John W. Henderson, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment and Energy, is responsible for the formulation, review and execution of plans, policies, programs and budgets to meet Air Force installations, energy, environment, safety and occupational health objectives.
Henderson was commissioned in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in May 1994, upon graduation from the South Dakota School of Mines, and retired in the grade of colonel in 2017 after a 23-year career. He commanded an engineer battalion during operation Enduring Freedom and deployed with the 25th Infantry Division and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during two tours supporting operation Iraqi Freedom.
He has held multiple command and staff positions throughout his career, to include five assignments with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, culminating as the Omaha District Commander.
In the spring of 2019, Airman interviewed Henderson about the current state of Air Force installations and the path forward in recapitalization. He believes that mission requirements and infrastructure readiness are intrinsically linked.
Interview Topic Navigator
1. The importance of bases
2. Infrastructure and Investment Strategy (I2S)
3. Funding I2S and Installation Health Assessments
4. Technology and Artificial Intelligence
5. Tyndall AFB and Base of the Future
6. Agile Acquisitions
7. Budget Challenges
8. Tyndall and Ranges
9. Talent and Training
10. The Arctic
11. Housing Issues and Failing Forward
AIRMAN: Although I am sure there are some significant differences, your experience with the Army Corps of Engineers must be an advantage in your new post.
HENDERSON: That’s been quite a transition, but the Army was really good to me. I had a great career in the Army.
AIRMAN: Three combat tours, right?
HENDERSON: Yes, I got to go overseas quite a bit and I’ve gotten some great assignments. Not by design. It wasn’t like, “Hey, we’re going to put this guy in a great assignment.” Sometimes I’d select the short straw and get a bad assignment, which turned out to be really good. It just turned out to be fortuitous or dumb luck and timing.
Those were assignments that we didn’t ask for and didn’t want and they would turn out great! I call it the Forrest Gump method of career management. It was kind of this feather floating in the wind and these weird things happened along the way that turned into a very fulfilling career. I would have probably stayed with it; probably would have gone to Afghanistan after my Omaha tour, had this opportunity not come up.
HENDERSON: The Air Force is a little bit different than the other services with regard to bases. (Former Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson) likes to say that we fight from our bases.
That’s a little bit different than the Army or the Navy that project power from their bases, but don’t necessarily have to recover and fight and generate from there. If you look at missions like our remotely piloted aircraft, long-range bombers and global mobility, cyber, missiles; when it comes time for us to actually get into a high-end fight, we’re fighting from those bases.
Those bases will be targets for the enemy. Those bases will have to be resilient and those bases will run missions from right where they’re at. We’re not picking up and going anywhere.
The military value of those bases isn’t just buildings and pavement. It’s air space, it’s ranges, it’s the level of community support we get for those missions. It’s a number of other things that really determine what the military value is.
Sometimes it’s just the geographic location is important to us.
From our perspective, those bases aren’t something that we can invest in when a conflict arises or we feel tensions coming on. We have to keep those bases ready fight tonight, so to speak. That means we have to continually invest in them along the way.
AIRMAN: What are the issues that will be addressed by the Infrastructure and Investment Strategy (I2S)?
HENDERSON: First of all, because of sequestration and some other readiness priorities for the last six or eight years, the Air Force has essentially underfunded our infrastructure, sustainment and maintenance and recapitalization.
That’s resulted in about a $33 billion backlog in work that needs to be done. As you go out and visit bases, we’re starting to see what that looks like. We’re starting to see roofs leak. We’re starting to see foundational problems with some of our infrastructure.
At some point, especially in the Air Force, where we depend very heavily on facilities and advanced facilities and operations centers and mission control centers to get our mission done, that starts impacting the mission. Whether it’s a runway or a flight-line maintenance facility, if those aren’t ready then we’re not mission ready.
It’s a very quick linkage to draw. We needed to develop a strategy and balance out the rest of those priorities; our mission requirements, our modernization priorities, with infrastructure readiness because they’re intrinsically linked.
