New ANG director comes home

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Lieutenant General Craig R. McKinley, the 12th and newest director of the Air National Guard, returned to his hometown to be a guest speaker at the National Guard Association of Florida's annual conference June 23-25. He also came home to reminisce with old friends and allow current and former members of the Florida Air National Guard to revel in the accomplishments of their state's most successful son.

General McKinley, who was born in St Vincent's Hospital here in 1952 and spent his early childhood years in the Mandarin neighborhood, freed up an hour for a one-on-one opportunity to delve into his personal history and discuss his vision for the future of the Air National Guard.

Like many who pursue a career in the U.S. Air Force, General McKinley wanted to fly fighters. The downsizing of the Air Force following Vietnam in 1974 made fighter slots a rarity, so the distinguished Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps graduate from Southern Methodist University Class of 1974, was chosen to fly T-38s as an instructor pilot.

However, General McKinley said his desire to fly fighter jets lingered.

With his father's family retired and re-established in the Jacksonville area in 1980 after years away, General McKinley looked to the 125th Fighter Group, which is currently the 125th Fighter Wing, for an avenue into fighters. The 125th FG had T-33s and F-106s on the ramp back then and General McKinley aggressively interviewed for a slot. After a brief stint in the T-bird, he was allowed to fulfill his dream and began his career as an F-106 fighter pilot.

After General McKinley served a few years as an alert pilot, Florida leadership saw promise in this young officer and he rapidly progressed through a series of positions in operations until finally attaining the position of air commander as a 37-year-old major.

The rest, as they say, is history. Roughly 16 years and 10 leadership positions later, including being the commander of the Southeast Air Defense Sector in the Panhandle, General McKinley is the director of the Air National Guard.

"I think every job you have is a building block to the next step," asserted General McKinley. "The best job you ever have is the one you are in, and if you take care of the people who work for you in the job you are in and you do it as well as you can, that's the best preparation for your next opportunity."

General McKinley assumed the directorship at what could prove to be a very contentious time between the active Air Force component and the Air Guard due to Base Realignment and Closure and Quadrennial Defense Review outcomes. A smaller Air Force is on the horizon.

He suggests that there is a historical dynamic to work through.

"When I joined the Air National Guard in 1980, we were pretty much a segregated component," said General McKinley. "Some people might say that if you compared it to a civil rights type of discussion that we might have had segregation where our active component really didn't want us to play on the first team and those were perceptions." The new director believes the ANG and the active component have transitioned from segregation to "separate, but equal."

Although there is still a noticeable separation, the Air Force is really trying now to integrate, said General McKinley.

"The reasons we perceive in the field that the last four years were tough years is because when you finally get to a point where you fully integrate with such a small amount of resources to do it with, you have to force the two families, the two cultures, which has kind of agreed to get along but in separate but equal ways - you force them together," stated General McKinley. "It's a cultural shift, a tectonic shift and I sense that our Air Force and our guard leadership understand that if we don't make this work, that we could break something very badly."

The Air Force and the Air Guard is projected to lose roughly 25 to 30 percent of its airframes in the next five to 20 years, which presumably means the force must get smaller. General McKinley will have to meet that challenge considering the ANG has a "state" leadership dynamic the Air Force and Air Force Reserve do not have.

"The adjutant's generals are the commanders, with their governors, of our guard forces and they really know best what size forces they can maintain," said General McKinley. "I don't know what the right size is for the Air National Guard... I mean I really don't. I think that regardless of what we say or do, economics are going to drive a force sizing construct for us and the real answer is going to be what we have left. Is it going to be relevant, is it going to be capable, is it going to be well equipped, and will it be able to do the nations work in addition to the work of the governors? Those things are going to be debated over the next several years and I know I'm going to be right in the middle of it."

General McKinley would like to work with the adjutant's general cooperatively to look at efficiencies; things the Air Guard could do differently, and discuss different business practices. If reductions are going to be mandated, the general would rather shape the force with the adjutant's general support rather than the Air Force telling him what they are going to give the ANG.

"That's what I hope the next few years will bring," added General McKinley. With cooperative dialog between the TAGs and the National Guard Bureau, "we will do what's right for America and we'll do what's right for our governors and states."

Another area General McKinley suggested was due for change is the Air Directorate itself. The Guard Bureau is evolving, it served the field well for many years, but I think the organization needs some re-looking, said McKinley.

"I can tell you right now that because we are spread in three different locations in Washington it is very hard to have a span of control where all of our people know exactly what the vision is or how they best fit in it," the general said. "My goal is to transition from the office space in Crystal City to putting the preponderance of our people at Andrews at the Readiness Center to create an environment there where we have a strong commander brought in from the field, probably at the grade of brigadier general, who can run the readiness center, work with the units in the states and let the deputy director and I focus on the adjutant's general and the Air Staff."

With regards to integration, General McKinley said the centers of gravity have shifted to the Pentagon. The immediate need, according to General McKinley, is a full integration of the Air Staff with ANG members so that "we can be in on those ground floor decisions that may have caused some tension during BRAC and QDR."

"We will evolve our senior grade people in Washington to be assistants to the A1, A2 and A3 and probably the A8 to start with and if that works," General McKinley said. "We may fully integrate our staffs onto the Air Staff so that we can work side by side with our active component. I think that in the long term, that's where we need to be."

General McKinley's final focus point during the interview was directed toward the enlisted corps. The ANG director called the enlisted corps the "lifeblood of the Air National Guard" and said that great NCOs have always taught him to "treat people the way you would like to be treated, with respect and dignity, to allow people to flourish in their career."

"There are going to be times in every person's life where they are going to go through stresses and strains and you need to understand that and give people a chance to take care of their families because that's still - in our business - the most important thing," the general said. "If these guidelines are adhered to, you will have supporters that will take you to new heights; take you to the top of any game. Let them be themselves, give them good leadership with good integrity and the rest will take care of itself."