Gen. Larry Spencer, USAF Ret., the former US Air Force vice chief who is now the president of the Air Force Association, discusses what to expect at the assocation’s Air Warfare Symposium next week in Orlando, the importance of engaging with innovative entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos and Mark Cuban, accomplishments during his tenure and what’s next, being an Airman for Life, and the late Lt. Gen. George Muellner’s legacy with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian. Spencer enlisted in the Air Force in 1971 at the age of 18 rose through the noncommissioned ranks for nine years before becoming an office in 1980 to become vice chief. Spencer, who became AFA president in 2015 immediately after retiring, will step down March 1, 2019, and be replaced by Lt. Gen. Bruce “Orville” Wright, USAF Ret.
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian. Every February the Air Force Association holds its annual winter meeting in sunny Orlando, Florida. Joining us to discuss what’s ahead for the conference is the former Vice Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, Retired General Larry Spencer who, since 2015 has been the President of the Air Force Association.
Sir, I know how busy you are, thanks very much for taking some time to talk to us.
General (Ret) Larry Spencer: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Mr. Muradian: The United States Air Force prides itself on being one of the most innovative organizations in the world. The topic this year as well is going to be, at the Air Warfare Symposium, is going to be innovation. That’s been the topic of the last few meetings.
What are some of the key messages we’re going to be hearing down in Orlando?
Gen. (Ret) Spencer: Great question. The theme is Future Force Faster. And the premise behind that is to use innovation to field systems faster, to make sure we’re ready for the threat, to bring in innovators, to encourage airmen to innovate.
You may be aware that the Air Force started off with thousands of folks competing their ideas. They narrowed those down to about six teams. Those six teams will come forward and pitch their ideas. If you were there last year, it was pretty interesting because the Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force actually gave money out on stage to folks who had great ideas.
So it’s this whole innovative theme. It’s how the Air Force was birthed. The Air Force is about innovation. It’s about making sure we take advantage of innovation. So we’re really looking forward to it. It’s going to be an exciting time.
But what I really like, Vago, is the excitement that it brings to our young folks. As you know, the September conference in Orlando [sic] was huge. It’s great. But the one in Orlando is a little bit different because you see so many enlisted airmen there. So many one stripers, staff sergeants, tech sergeants there, bringing their ideas, interacting with senior leadership. And so I’m really looking forward to it. There will be a lot of ABUs in the crowd this year, so we’re really looking forward to it.
Mr. Muradian: You’re absolutely right. The Air Warfare Symposium is much better attended by enlisted airmen as well as non-commissioned officers and junior officers, while the Air, Space and Cyber Conference in September is much heavier with general officers, colonel and lieutenant colonel grade officers.
And about innovation, it was fascinating last year at the Spark Tank Competition where the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Goldstein, endorsed some projects even before the winners were announced.
To continue the theme on innovation, last year at Air, Space and Cyber you interviewed Jeff Bezos, the Amazon CEO. This year down at Air Warfare Symposium you’re going to be interviewing another prominent entrepreneur, Mark Cuban, who is on the Shark Tank TV show as well as the owner of the Dallas Mavericks.
Why are conversations like this with people like Jeff Bezos and Mark Cuban so important in your estimation?
Gen. (Ret) Spencer: First of all, those conversations are great, and it’s an honor for me to participate.
Let me give you an interesting statistic. Last year in September, as you know, it was the largest attended conference we’ve had, over 12,000 attendees. We had the Secretary of the Air Force speak, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force speak, we had the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force speak, we had the Vice President of the United States speak. The highest rated speaker on our program was Jeff Bezos, in a crowd of speakers of that caliber.
