Morale: The USAF Gets Leaner And Meaner


June 12, 2012:  The U.S. Air Force is undergoing a major cultural shift, which was made public by recent announcements that many air force bases would lose traditional amenities like swimming pools, bowling allies, hobby centers, and golf courses. Part of the problem is that these facilities are not as heavily used as they once were and are thus losing more money because of less revenue from the user fees. This is all because air force personnel (and military personnel in general) have changed their recreation habits over the last two decades. More airmen and family members are at the gyms or out running and hiking. Then there are video games and less consumption of alcohol, especially outside the home. This has already led to the closure of many officers and enlisted clubs and all the social programs that they hosted.

The air force is making all these cuts to save money, as well as recognizing lifestyle changes among its personnel. One thing that is not changing is air force personnel expecting a more comfortable lifestyle than the other services. This has long been a source of humor to sailors, soldiers, and marines. This didn't change with the war on terror and won't change with the current cuts.

For example, many of the U.S. Air Force personnel stationed at Bagram air base (north of Kabul) in Afghanistan a decade ago complained about the poor living conditions soon after they got there. To make their case some of them put together and distributed a collection of photos as evidence. The complaints include too much dust (which Afghanistan has in abundance). The dust covered everything and rendered some of the equipment at the base gym inoperable. Complaints also included laundry that came back still a bit damp and a dreary volleyball court. There were many other complaints, including long lines to get a meal and having to sleep in tents (that were not air conditioned).

When all this hit the Pentagon, air force officers cringed. But it was very old news. Even before the Army Air Force went off to form the independent Air Force in 1947, the "zoomies" (as air force personnel were eventually nicknamed) were known for their higher standard of living. The air force personnel regarded this criticism as misplaced. The air force was a technical organization and it required rigorous standards of cleanliness and organization to maintain all those aircraft and their equipment at high levels of readiness for combat. The zoomies can ultimately point out that, for the last 70 years,  the U.S. Air Force has not just had air superiority wherever it operated but usually domination of the air.

No one begrudged the air force the clean sheets and hot food during World War II, for the heavy bomber crew casualties over Germany were horrendous (worse than in the infantry) and the ground crews often manned forward airbases that were within range of enemy artillery or snipers. The air force enlisted personnel were known as a bright and resourceful bunch, who could improvise better living conditions and this was no accident. During World War II, the Army Air Force got priority when it came to the best (in terms of book smarts and skills) draftees. After the war, the air force used "better living conditions" as a way to induce bright young lads to volunteer for the air force (rather than be drafted). So while the draft lasted until 1975, the air force rarely had to take draftees or recruits who did not meet their high standards.

Of all the services the air force had the highest proportion of troops involved in highly technical and administrative jobs. But most of these occupations were just that, jobs. The navy went to sea, the army and the marines went out to "the field", but the air force generally stayed at their ever more comfortable bases. Even in the 1960s, navy and army officers joked about what an air force officer considered a "hardship post" (a base with only one golf course). Air force ground personnel did get shot at again in Vietnam, although most air force bases were located in safer places. Moreover, the senior air force NCOs in Vietnam had World War II experience, so the younger airmen had no one to complain to except each other.

After Vietnam the draft disappeared and the air force had to hustle to keep its ranks full of quality personnel. Excellent living conditions were still seen as a good recruiting tactic, and living quarters for unmarried personnel began to resemble the suburban apartment complexes these young men and women would be living in if they were still civilians. The troops worked hard, lived well, and everyone was happy.

Then the Cold War ended in 1991, and the air force, like the other services, had to sort out what kinds of wars they would encounter in the future. By the late 1990s, the air force decided that the wars of the future required "Air Expeditionary Wings" (AEW). These units would contain about a hundred combat and support aircraft and several thousand air force personnel. They would be trained and equipped to fly off, on short notice, to some overseas hot spot. In most cases, the AEW would operate from an existing air base but, if need be, the AEW could operate in a more primitive environment. Like the bombed out Bagram air base in Afghanistan. Apparently the young airmen were not sufficiently briefed about the possibility of "living rough" and keep quiet about any dissatisfaction with the accommodations. Not while soldiers, marines, and a few air force personnel were out in the hills living under far harsher conditions.

It's not that no one in the air force has familiarity with living rough. Pilots and air force security personnel are trained to operate under "austere conditions". The pilots undergo training on how to evade capture if they must bail out over enemy territory. Security personnel train as light infantry and air force pararescue commandos spend a lot of time in the bush. But most air force personnel expect middle class civilian amenities after they've put in a day's work. And during times of intense operations, the troops will work 12 or 16 hour shifts to keep the aircraft flying. But the fact of the matter is that the air force has long since ceased to be a "field force." The army and marines still practice rough living as part of their training and sailors expect cramped quarters aboard ship. But for many in the air force, the tents, damp laundry, and dust of Bagram were a bit much. Over the last decade the air force personnel deployed to combat zones adapted. The accommodations got a bit better but the airmen (male and female) no longer complained. Back home everything was still better than at army, navy, and marine bases. But living habits and leisure time activities were changing, and the air force is shutting down the amenities that are no longer popular. What money that is available is going to things like child day care (especially for families where both parents are serving in the air force) and more physical fitness facilities (because the air force has raised physical fitness standards for those wanting to stay in the military).




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