That’s really the bigger problem we’re trying to solve. Not just going in and saying, “We’ve got $33 billion worth of backlog, so now we’ve got to spend three to $33 billion to buy it down,” but creating a strategy to not only put a sustainable level of investment in place in the long term. This is a 30-year strategy, but we also need to change our business processes so that we can invest at the lowest life-cycle cost and lower the overall cost of managing those facilities going forward, so that we’re not pulling money out of a readiness and modernization priorities.
AIRMAN: Aren’t a lot of these facilities from the World War II era, when no one was thinking about the internet and interconnectivity?
HENDERSON: Some of them are World War II facilities. Some of them are even earlier than that. We inherited some of our bases that were old Army posts. Offutt Air Force Base (Nebraska) used to be an old cavalry fort. A great place for a cavalry fort is right there between two rivers on the bluffs where you can overlook the rivers. But, now it’s an Air Force base and used for completely different purposes.
So those bases have to be able to adapt to the changing missions. Some of that infrastructure is a very old and costs a little more to maintain. Still useful, but you have to continue to invest in it if we’re going to keep it around.
HENDERSON: We took a look at what private industry and across the industries, what other companies, other organizations put into facility investment. We’ve looked at some academic studies of what the right level of annual investment is to maintain and sustain facilities going forward.
It turns out that the low end of that comes out to be about 2% to 4% of the total plant replacement value, a PRV, that’s essentially what it would cost to replace the facilities.
The Air Force has about $262 billion worth of facilities; that is what it would cost to replace our 180 Air Force bases. So, we take about 2% of that a year, we think that’s about right for us. Industry invests about 2% to 4% on average.
But, the way we use the facilities, we think the absolute minimum amount necessary, just to sustain, is about 2%. We worked with the senior leaders of the Air Force over the last year and said, “We think in order to get a steady, predictable level investment for the next 30 years, we would like to up our investment from where it currently is in (fiscal year 2019), which is something probably less than 1.5% and get that up to about 2% in the five-year plan.
Then the idea is that at the end of the year, when there’s fallout money, we’d be prepared to take those additional monies and add that to the 2% to get us to 2.3% – 2.4%. That’s a big deal. The Air Force senior leaders agreed with that logic.
They saw that if you’re going to have a long-term sustainable strategy, that we would be the right amount of investment. But, what that resulted in between FY19 and FY20, is we ended up asking for about $2 billion more or a 40% increase over last year’s budget. So, that’s a significant increase in the budget for that.
We’re working to have that programmed into the five-year plan and we really need that as a budget policy going forward for the Air Force to sustain that. That means Airmen and families, people who live at the bases, as soon as next year, could see some significant work going on in facilities that have otherwise been passed over or weren’t prioritized high enough to get fixed.
I’ve been to places where at active dining facilities, when it rains the roof leaks. That’s the stuff we had to put up with because we couldn’t afford to fix it. We couldn’t get down far enough on the list to maintain those facilities, but now we should be able to reach a lot farther down on those lists.
The other part of the strategy, though, isn’t just about money. The other part of it is a changed business process.
Last year when I got here, we went to Congress and we defended something we called “Worst, First.” That’s what you do when you have limited funds; you’re going to put them towards your highest priority projects, the buildings that are in the absolute worst shape, because you have to. You don’t have a choice. That was essentially our strategy going in.
It’s been the strategy for six or seven years under constrained funds. Another way of saying that is we’re going to wait until a facility degrades to the point when it’s the most expensive cost point in the lifecycle to fix. It could cost five or seven or eight times as much to fix it at that point, when it gets to its worst condition, than it would if we recapitalize that at the lowest cost point of the life cycle, which is somewhere about midlife.
If you address it about midlife, you fix the roof, you get new heating, ventilation, air conditioning, upgrade the electrical, that all costs money, but that investment will reset the life of that building for another 40 or 50 years. It keeps the buildings modern, it keeps them safe, it keeps them up to code and it’s actually a better stewardship of taxpayer money.
So, the big question is how do you know when you have almost 98,000 facilities across the Air Force and for each one of those facilities, all built at a different time, all in different environments, all different types of facilities, what is the lowest cost point for every one of those facilities? How do you take what is one big budget request, an appropriation for the Air Force, and make sure that it trickles down into 180 bases to get to the right building at the right time?
