Our most valuable weapon system

SOUTHWEST ASIA -- Our Nation and Air Force are in the midst of some of the most challenging times many who serve today have experienced. Over the last several years, we have endured sequestration and a government shutdown, both of which had an impact on our Airmen and our current operations. But the effects we are experiencing now are just the calm before the storm. We will not feel the full effects of these events until five and even ten years from now.

Our adversaries, on the other hand, have continued to develop sophisticated technologies designed to limit U.S. freedom of action across all domains. In addition, our nation has been called upon to provide relief to natural disaster areas around the globe many in places only accessible to U.S. military assets. Fewer resources and a seemingly never ending appetite for U.S. airpower, illustrate a potentially dire picture for our Air Force's future. And far too often we get mired into thinking technology or new platforms will solve our problems. When in reality we already employ our nation's most valuable weapon system: our Airmen. Their development is all of our responsibility and only when we succeed in doing so can we as an Air Force overcome the challenges we are about to face.

During the past four months, I have been deployed with some of the most dedicated group of Airmen with whom I have ever had the honor to serve in my 16 year career. They motivate me with their enthusiasm and inspire me with their commitment to the mission and each other. Flying missions to provide 24-hour air cover in Afghanistan, these Airmen repeatedly have made life and death decisions under some of the most restrictive conditions I have seen during my career.

During this deployment, I witnessed our Airmen furiously repairing B-1s during the hottest part of the day in more than 115 degree temperatures in order to provide air power to our ground forces in Afghanistan. When approached for a celebratory high-five and thanks after another successful Air Tasking Order launch, their most common reply is, "Sir, it's what we do."

I watched a group of young B-1 aviators fresh out of Mission Qualification Training transform into combat proven veterans and a young corps of instructors grow into mentors that are critical for a combat squadron's success. They present themselves to others not with hubris or chest-thumping arrogance, but a low-key poise that instills confidence and quietly proclaims, "Leader". It cannot be explained in words, but can only be seen in the way they interact with others and with each other.

Also during this deployment, I witnessed a group of flight commanders "own" the squadron. They have exceeded my expectations with how they have committed themselves to improving the squadron and each other and how they have dedicated themselves to developing the Airmen they lead. One of our Airmen saved an incapacitated soldier, and I saw a supervisor lead a young Airman to perform at such a high level that it warranted an early promotion for that Airman. These anecdotes are only a small sample from the deployment but, in my opinion, indicative of what we need more of in the future.

These recent experiences and observations give me hope for the future for these are the very Airmen who will help lead our Air Force through the next five to ten years and beyond, when we will likely begin to experience the full impact of sequestration. By no means are our Airmen perfect, but they are innovative, resourceful and resilient. With proper mentorship we can develop our Airmen to become the future leaders our Air Force needs. They are the ones who will ensure our service continues to operate at a high level. We cannot abdicate this responsibility to only the cadre at our professional military education programs. It begins and should be continuously reinforced at the squadron where our Airmen spend the vast majority of their career. As leaders we are given a lot of responsibilities, but there is none greater than the growth and development of our Airmen. It is not technology or platforms that are the saviors of our Air Force. It is our Airmen who can adapt and overcome any challenge presented by the current environment and, most importantly, outthink our adversaries. I am excited about our prospects for the future because when "armed" with our most valuable weapon system, our Airmen, I believe the next five to ten years can be our "finest hour."