cutting 100 years off of our acquisition programs in the first year. He’s already up to like 68 years off of the normal acquisition timelines in the past. We’re making a huge difference in how we bring innovation forward. 

The last thing I’ll tell you is, I mentioned before we’re pushing decision authority and resources down where the mission happens. The squadron innovation funds went out to Guard, Reserve and active, and the whole idea was to tell squadron commanders, “Look, you know what you need to get your mission done. You know the obstacles you face and you’re the best one to be armed with spending money wisely.” And so we pushed money to the squadron commanders. First year [fiscal 2018], it went out late because we didn’t get a budget until very late. So they didn’t have as much time to work it. We worked through a lot of learning on how do you take innovative ideas and scale them quickly. 

We just pushed out the money for fiscal 2019, so that they now have a full year to get out to this, so I think both at the tactical level, if you will, squadron-level, wing-level, and also up at the strategic-level, we’re making some real progress. I don’t think as chief or secretary you ever sit back and say you’ve arrived. There’s more work ahead, but we’re making progress.

The National Guard has 1,200 to 1,600 soldiers and airmen performing space missions, depending on how you define space. They see the headlines coming out of Washington and wonder if their units will remain in the Guard. What is your message to them? 

So as we work to achieve the president’s direction, I can’t envision a Space Force in the future that won’t have an active, Guard and Reserve component to it. It’s how we’re organized to fight. As a service chief, my job is organize, train and equip and present ready forces ⸻ active, Guard and Reserve ⸻ to a combatant commander, who then takes those forces and fights the fight. And so as we work to stand up U.S. Space Command as a unified combatant command, then we’re going to now do the detailed work of the Space Force we build to provide ready forces, and I can’t imagine that Space Force without having all three components in it. Details to be worked out.