That’s a huge change in business process for us. That requires that we have to have 100% inventory of the buildings. We’ve got to know what the current condition is of those facilities. Then we have got to know how to model it to determine when it gets to that point in the life cycle when it’s an optimum investment for recap. The Air Force Civil Engineering Center, over the last three or four years, has worked to collect that data.
That means there had to be an engineer with eyes-on in every facility. That means we’ve had to add every one of them into the database. They’ve created something called the Installation Health Assessment that models different types of facilities on degradation curves; how they degrade over time. They put every one of those buildings on the right point on the curve based on the age of the building and their assessment of it and they put this into their health assessment.
The health assessment is essentially a heat map. Every little pixel represents one facility and we can tell whether it’s red, amber, green. We can tell exactly where it’s at in the life cycle.
Not only do I know where it’s at today, I can predict five years from now where that building will be in the life cycle, even ten years from now. I can predict when that facility will be ready for a recap and we’ll generally know how much money that’s going to require.
We can essentially lay out our financial needs for the next 30 years using a tool like that, as long as we’ve got that good authoritative database that AFCEC has been putting together. That’s really the power behind the strategy. Because if I do that, I’m saving five to seven times the amount of money on infrastructure upgrades and investments. The increased funding is part of it, but when you’re talking about billions of dollars of infrastructure investment over 30 years and the fact that we’re saving that order of magnitude, this is a huge savings.
In addition to saving the money, this gives us more money to do these smaller projects along the way.
Proactive investments along the way allows us to get after the energy resiliency projects. Energy resilience for us is just making sure that we have backup power or sometimes an alternate source of power in case the grid goes out. It helps us to cyber secure facilities, helps us get into these other proactive projects instead of just being in a worst-first triage mode all the time, just reacting to it. We’re getting ahead of the power curve.
So, in other words, if you’re not paying five to seven times the amount by fixing something that’s worst, first, I can do five to seven times the number of projects. I can do more work. That’s the power behind this.
That change in the business process, in addition to the increased funding, gives us the decision space. We still have to take care of those facilities that are in worse condition, but on the other hand, we still need the decision space to start proactively investing and get ahead of it because that keeps those facilities from ever getting into kind of this red, failed, status.
Then, the other part of this strategy that helps us out is divesting. Maybe 5% of the worst facilities, instead of putting all that money to fix a failed facility, just make the decision that we don’t need it, consolidate that function, redo existing facilities and then demolish it; save that money altogether and then save the future operations and maintenance costs.
AIRMAN: You said data collection is performed by an engineer who is physically in the facility. Are we heading towards a future where technology, artificial intelligence and sensors, will be keeping an eye on everything, all the time?
HENDERSON: There’s a lot of great technologies out there in building-management systems that are being used in the private sector that we can certainly leverage.
If I could throw a couple of scenarios out there, and these technologies exist, imagine in a new facility, that we have these building-management systems where you can monitor how the building’s doing on any given day.
You’ve got a lot of sensors in the HVAC systems and the lighting. You can manage the air quality, manage security and you can kind of have this all on a console laid out in front of you. Think of a facility that could be resilient to a cyber-attack or some type of intrusion attack on the power source. The sensors sense that and can automatically block it or counter attack.
Let’s just use a base defense scenario.
Let’s say it’s an expeditionary base and it’s in one of our combat zones and you’re going to defend against a missile attack. We know how to defend against a missile attack and we’ve got the technologies to do that, but let’s say 20 years from now, maybe one of those attacks, whether it’s a missile attack or a cyber-attack, comes in an overwhelming a number of ways, like say a thousand missiles coming at the base, how do you defend against a thousand missiles? How do you defend against a thousand cyber-attacks coming in a thousand a second; faster than humans can react?
In those types of situations where you’re talking about energy resiliency or defending the base, there’s certainly room for sensors and machine learning and automated intelligence that can sense and sometimes even react and then help with the decision making and do it faster than humans can mentally and physically do. We have the technologies that can do these types of things.