I think it’s because airmen have a hunger. They really want, they’re fascinated I think by entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos, like Mark Cuban, folks who have gone out and done it, who are now billionaires. And I think they really appreciate that innovative spirit they have, the fact that they lead large organizations, they encourage innovation, they encourage outside the box thinking. So it was great to interview Jeff Bezos in September. It’s going to really be fun to get to talk with Mark Cuban. And in fact not only is Mark Cuban going to participate in the Spark Tank event. As you know, he stars on the television show Shark Tank. So that will be perfect. But he’s also going to speak separately to the group as well. We’ve already had folks who are attending the conference tell us how excited they are to hear him.
Again, airmen are airmen and they focus on national defense every day, but the chance to come away, step away at a conference to hear an entrepreneur, a person that epitomizes and lives innovation is really a thrill for them and it will be a thrill for me as well.
Mr. Muradian: What are the things that the Air Force can learn from the entrepreneurial community? And conversely, what are things that the entrepreneurial community needs to learn about working with the Air Force.
Gen. (Ret) Spencer: Great question. The first one, clearly, I think we all, the airmen and everyone, frankly, can benefit from learning how to push the envelope, but push the envelope in the right way. Jeff Bezos and Mark Cuban didn’t become billionaires by constantly failing, but they did become billionaires by not being afraid to try and fail.
The trick is how do you pick those that you think have the most promise, recognizing some will fail, and telling your staff, and making sure those that work around you know it’s okay to fail. Keep bringing the ideas. Keep coming. I think that’s good for the Air Force to understand. In a lot of cases at least with my experience in the Air Force, there were folks who were a little bit afraid to fail because they were oh, my God, what’s going to happen to my career if I make a mistake?
I think listening to folks like this and seeing how they operate and how they’ve been successful will sort of break that down for the entire Air Force. Not just airmen, but for Air Force leadership as well, that it’s okay to fail but it’s not okay not to try. That’s what we really need to focus on.
I think there will be a large benefit there in helping our audience understand that. And that it’s okay to try. There is no such thing as a bad idea. The worst thing we can do is have an idea and not bring it forward. So I’m really looking forward to that, and frankly, the Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief, I’ve talked to them both, they’re both looking forward to it as well.
Mr. Muradian: Well, sir, you jointed the Air Force in 1971 and have devoted your entire life to it, and I don’t think in that entire time you’ve managed to take a month of leave. So I don’t think anybody’s going to begrudge you doing that.
Gen. (Ret) Spencer: Again, the good news about both the Orlando conference and the Air, Space and Cyber Conference in September is they are continually growing, and they’re expanding, and we’ve had to change to accommodate that expansion. So one thing you’ll notice is we’ve sort of rearranged the conference room, if you will, of the main area where the speakers are to have more of a panoramic view, to bring the speaker and the audience closer together, to make it more intimate. So I think folks will like that.
Something that’s going to be really fun, we started last year what we call a Backyard BBQ which was really, really popular. In fact our problem last year, we couldn’t get folks to leave. It’s very casual, it’s outside, it’s shorts. I don’t want to see you in shorts, but for everybody else it’s shorts, it’s flip-flops, it’s a really fun time, great food.
The big thing is, you get to move around and talk to folks in a relaxed atmosphere. You’ve got the Secretary of the Air Force, Chief, all the four-star commanders. You’ve got Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force and other chiefs. You’ve got airmen, you’ve got civilians, you’ve got industry. Everyone there gets together in a relaxed atmosphere. By the way, we’ve got a maximum of 650 tickets we can sell for that event. We sold out several weeks ago, and we’ve got a waiting list to get in the BBQ of about 100 people. So that tells you how popular it is.
In fact a lot of the industry folks, they started last year, we expect that to pick up, but they’ve now got into a competition. So the industry folks, they wear their own shirts, sort of like a Hawaiian shirt style with some logo on it from their company. So they’re sort of competing against each other, who can have the most interesting shirt.
It’s a combination of innovation, really getting the juices going, professional development. For example we’ve got the 20thChief of Staff of the Air Force, General Mark Welsh, is going to come in for airmen and do a mentoring/leadership session. So a combination of work, innovation and fun. So I think it’s really going to be great and we have done a lot of things to make sure everybody can get in, get seated. We sped up the registration, standing up new stations. So everybody should be able to come in, register very smoothly, and get started and have a great time.
