Civilian service and leadership in today's Air Force

  • Published
  • By Maj. Robert "Bull" Reinhard
  • 319th Force Support Squadron commander
In today's environment of downsizing and increasing dependence on efficient operations, it is crucial to focus on the Total Force and to do whatever is necessary to ensure that our Air Force is functioning efficiently and effectively. Nearly 30 percent of today's Air Force personnel resources are congressionally appropriated civilians. These civilians are employed in support roles throughout the world. They are an essential component of the Total Force and their service as well as leadership contributes significantly to the accomplishment of the Air Force mission.

Most of us know that blue-suit military personnel are utilized by the Department of the Air Force in positions that inherently require military members to perform duties required by law, security, maintenance of morale and discipline, expeditionary rotation, combat readiness, or have a requirement for a military background for successful accomplishment of the duties involved. All other positions can essentially be performed by civilian personnel. Generally, civilians are used to provide special skills that would not otherwise be available, to ensure continuity of operations under changing circumstances, to provide a pool of trained personnel to expand support for newly established or expanded missions, or to release military personnel required to perform duties that are inherently military. Whatever the situation, military and civilian personnel must work cooperatively to complete the Air Force mission.

Civilians, probably more so today than ever, are truly the glue that cements our operational readiness in the Air Force. This is due primarily to the fact that our core military force has been continually deployed in large numbers for the last decade in response to the events that took place on Sept. 11, 2001. Although our civilian workforce, just like our military force, often deploys to hostile environments around the world, they also provide the basic continuity in garrison during military deployments and permanent change of station rotations. They are depended upon to provide competent training to enlisted and officer members at all levels. They also provide a stabilized presence and in-depth experience in support of evolving Air Force missions that meet Joint Force requirements. Most importantly, we depended on our civilians to be leaders. That's right -- civilians lead!

Civilians fill some of the most critical Air Force leadership positions. We routinely find civilians who are section chiefs and flight chiefs at the base level. At the headquarters level, we find them filling branch chief, division chief and director positions. Although civilian leaders lack the legal authority to command, they commonly hold commander equivalent positions at the squadron and group level with commensurate responsibility. Civilians also have General Officer equivalent leadership responsibilities and fill comparable level positions under the Senior Executive Service moniker.

In order for the Total Force to perform efficiently and effectively, a positive military-civilian working relationship is critical in the Air Force. All too often I observe and hear of instances where military members discard or demean the leadership role our civilian brethren bring to the fight. I find myself teaching and explaining the value and importance of their role to military members who don't yet get the big picture. Some don't understand the important role civilians play in our leadership chain; others just simply have a problem taking leadership direction from a civilian.

I typically attempt to address these disconnects it in the following manner. If a military member has a problem taking leadership direction from a civilian, the member should take a step back and observe who is in control of United States military. Who is the highest ranking member in the Air Force? It's not the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. It's the Secretary of the Air Force. Who is the highest ranking member in the Department of Defense? It's not the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It's the Secretary of Defense. There is no need for me to explain the role of the Commander in Chief ... right?

Bottom line, the highest offices are all held by civilian leadership. I'm not going to delve into the doctrine of "civilian control of the military" that places our country's strategic decision-making in the hands of the civilian leadership rather than professional military officers. But trust me, there is a valid reason for this balance of power and our senior civilian leaders play a critical role.

With the civilian role understood, it is important to reflect on the concept that an efficient and effective Total Force is critical to accomplishing the mission in today's Air Force. If the working relationships in the Total Force are poor, the mission is adversely affected. Accordingly, the next time you find yourself working for or with a civilian counterpart, take a moment to reflect on the import role civilians play in the day-to-day operations of the Air Force. Respect what they bring to the fight and the important leadership role they play in defending this country. Civilians are a critical component of the Total Force and their service as well as leadership contributes significantly to the accomplishment of the Air Force mission.