From a building-maintenance point of view, think of an air conditioner, these great, big heating and ventilation systems that we have on server rooms or data centers, these take a huge amount of air conditioning.
We send people around to inspect these things and do periodic maintenance on these things, but it’s really hard for human technician to detect when a pulley is about ready to go out. If that goes undetected, we know if the pulleys fail, the whole air-conditioning system fails.
Sometimes the failure that air-conditioning system might cause problems to the data center or cause problems to the rest of the building or might cause leaks or maybe it just doesn’t run optimally for a couple of years and it causes mold to form inside the duct work. Whatever that problem is, sometimes those aren’t perceivable problems for a human technician.
A building-automated system can check the humidity in the air, they can detect extra friction on a fan belt or pulley and we can go in and change that thing before it breaks and causes damage to some other part of the building.
AIRMAN: Is that the same principle as predictive maintenance for aircraft?
HENDERSON: Right. I make that parallel quite a bit. It’s predictive maintenance.
Why do I have to wait for the pulley to break? If I know through predictive maintenance that those pulleys last 10,000 hours or whatever it would be, and they generally had to be replaced at 10,000 hours, then why do I have to wait for it to break?
At 10,000 hours we automatically order the pulley and we go in and we fix it on our terms on a scheduled maintenance call as opposed to doing it unscheduled and then fixing all the collateral damage that came from that one little $5 pulley that broke and caused tens of thousands of dollars of damage.
I make the same analogy for roofs. We could just fix the leak in the roof the first time we perceive a leak as opposed to waiting three or four years to go through this contracting process and waiting for it to rack and stack. By that time, the roof’s been leaking for five years and we’ve got mold and water damage and damage to the walls and damage to the systems in the buildings.
If we could just fix the roofs and the HVACs, we’d take care of a huge part of our backlogged maintenance problems. Proactively put the roof on. If the roof’s got 20 years on it and we know those types of roofs need to be changed at 20 years and then let’s go change the roof, we don’t need for it to wait for it to leak and cause a bunch of damage to the rest of the building.
Those are just smart, proactive ways that the rest of the world manages their facilities. There’s no reason why the Air Force shouldn’t be doing that, too. Just leveraging best practices and leveraging advanced technologies to help us manage facilities so we’re not running up the costs for our taxpayers.
HENDERSON: There’s a lot of things out there for the Base of the Future and city of the future. Just a lot of great technologies out there.
I think the big question we’re wrestling with right now is what does the Air Force need in a base in the future?
There’s a lot of things we could do. There’s a lot of things we could experiment with. But in this case, mostly out of stewardship for taxpayer dollars, we’re focusing on what a fifth-generation fighter base needs, we’re trying to focus on the mission requirements. What of those technologies that are out there could enhance that?
In the case of Tyndall (AFB), we have this opportunity, born of tragedy, where we’re going to go back and rebuild almost every facility on the base or at least do significant upgrades to the ones that we could save.
It’s a great opportunity to update the structure of the buildings, to meet updated codes. Some of those facilities are World War II era facilities. Upgrade the resiliency to weather threats; we’re looking at maybe even building to a Miami Dade-type of code as opposed to what the code is up in the Panhandle.
Ensuring that the energy distribution systems are resilient for those types of storms and those types of threats in that area and then ensuring that we have up-to-date modern facilities that are going to support a fifth-generation type of aircraft.
We’re proposing to put three squadrons of F-35s in there, so ensuring that those facilities have the (communications) links and the bandwidth and the right hangers situated in an optimum way for a fifth-generation fighter base. That base was built as a World War II base and things have changed over the years.
It’s given us an opportunity to rethink how the flight lines are laid out.It’s given us an opportunity to think about our mission support and community support layout. It’s given us an opportunity to look at setting things up where people can maybe walk to work as opposed to drive to work.
Then, of course, use some of these building technologies we just discussed. It’s an opportunity to go ahead and use it as a pilot where we can, since we’re going to end up rebuilding so many facilities, go ahead and implement a system base wide where instead of a building monitoring system, we can have a base-wide monitoring system that can monitor every building on base.
