Gen. Mark Welsh, USAF Ret., the US Air Force’s 20th chief of staff who is now the dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, discusses harnessing disruption, leading innovation and the legacy of the school’s namesake, President George H.W. Bush, with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian. The interview was conducted at the Air Force Association’s 2019 Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando where our coverage was sponsored by Leonardo DRS and L3 Technologies.
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here in Orlando, Florida covering the Air Force Association’s Annual Warfare Symposium, the United States Air Force’s annual winter gathering of its leadership from around the world, industry, media, thought leaders. Our coverage here is sponsored by Leonardo DRS and L3 Technologies.
It’s an absolute honor to be talking to a former Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, General Mark Welsh, who is now the Dean of the George W. Bush School of Government and Public Service, which is a very, very rare animal indeed when it comes to these presidential schools.
Sir, thanks very much for all the time. You had a fascinating conversation about disruption. In talking about how to think about it, from your standpoint, what are some of the key ways of thinking at a very sort of hinge point in history? A lot of that started under your tenure as China was transitioning from a trade partner to more of a strategic challenge. There were changes happening with Russia. They were all of these technological trends. Space was accelerating really, really rapidly at a time when the Air Force was trying to manage all of these different pots and how everything was changing from a counter-insurgency to more of sort of a great power focus as some of the people in the service were doing. Talk to us a little bit about what are some of the foundational ways of thinking about disruption?
Gen. (Ret) Welsh: Well I think the key thing, in my mind at least, is that I don’t get more innovative by becoming more brilliant myself. That just ain’t going to happen, Vago. So the key to me is freeing up everyone else’s voice to be part of the discussion about how should we be dealing with the problems we face around the world.
I think the Air Force is doing a phenomenal job of that. We’ve just spent the last couple of days watching young airmen get up on stage and give their ideas about how to do their job better.
Ideas about how to save money. Ideas about how to save time. To me, it’s a team sport, and if you can get everybody on the team feeling like they’re critically empowered and they’re able to speak their voice and disagree and offer new insights and new opinions, and you get all that new understanding of technology and different perspectives that new generations bring onto the team, then all of a sudden you start to feel real innovative. There’s nothing magic about it, it’s just about letting people go. I was real excited to see that this week.
Mr. Muradian: Right now what’s happening is a little bit of, it’s great to see AFWERX and the work they’re doing. Spark Tank was an extraordinary competition. John Moss’ idea, Master Sergeant John Moss, you know, came up with this brilliant idea of let’s use solar power, for example, on these chemical detectors so the airmen don’t have to go every 12 hours and change the AA batteries. I think I said something factually inaccurate yesterday, by the way. He’s from the 52ndCivil Engineering Squadron at Spangdahlem. I think he’s an emergency management specialist. I said World War II Luftwaffe Base, and it was the wrong base, because Spang was, afterwards I was thinking like no, I think that was not a Luftwaffe Base.
But talk to us a little bit about the balance between, what’s the right way to do this? Because it almost seems like the Air Force and each of the military services is responding to the criticism that it’s not innovative enough by all of a sudden doing like all of these innovation things. We have the Vice Chief Challenge. And at some point people do get sort of innovated out.
And on the flip side, it’s like let’s go to a whole bunch of people who wear black turtle necks and have Fu mustaches and drink cat poop coffee and stuff like that, and they’re the ones who will know what to do.
What’s the balance point of sort of getting this right and actually getting output as opposed to putting, you know, because that can just lead to a whole bunch of endless trends.
Gen. (Ret) Welsh: Well if you try to become innovative as a whole, doing spot checks on innovation doesn’t help you. I, first of all, personally reject the idea that the Air Force or any of the other military services haven’t ben innovative since they formed. If you go around the world and see what airmen are doing today with the technology they’ve been given by pretty innovative defense companies, it’s remarkable, and they come up with new and innovative ways to do everything from targeting to intelligence collection to data sorting, and they do it non-stop. That’s happened since 1947 when this service stood up and before that in the Army Air Corps. So I think we’ve got incredibly innovative people who also happen to be very street smart and are very committed to get whatever job they’ve been given done in the right ways.
The key is just getting an entire institution where everybody in it at every level in every corner feels like they get a voice in making it better. I think that’s the key.