Mr. Muradian: Sir, I have way too much respect for you and other attendees to subject them to the vision of me in shorts.
But in all seriousness, this is the last major event that you’re going to be presiding over as President of the Air Force Association. You’re going to be succeeded by Lieutenant General Orville Wright, another noted airman, who will build on what you’ve managed to accomplish so far. How does it feel to be presiding over the last major event, last major AFA event under your leadership?
Gen. (Ret) Spencer: I’ve got mixed feelings. I really enjoy AFA. I particularly enjoy the staff here at the headquarters. We’ve come a long way. As you know, Vago, when I arrived three years ago AFA had some pretty tough financial challenges to overcome as well as membership challenges. Thanks to the staff here and all the folks, the AFA leadership, leaders in the field, industry, we’ve been able to turn around the financial position as well as membership is for the first time since last year on its way up rather than on its way down.
So I feel good about what’s being accomplished. All of us, when we come into a job our goal is to turn the position over to the next person in better shape than it was when we arrived. I feel good about saying I am doing that with Lieutenant General Wright. I wish him well. I know he’ll take AFA to the next level, which is what it’s all about. Everyone comes in, you do the best you can, you accomplish what you can, and you hope the next person comes on and takes it even higher.
So I’ve got mixed feelings. AFA’s a great organization. I really enjoy the folks here. But I feel like I’ve accomplished what they hired me to accomplish, and family wise and personally I think it’s just time to move forward.
Mr. Muradian: I think the question you must be getting tired of answering is what you’re going to be doing next. I can’t imagine that you’re just going to become a professional full time Redskins fan. What does post-retirement-retirement, how are you going to be filling your time in post-retirement-retirement?
Gen. (Ret) Spencer: Good question. I’m on a couple of public boards, so I’ll continue that. I’ll be doing some consulting. Frankly I actually, when I took this job, I retired from the Air Force on a Friday and I started over here on a Monday, the following Monday. So my wife has threatened to take everything I’ve got in the bank if I don’t take about a month off. So I’ve actually been offered a couple of jobs that I’ve forced myself to turn down. I want to spend some time with my family, a month or so, without the pressure of a job or having to make a decision, and just kind of sit back and relax and kind of say okay, I’ve had a phase one in the Air Force, I’ve had a phase two at the Air Force Association, what’s phase three going to be like? And I want to take some time with that. I don’t want to rush that.
So I will be busy. I won’t be at home. I’ll be working, but what I’ll do for the sort of permanent replacement job, if you will, I want to give that some thought. I don’t want to rush into it.
My wife pointed that out to me the other day, since I was 18 I’ve been a part of the Air Force. That’s been my entire adult life. But the good news is I’ve got a great family, I’ve got great grandkids, and there’s a lot of opportunity, as you know. Again, I’ve got a lot of gas left in the tank, so I’m not going to go home and just sort of retire, retire. But I do want to take a little bit of time, sort of visit my family, sort of decompress a little bit, and sort of figure out what’s next.
Mr. Muradian: And knowing what a big Redskins fan you are, how do you think they’re going to be doing in the upcoming season?
Gen. (Ret) Spencer: The Redskins are going to do great this year, which is what I say every year. But as you know, I’m a big Redskins fan. I’ve got hope. They’ve got a quarterback this year they need to work out. They’ve got a couple of other needs they have to take care of. But I’m always optimistic and I’m going to be optimistic again. The Redskins are going to do great.
Mr. Muradian: Any last bit of advice for General Wright before he takes over?
Gen. (Ret) Spencer: No, I just congratulate Orville for being selected for the job. He’s walking into a great situation. He’s got a great staff, great leadership. So I wish him well. He’s a great guy. He was actually my boss for a time, so I know him fairly well and I know he’s going to do great. So I just wish him well, and anything I can do to help him, I will always do that.