So, we can see the condition status and get after this proactive maintenance because it’s just way cheaper to fix it in advance of things breaking. The idea is, if we get a pilot like this started on an entire base, what keeps us from being able to do this as a franchise? Find something that works and do it on several bases, then, at some point, we’re going to have an enterprise-wide understanding of where our maintenance money is going, what needs to be fixed, what parts need to be ordered.
Then it starts looking like your aircraft maintenance, your predictive maintenance things that we’re doing on the aircraft.
AIRMAN: With the success of the Air Force Pitch Day in New York this spring, there is discussion of putting together a Base of the Future Pitch Day. Could technologies proposed there be applies directly to the rebuild of Tyndall?
HENDERSON: We think there’s room for an Air Force Pitch Day in there just because of some of the advanced technologies and different ways of managing installations.
We’ve done two Industry Days at Tyndall (AFB), which essentially resulted in a pitch day. We asked for white papers back from industry on ideas about how they would build it or how they would manage the rebuild of it. Soliciting ideas for these new technologies for managing buildings and infrastructure and bases.
That was tremendously successful in both cases. We completely filled up the room with our industry partners. A lot of interests were there and we got a lot of great ideas and white papers back from that. So that, in my mind, is a very successful interaction with industry.
Now we’ve used that to inform our draft master plan for Tyndall (AFB) and we’re starting to build projects on that.
HENDERSON: Absolutely. With regard to the infrastructure, one of the reforms that’s going on in the Department of Defense is this idea called category management and acquisition. That’s probably the one that applies most to us.
In other words, if I know out of 98 or 99,000 different facilities that we have across the United States, every year I’m going to have to buy a certain number of roof replacements, whatever that is, say one or 2% of those facilities.
If I have got to buy 2,000 or 3,000 roof replacements or roof repairs, then why am I going to go through the acquisition process, especially the federal acquisition process? Why not use category management, which is essentially leverage in a scale of economies, putting regional roofing contracts on where we hire one group of contractors to include small business?
They could be hired to repair roofs, maybe for an entire region of bases. That helps drive the cost down. It gives a group of contractors who are really good at it, an opportunity to work on several bases. So, we’re not starting over with each one and it keeps our acquisition team from having to do the acquisition process that many times you do one larger acquisition that meets all the requirements and then we spread that out across the enterprise.
Maybe we do it in regions. We’re doing that on several categories of infrastructure acquisition. That’s a change for us and we think that’s a great way, again, to leverage economies of scale and expedite the acquisition process a little bit.
The other part is making sure that we have the contract tools in place to handle year-end fallout. This is another part of the strategy. If we program and budget to 2% of the plant replacement value, then we’d also like to be well postured at the end of the year.
These O and M operations and maintenance funds, are kind of fungible. The ones that aren’t spent at the end of the year, if we have projects on the shelf that are ready to go, where we have contracts ready to sign and they’re in line with the strategy already, then we take that money and we put it toward things that we really need. We put it toward priority projects as opposed to waiting till the end of the year and then just spending the money on whatever we’re able to buy before the end of the year.
AIRMAN: What part does the support of senior leadership play in moving forward with I2S?
HENDERSON: We have the right group of leaders here in the Air Force, right now, that see the value, see the intrinsic link between infrastructure readiness, our training readiness, our personnel readiness or equipment readiness.
This is not a money grab. This is saying there’s a basic industry-accepted level of investment that we have to continue to put into our facilities on the auspices that we’re going to manage that money well, manage it in the most optimum way possible. Not to divert from the rest of the readiness.
This should almost be invisible to the rest of the Air Force. It should be something that quietly goes on in the background. The facilities are just ready to go when we need them. It’s a supporting effort.
It was an agreement among the senior leaders that said, “hey, this is really important.” When my dining facilities leak, our Airmen are not happy. When we have control centers and computer rooms and intel facilities where the roof is leaking or there is something wrong with the facility and they have to pick up and move, we’re disrupting a mission because the facility isn’t ready.
We’re seeing a lot of this across the Air Force and our senior leaders have bought into the strategy and said, “hey, we’re willing to work together on this,” on the resourcing with it, measuring ourselves and holding ourselves accountable to ensuring that we’ve got the foundational infrastructure we need to do our mission.