So once you can do that, whether you’re an engineering team in the defense industry or you’re the guys you saw on the stage in Spark Tank yesterday, and you feel like your idea has a chance, you get pretty passionate about it, and we’ve got a lot of passionate people in the Air Force. That’s what excites me about all this. It’s about just getting people to buy in. And once they believe you bought in as their boss and you’re going to listen to their idea, they’re going to hear them.
Mr. Muradian: That’s right, because they are at Innovative AF.
Gen. (Ret) Welsh: Exactly right.
Mr. Muradian: We were discussing that just a moment ago.
What do you think are the keys? Does it start with identifying the problems you need to solve? Is it about what’s available that could scratch an itch? What’s the right way to think about that? Because there are differing schools about how you get there.
Gen. (Ret) Welsh: I think it’s all that, but there’s a very practical part of the job that the U.S. military has to do. You can’t leap from Solution A today and decide that you’re going to go to Solution X by next week. That’s not going to happen.
The job has to continue to get done around the world while you’re transitioning to whatever the new idea is, which I think some people interpret as well, there’s just a frozen middle that doesn’t want to be innovative. I don’t think that’s true. I heard that phrase a lot this week, but I think the frozen middle are the people who go, well that sounds interesting but I have to launch 2,000 CAS sorties tomorrow. So while we’re jumping to the next generation of whatever it is that’s going to do close air support, who’s going to do that?
We have got to continue to do some of the things that we do very well today until we can move forward into really an evolutionary change, not a revolutionary change, into the future. It’s very difficult in national security to do revolutionarily innovative things and expect everybody to buy in.
Mr. Muradian: It’s actually a really, really relevant point. Every once in a while people are like skip a generation. Right? George W. Bush himself was famous for hey, let’s skip a generation and go to the next generation, and everybody in the military was like, sir, that theoretically sounds great but we’ve got a lot of stuff to do. And of course you don’t have a choice, the enemy started a war at that point that everybody had to get focused in.
From your perspective, what are the pressures that act — nobody takes a job to not be innovative. Right? Every Chief comes in with goals, but there are all of these dynamic pressures — budget, political, otherwise.
What are the factors that maybe ecosystem wise may need to change, whether it’s how Congress looks at it, whether it’s how the administration looks at it, to actually change some of these centers of gravity to be able to drive that kind of innovation faster than we’ve been driving it to allow us to do what we’re doing now, but also better position ourselves for the future?
Gen. (Ret) Welsh: I think the type of innovation we’re talking about is different from continuous process improvement. Remember the old mantra of CPI. CPI is something that should always be happening. It should never end. And people have to be involved in that as well, and that’s where their ideas should be freed up and we become more efficient, more effective day by day by day.
I think you can take certain areas, and typically for an Air Force, it’s usually technology areas. Take hypersonics, directed energy, quantum computing, and you can start thinking with those type of things about how to revolutionize the way you do business, and you can take some level of risk in what you’re doing day to day to prepare yourself to really be innovative and revolutionary in that particular application. So the trick is figuring out which ones of those have the most potential for being the change that will help you in the future, but you can’t change everything you do every day and revolutionize that and wait ten years to start doing it.
So I think you’ve got to just be selective about where you’re going to be innovative on a grand scale.
We’re using the word innovation to describe that entire spectrum of things. Right now to me sometimes that gets a little confusing.
Mr. Muradian: For example, Congress always says we want everybody to go faster, but at the end of the day the Service Chief who went faster and failed on three things is going to get called in front of Congress and be like hey, why did you fail on doing this? Which is sort of the way that it works. That’s the reason why Chiefs of Staff have to grow thick hides, because you’ve got to get up there and get beaten up sometimes for stuff that was not necessarily on your watch.
Does the nation need to think differently on stuff like this? Does the political system need to think differently about this? If we’re going to have to make some of those big movements societally, technology’s going to fundamentally change so many — self-driving cars will change the employment picture, right? Increased automation has already been taking people’s jobs away in some respects. Or change them, right? Jobs can go to different kinds of places. It can be an enabler.
Do we need to think differently as a society about the way we think about these things?
Gen. (Ret) Welsh: There’s a very natural tension, especially if you work in government, between how you manage public funding that’s been appropriated by Congress for any activity you conduct and the need of the Congress to oversee that spending, and to do it in the best interest of the American people. So there’s a very natural tension that starts. And if you get too innovative or too clever or try to move too fast in spending that money and you fail, you haven’t used that money wisely and Congress has a requirement to come in and provide oversight and make a correction.