Mr. Muradian: As we’ve discussed, you’ve devoted your entire adult life to the United States Air Force, from the age of 18 in 1971. First as a non-commissioned officer, but then reaching the highest ranks of the Air Force.
You were one of the founders of the Airman for Life program. Talk to us a little bit about the importance of the program, because if you look at it, if somebody’s a Marine, they’re a Marine for Life. And you may meet somebody who spent two years in the Marine Corps but you’ll find out about it in the conversation, whereas airmen are very different. You may meet somebody who’s had an entire career in the Air Force, a distinguished career, but you find out about that a little bit later. Talk to us about the Airman for Life program. How it’s doing and why it’s so important.
Gen. (Ret) Spencer: That’s an interesting point and it is true. You’re right, one of the things that inspired us to push the Airman for Life theme was just as you said. You ride around the Beltway and you see someone going by in a pickup truck and they’ve got U.S. Marines in the back window. You don’t see very many Airman for Life or U.S. Air Force stickers on cars.
And you’re also right, I think I know why that is. It’s not necessarily a negative, but when you join the Marines they really preach, and I know this because I went to Marine Corps Command and Staff College for a year. They really preach you’re a Marine first. Or a sailor first. Or a soldier first. In the Air Force what I found interesting over my career is if you meet an airman they will generally first tell you what they do, what their job is. They will say I’m an F-16 pilot, or I’m a cop, or I’m a civil engineer. They very seldom say first that I am an airman.
So that’s what we’ve been trying to change. Not only that, but as they separate from the Air Force or retire, we wanted to make sure that they still have a family, so being an airman for life, AFA is that family they can join. Once you join the Air Force you bleed blue and that doesn’t change when you leave the Air Force.
So there’s a role for all of us to play in aerospace power, whether we are active duty, Guard, Reserve, Civil Air Patrol, retired, or just separated from the Air Force. The whole Airman for Life theme is a way to let everybody know we are airmen and we will always be airmen and we will always support aerospace power.
Mr. Muradian: An Air Force giant passed away recently, Lieutenant General George Muellner, a retired former senior officer in the Air Force, combat veteran, test pilot, Boeing executive, former Chairman of the Air Force Association, passed away tragically recently at the age of 75. Talk to us a little bit about what his legacy means to you and to the Air Force Association, and to the Air Force community writ large.
Gen. (Ret) Spencer: I can’t say enough about George Muellner. He was a model citizen, he was a model airman, he was a combat veteran, he was a staunch supporter of the Air Force Association. As you know, he was the Chairman of the Board of the Air Force Association. He remained active after his Chairmanship was over.
For me personally, George was a really strong friend, a person I trusted. I think in every job you go to there is probably two or three mentors that you can call any time, that you can trust, that will give you an honest answer, that will give you maybe not necessarily the answer you want to hear, but give you the answer that you really need to hear, and George Muellner was that person for me. So he will be truly missed, not only by me but by the entire Air Force Association, by the entire Air Force and the entire nation, because the guy was truly a hero.
Mr. Muradian: The Air Warfare Symposium certainly will be a great opportunity to honor his legacy.
Gen. (Ret) Spencer: That’s absolutely correct and we plan to do so. So that’s sort of, it’s a sad subject to talk about, but one that resonates with everybody. Everybody knows George Muellner and everybody respected him. We wish his family well.
Mr. Muradian: Retired United States Air Force General Larry Spencer, former Vice Chief of Staff, and for another week the President of the Air Force Association.
Sir, thank you so very much for your time. We appreciate it very much. I appreciate very much your support for our organization. And thank you for a life-long commitment to service to the nation, to the defense of the nation. We appreciate it very, very much. Thank you, and look forward to having another conversation down in sunny Orlando.
Gen. (Ret) Spencer: Thank you so much for having me, and thank you for all the support you’ve given AFA over the years.