AIRMAN: You have been looking over the horizon and diligently planning for the allocation of funds to support future projects, but then something like the hurricane destroying Tyndall (AFB) and flooding damaging Offutt (AFB) happen back to back. What challenges does that present?
HENDERSON: It has been a tough year. It was already an underfunded year from the get go. We went into the year underfunded and then we’ve just had a number of unforeseen events that have really pulled on the budget.
Since our O and M funds are fungible, this is probably some of our biggest funding hurdles we have. When there’s bills to pay in any given year, even if we get the money, that money is susceptible to be moved. Even when we’re programming and we’re trying to balance inside the total obligation authority. There’s always this balance between modernization and training and readiness and facilities. This is a discussion about how we balance these things out so they’re always susceptible to be moved.
That’s probably one of the big things that we are working hard to codify in the Air Force budget policy to ensure that these do get programmed out at the right level. Then in the year of execution, just making sure that we find the right balance between the priorities and we can adapt to changes.
This is a prime example; whatever we thought we were going to spend our money on in facilities in (fiscal 2019), a huge part of that now has gone to Tyndall (AFB). There’s more going to Offutt Air Force Base recovery right now. Subject to approval of a supplemental funding, those are one-year funds, so they’re just gone.
Then all this discussion about what we asked for in FY20 gets impacted by leftover, backlog, requirements from (fiscal 2019) that we never got to. While it was nice to get a budget and get a 40% increase in your budget in (fiscal 2020), without a supplemental, essentially the requirements didn’t go away, right? We just built the backlog bigger and we have more stuff to go and address now.
HENDERSON: I’ll go back to what’s the military value of our bases. It’s not just buildings and infrastructure. If it was just buildings and pavement, we could pick that mission up and put it anywhere, but the geographic location is right next to one of our national treasures in the Eglin test and training range. As you fly off the Panhandle of Florida, there by Tyndall Air Force Base, they’ve got training space almost all the way down to Key West off the shore of Florida.
It’s air space that has a lot of military value. One of the only places in the nation, if not the only place in the nation, where we’ve got approved air space where we can fly drones, full-size (unmanned aerial vehicles), like the QF-16, off the runway and then right out over the water. They don’t have to fly through FAA air space. They don’t have to fly over populated areas.
These are inherently dangerous missions where we are doing airplane-on-airplane training and we shoot the drones down. For us to be able to secure air space, to do those types of things, it’s nearly impossible. It’s not like I can just pick that mission up and go somewhere else.
Also, we get this incredible community support around Panama City and around Tyndall Air Force Base. That’s a national treasure. That has military value in and of itself. We have some communities where the communities have come online and don’t want the Air Force mission there.
That’s really hard to operate in communities where we don’t get that kind of support; where there isn’t some kind of give and take, some teamwork there. If we’re constantly fighting with the community around us, that’s really a distraction from the mission.
So, community support, access to world-class ranges, and access to very unique air space and the network of bases down along the Florida coast with Eglin and Hurlburt and MacDill and Tyndall, we bring in fighters from all over the world and they do these Checkered Flag exercises, where they can all leave from different bases and go back to different bases and then go out and run exercises, all linked to a common range there.
AIRMAN: Is it fair to say that Tyndall is very important to international partnerships and total force exercises?
HENDERSON: Absolutely. To have that kind of capacity there, from a strategic capital infrastructure point of view, Tyndall Air Force Base is extremely important to the Air Force.
HENDERSON: When we were putting the strategy together, we identified a gap here and most of it’s in the form of capacity. We’ve got a tremendous Air Force civil engineering group essentially coming through, but there’s not enough of them.
Over the years, with the personnel cuts that have happened in the Air Force, some of these mission support AFSCs have taken a larger cut than most.
When it comes time to surge on these big missions that come up, like the reconstruction of Tyndall or construction, we’re putting in overseas where it takes active duty Airmen engineers to go do that type of work, we find ourselves with a lack of capacity. As we talked about earlier, this really manifests itself with a huge increase in number of projects, either through increased funding or because we’re funding smaller projects sooner in the life cycle.