If every time you try hard and fail, even with good intent, we make the type of corrections that add more restrictions on doing things in smart ways, pretty soon you get a system that is very hard to move quickly within. I think that’s, to some extent, where we are.
If you’re going to revolutionize the acquisition process, for example, and make it truly innovative, it has to start at the beginning which is with law, and there has to be a review from top to bottom of this process. Who adds value, who just adds time, who adds road blocks, and what can you take out to be more effective and efficient?
I’ll give you just a small example. Before I left the Air Force I had done a review of our acquisition programs going back over I think it was 30 years. I don’t really remember. But 95 percent of the Air Force acquisition programs over that period had been completed on or under cost and schedule. You probably never heard of any of those programs. You just heard about the ones that were big money programs that had not, had been, for whatever reason had not gone that well. Most of those programs were not managed by the Air Force. They were executed by the Air Force but decision authorities were outside the Air Force.
So if you assume the Air Force has been screwing this up because all you know is that five percent because of the level of funding which is significant for some of these platforms, then you put more rules in to manage those five percent which affect all the other 95 percent which don’t need to slow down. We can speed them up. We’re already good at that. Let’s make ourselves faster there.
So the system doesn’t allow that kind of change to occur quickly, and to me it’s common sense. We just need to start with common sense and go from there as we make these adjustments. And everybody, everybody has to accept a little more risk if we’re going to make it better.
Mr. Muradian: The Air Force prides itself on being innovative. There are some exceptionally smart and exceptionally — one of the points that you made is, that I remember in AFA was, do we need to all be as educated as we are? Because you know, some of us have like four master’s degrees for example. So it’s an incredibly intelligent organization.
What did you find, now that you’re in civilian academia? How has it changed your aperture, how you think as somebody who devoted his entire life to military service?
Gen. (Ret) Welsh: I work now with tenured faculty members whose professional responsibility is to think and to write and to express themselves about topics that are pretty wide-ranging, some very deep. But they’re brilliant people. And I think what I’ve really appreciated about it is that I now work day to day with people who have had time to sit back and really, really think about a particular problem, a particular issue, a particular part of the world. And their depth of knowledge is striking.
So how do you take that depth of knowledge and somehow combine it with the breadth that some of our people in the U.S. military have, and the real world experience, and the very street-smart skills that they’ve developed for how to move people, projects and teams forward, and make those work together in a much more robust way?
We missed that a little bit, I think, inside government because we don’t connect very well except for specific reasons with academia. And I’m telling you, there are some smart people sitting out there in universities around this country who have a very interesting context to offer and we don’t spend enough time face to face hearing it.
Mr. Muradian: Every Chief I know gets booked to almost five-minute increments, right? I mean if you’re at a show like this, General Goldfein, you, if you called and said hey, we’d like to get on the Chief’s calendar, it’s like well, you call in February they go well, we’ve got something for you in August. You’re like oh wow, okay.
Do you think that senior leaders like you used to be need more white space in their schedule, as opposed to being every five minutes is accounted for, to have that time to think, to be able to spend time looking at a problem differently, to be a little bit more strategic as opposed to hey, here are all the tactical things that just will clog up your life to the point where it becomes the tyranny of your schedule as opposed to the thinking that you need to do?
Gen. (Ret) Welsh: Yeah, but I wouldn’t limit it to senior leaders. I think everybody needs more white space in their schedule, to sit back and think about how you do the job and how you can do it better.
I would love it if we could create space at every level of every organization. And there’s probably a way to do that, it just hasn’t been our focus. Our focus has always been get the job done. But if we could create space for every airman on the flight line to have just a little bit of time to sit back and sit with their flight chief and talk about how they’re doing the job. How we arrange our tool kits, how we do our scheduling. Give them time to make an input that could then be heard by the people who can make adjustments, it would be wonderful. Unfortunately, those airmen are deploying, they’re training, they’re working non-stop. And when they’re done they want to get home to their families. So we don’t want them to work longer days, we just have to figure out how to organize those days in a way that give us more time to think as opposed to just reacting to the next problem. And I think that’s true from the senior levels of every organization to the most junior.
The organizations that create that kind of time seem to be the most innovative. Innovation, again, going back to where I started, is just a matter of getting more people expressing more ideas about how to solve your collective problems.
