U.S. Air Force’s Tight-Lip Policies Will Backfire

Erik  Simonsen concept

A new generation of U.S. Air Force leaders is about to relearn a painful lesson its predecessors had mastered decades ago. Unfortunately, the process of learning that lesson will damage both the air service and countless careers.

As the Gazette’s Tom Roeder reported on March 14th (Gazette story prompts new Air Force secrecy efforts), USAF policymakers are tightening their grip on information released to the public, ostensibly to improve “Operational Security”. Evidently, high-level officials in the Pentagon—and possibly the White House West Wing—believe local Air Force leaders and their professional public affairs officers (PAO) are sharing too much information and must be reigned-in. Never mind that some of that info has been public knowledge for three years or more. It’s time to clam up, particularly when it comes to military space ops.

Seasoned news reporters have seen this old movie before and know exactly how it will end—not good for the Air Force and Trump Administration. Predictably, a fresh crop of generals, admirals and West Wing advisors apparently decided that secrecy and a death-grip on national security-related information makes perfect sense. After all, why let potential adversaries like Russia, China, North Korea and Iran know a single thing about America’s warfighting capabilities? Tight-lips don’t sink ships or kill satellites, right?

When I was a full-time aerospace reporter, U.S. Navy had a similar information-control policy, dictating that all interview requests be approved by CHINFO, the chief information office in Washington. Every time I asked local Navy PAOs for an interview with one of their program executives, test pilots or engineers, I was told, “My hands are tied, Bill. You have to submit your request to CHINFO.” Of course, it took a week or more to get that approval, hardly a workable system for our weekly magazine, let alone daily newspapers and TV news programs.

We simply couldn’t live with CHINFO’s Soviet-style, centralized approval process. Old news is no news. Consequently, I routinely went around the public affairs office and spoke directly to program officials. That precluded using sources’ names, which weakened my stories, but at least important news appeared in timely fashion. Predictably, Navy leaders and CHINFO were furious, and repeatedly issued dictums about never talking to reporters. They failed, because conscientious program managers and test pilots—who I often knew personally—understood the harmful unintended consequences of CHINFO’s close-hold, centralized-approval policy.

Realization finally dawned on Navy leadership, following the first Gulf War. Speaking to naval aviators at a Tailhook convention, the chief of naval operations bluntly declared, “We lost the PR war. The Air Force clobbered us.” He said Navy commanders were “too busy fighting a war to talk to reporters,” so very few “newsies” were allowed on aircraft carriers and other warships. In contrast, Air Force PAOs were quick to hand reporters videotapes shot from cockpits of F-15s and F-16s attacking Iraqi targets. Of course, Air Force images were the ones seen on TV and in publications around the globe. “Nobody knows we were even there,” the admiral groused.

The Navy consistently lost the annual budget battle in Washington, as well. Air Force programs were covered week after week by our magazine and other news media, because the USAF was willing to make its key people available. Our stories were read by senators, representatives, congressional staffers and Pentagon officials. At budget time, key decision makers were familiar with Air Force programs, but had seen little about the Navy’s. The air service received funding and the Navy went dollars-hungry. Eventually, the Navy drastically changed its philosophy and methods of dealing with news media.

Now, the Air Force is apparently adopting the same failed policies that the Navy dumped years ago. USAF Secretary Heather Wilson clearly knows better, so who’s behind this boneheaded attempt to bury even unclassified information about Air Force activities?

Civilian and uniformed leaders, please listen to your professional PAOs and don’t go down this road-to-secrecy. It’s a dead end.