If you take the increase in money and then the number of smaller projects then you get almost an exponential increase in the number of projects overall, which takes engineers and designers and cost estimates and people to oversee the construction.
With the number of things we’re looking at, our estimates right now show that we’re probably, 3,300 or 3,500 full-time equivalent employees short, to be able to manage this program.
So, as the program ramps up over time, there’s a number of ways that we can field that. There are some inherently governmental functions in there that we’ll have to look at increasing our government civilian piece.
There’s some inherently military stuff there to ensure we’re keeping a cadre of folks on the military warfighting engineering requirements. Some of those would have to be military plus-ups.
Then some of it we can do with contractors and architectural engineering firms and bringing in construction with our industry partners.
The full-time equivalence is really a combination of all those, but it is a little bit different way of managing our business.
The Air Force Institute of Technology does a great job training our engineers. They have a lot of programs specifically tailored to help our engineers to understand and teach our engineers how to run bases. How to run cities.
Part of that is working with them to ensure that as our engineers come up through their career fields, they understand what this strategy is and we’re not calling it something new or different. It’s not an installation investment strategy, it’s just Air Force policy. This is how we manage infrastructure, period.
That’s kind of the next big step for us is to instill this into Air Force policy, into Air Force training for our engineers and our acquisition folks and ensure that this becomes a steady state, not some special strategy that has a separate document, but Air Force policy which people don’t have to think about too much, because it’s happening automatically in a good way.
HENDERSON: We were putting a lot of investment in Alaska right now with the F-35 bed-downs.
Doing a lot of work up at Eielson Air Force Base right now with the community, ensuring that infrastructure is resilient to a number of different threats.
They’re a little bit closer to some of our primary competitors for one, just because of the shape of the earth, but the weather threats and the tidal threats and the natural threats in Alaska are quite a bit different, too. It just requires us building to a different facility code, ensuring that those facilities are resilient, too. Permafrost, or permafrost melt, as it may be, is one of those things we have to consider.
Finally, we have a pretty limited number of energy sources in Alaska.
In the United States (the lower 48 states), we’ve got these interconnected major power grids where sometimes we can tap into different sources or we’ve got big wind farms that we can tie into; alternate sources of energy. Some of that in Alaska is just, frankly, pretty limited.
Some of the work that we are doing in Alaska is trying to ensure that there’s some major source of alternative power up there for those bases because they are so strategically important. That’s another example where our base’s geographic location on the face of the Earth is extremely important; strategically significant.
If it was just buildings and pavement, then we can put that mission anywhere, but there’s no place like Alaska with regard to being halfway across the Pacific Ocean and almost all the way into the Arctic. Those two areas on the planet are going to be strategically important as we go forward.
AIRMAN: With the Arctic sea ice melting away and creating new access for shipping, it also creates areas for potential conflict. Are those bases key to monitoring and securing that changing environment?
HENDERSON: We project we’re going to be a huge part of all that. So yes, those spaces are extremely important. The resiliency of those bases and the long-term endurance of those bases is of strategic importance to the Air Force.
AIRMAN: What didn’t I ask that I should have asked?
HENDERSON: I think the big message for us right now is the impact to the Air Force without supplemental funding. Right now, we’ve put probably 61 projects on hold; (fiscal 2019) projects that really needed to be done. They were in that worst/first category. So, not doing those projects is impacting readiness.
They’re spread across 18 states and, in a lot of cases, those were projects that were ready to fund. There were already commitments to contractors made. They already put in the bids for it, we just hadn’t announced them or funded them yet. There was work that was anticipated to be ready to go at facilities that needed to be fixed, but a lot of that money was diverted to Tyndall and Offutt recoveries on the pretense that Congress has always funded supplementals in other disasters. So, that’s a big deal for us right now.
There are other bills in (fiscal 2019) that have gone unpaid and that’s part of that $ 1.2 billion supplemental the secretary talks about. We’ll continue working with Congress to see if we can get that across the finish line.