We all have different perspectives, we have different life experiences, we have different ways of seeing a problem. And when we all feel comfortable in throwing out our ideas, pretty soon the collective idea just gets better and better and better. That’s what we ought to be shooting for. But it takes time. You’ve got to take the time to make that happen. I think I probably failed at that over the course of my career. I don’t think I spent enough time figuring out how to find more time.
Mr. Muradian: That’s at the end of the day I think a challenge everybody faces. It’s like boy, I’d like to have more time but I don’t have time because I’ve got to do another 29 emails, and then you realize like wow, I wrote 29 emails and I didn’t really do perhaps something that was more important.
Tell us a little bit about the George W. Bush school and how unique and different it is from some of the other schools that have president’s names in them.
Gen. (Ret) Welsh: This is actually the George H.W. Bush. It’s named after Bush 41.
Mr. Muradian: That’s right, excuse me, I should have said H.W. Bush and I said W. Bush, and that was a mistake on my part.
Gen. (Ret) Welsh: We’re big fans of 43 too. But the school’s named after President George H.W. Bush. The school stood up at the same time that his Presidential Library stood up at Texas A&M University. It was a package deal. The first thing President Bush told me about the school when I got there was that he considers it his living legacy. Seventy percent of the graduates of this school have gone into public service since the school opened 21 years ago, which is an incredible statistic. Students choose us. It’s a graduate school. We have degrees in international affairs and public service administration. Our students wind up being anything from Secretary of State to City Manager in Navasota, Texas. But they come as a group because they want to serve in some way.
So before we get them, they bought in, and then they spent two years with each other magnifying this desire, and then they head out, 70 percent of them, to go serve their fellow citizens.
It is an incredible place. Great people, all focused on the same thing. It’s not about President Bush’s politics, about his personal example, his principled leadership, respect and loyalty he showed to everyone he ever worked with. We’re pretty proud to represent him. Now he and Mrs. Bush and Robin are lying out back, so we get to take care of them.
Mr. Muradian: He was an extraordinary man and just an incredible example in so many ways. What was it like working with him? I was lucky enough to meet him twice, but you had an opportunity to be able to work with him and spend time with him. What did that mean to you at the end of the day?
Gen. (Ret) Welsh: I didn’t know him before I took the job, so about three years ago is when I first met him. Physically he was not able to do the things he had done with the school, he or Mrs. Bush, in its earlier years.
But as soon as I got to Texas he and Mrs. Bush invited my wife and I to Houston to have lunch with them. We visited with them several times that way. He would come up for events the first year. Second year, health kind of got to be a problem for him. So he was not around as much as he could be. But early in the years of the school he would literally be out playing horseshoes on the side of the school when students came to class. He would knock on a classroom window and wave then come in the door to say hi. They would be simulating a National Security Team briefing to the President and he’d walk in the room, and the President was there, which tended to shake them up a little bit. He was just a remarkably human guy, and so was Mrs. Bush. They were just like people you know and have had as a friend for years. That was the thing that impressed me the most. He is so normal, and yet brilliant, dedicated, patriotic. His incredible life and impact. But just a great, great human being.
So it’s really a privilege to be at a school that has his name on the wall.
Mr. Muradian: And he was also a fellow aviator.
Gen. (Ret) Welsh: He was a fellow aviator. A pretty darn good one. An incredible combat story. Youngest aviator in the Navy when he first joined and of course shot down in the Pacific and rescued by a U.S. submarine. And he never forgot the love of those days. In fact the reason I applied for this job when I heard it was coming open before I retired from the Air Force was because in the late ‘90s I got a letter from President George H.W. Bush. I’d given a speech at the Air Force Academy about my combat experience in the first Gulf War and it somehow ended up in the Wall Street Journal and he read it there and he wrote me a letter. And I remember thinking why would a former President of the United States write Bozo a letter. And the fact that he took the time to do that. And I found out later he wrote thousands of letters like that. The fact that he took that time just really, really impressed me.
So when I had the chance to put my name in the hat for this job, I just felt like this is something to honor a guy who deserves to be honored.
Mr. Muradian: Sir, General Mark Welsh, former Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, now the Dean of the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service. Sir, thanks very, very much. Thank you for all your service and the inspiration you’ve had for everybody. You’re one of the most gracious general officers I’ve ever met and worked with, and I really appreciate that, and I know a lot of other people do too, sir. Thank you very much.
Gen. (Ret) Welsh: Thanks for telling the stories.