AIRMAN: Finally, the chief of staff talks about the importance of failing forward, not just in the acquisition-sense, where prototyping and failing at the beginning saves you money, but also in an Airman’s career, the importance of learning how to turn a failure into something positive. Is there something in your career that would be emblematic of that, which you could share with us?
HENDERSON: Almost every day. I can give an Army example and an Air Force example.
I was an operations officer. We went into an area outside of Tikrit, Iraq, where our mission was to secure a certain battlespace. So inside of the base and then the area outside of the base. And we fell on the mission of the folks before us, which was an infantry unit out of the 101st Airborne. We went in for the first 90 days and we were just not getting the effects that we thought we would. The number of attacks on the base were increasing, not decreasing.
We should’ve been going the other way. We had Soldiers who were wounded in action. We had one that was killed in action. We had several of our vehicles were blown up with IEDs. We were just really struggling to implement this plan that we had inherited.
At some point in there, we just had to stop and reset. Not to say that it’s failed, but what we’re doing is not working. So, we took some time to listen. You do that as a team. Sometimes we do the after action reports.
We went and listened to the local leaders, the Imams. We listened to the local populace. With a few of the IED emplacers that we captured, we started to sit down and listen to get some intelligence from them.
We came to the conclusion that we were being attacked by the same populace that we were trying to build bridges with and get along with. One of our IED emplacers said, “I don’t have anything against the United States. I don’t want to attack Soldiers, but this guy from al Qaeda or whoever paid me $40 to go dig a hole on the side of the road and I need to feed my family. I don’t care whether you’re here or not, but there’s been no jobs since you’ve been here. I would just really like to feed my family. And every time you guys come out and shoot one of us who’s digging a hole on the side of the road, it makes the rest of us mad.”
So, there was this epiphany.
We went back and we put together essentially a jobs program where he needed to build walls. We hired a local contractor to do it. We just said in the contract that you have to hire local labor. And we decided to put every military-age male, anywhere in the five villages around us, to work building walls. If they weren’t available for that, where we’re going to bring them in and do a skills training and teach them how to be generator mechanics and carpenters and plumbers and masons.
For a very low investment, you can start replacing some of the higher paid American contractors that we needed to phase out anyway. That was called the Iraqi Business Industrial Zone.
The attacks stopped immediately.
We went from something like 40 significant activities a week to zero and it stayed at zero.
Two years later, we checked on this same area again and it never came back, because we built a relationship with the community. I was thinking about the question. I thought that was one of our best fail forwards because it had a profound impact and it actually ended up getting franchised across other parts of Iraq.
In the Air Force, we’re going through a little bit of a fail forward right now with our discussion on privatized housing.
In that particular case, whatever body of facts that we use, it was brought to our attention that in some cases in some of our bases that we were losing the trust of our Airmen. That our housing management programs, taken care of by some of our industry partners, could be doing a better job. Maybe they weren’t treating Airmen and families the way they should have.
For the most part across the Air Force, the privatized housing has been a net plus. We’ve improved overall if you look across the enterprise. Where we were losing them was on these individual transactions with our Airmen and their families, where maybe they weren’t as well taken care of as they should have or they felt like they didn’t have anywhere to go when they’re having problems with their housing.
When we went and looked at that, we saw that some of the connective tissue between the housing management and the chain of command had eroded in some cases. And so, we’ve been called to the carpet by Congress. A lot of stuff out in the press.
As (Air Force Chief of Staff) Gen. Goldfein would say, “every challenge is an opportunity.” So, you know what, let’s go take a hard look at ourselves. And while housing has improved over the years, and for the most part across the Air Force its being managed pretty well, let’s go in and have the commanders take a deep dive. Let’s go talk to our Airmen and their families about the conditions and let’s go fix what we can and let’s take it to the next level and make it even better.
We have taken what is, inherently a bad situation, a lot of bad media, and gone in and identified exactly what the problem is and then we’re taking responsive, responsible actions going forward.
Once we have a good idea of what the problem really is, it’s going to be inherently good for our families, inherently good for the Air Force with regard to housing and then inherently good in helping to rebuild the trust between the chain of command and our Airmen and families who live in these houses.