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The New 18th Air Force: 2003 to 2005

  • Published
  • By By Lt Gen William Welser III
  • Commander, 18th Air Force, Dec. 2003 - Nov. 2005
"The SECDEF has approved you to command the new combined AMC Numbered Air Force" was how Gen John Handy notified me that Sue and I were soon to take on a tremendous new challenge. It was his vision that 18th Air Force be a lean, streamlined headquarters focused on executing the Air Mobility war-fighting mission.

While my first two months after reactivation were spent awaiting confirmation, I worked with Maj. Gen. Bill Essex, the interim and acknowledged first commander of the newly created NAF, on a permanent staff that would consolidate the 15th and 21st Air Forces into a single headquarters at Scott Air Force Base. Each of those 99 person headquarters was consolidated into a 30-person NAF staff (of which 16 were the new 18th Air Force Legal Office).

Especially important to our transition was Kathy Hondel, the newly hired commander's secretary. She was the first permanent hire and was critical to pulling together the team as well as reams of documents, awards and decorations packages, performance reports, and coordinating with organizations internal and external to 18th Air Force.

Next was the hiring of a Command Chief. More than a dozen records were provided and we narrowed that to eight who interviewed. Critical to the success of a war fighting headquarters was to hire an individual with the proper focus on mission and people as well as being youthful enough to take the experience to future assignments -- CMSgt Ken McQuiston was the right choice. A major achievement was to include the 18th Air Force Command Chiefs in Commander's Conferences and other key decision forums. Their inclusion improved mission focus, communications, and mentoring. Two of those Command Chiefs went on to be Chief Master Sergeants of the Air Force!

It was very important to develop a relationship with other Air Force Numbered Air Forces. I programmed my red switch phone and called each of them on a regular basis to ensure we were providing support to their missions. This was an important element in building trust and camaraderie that helped to solidify our position and reputation as a war fighting partner.

"War Fit, War Fighting, Family" was our focus when visiting the wings, groups, Expeditionary Mobility Task Force (EMTF) units, and forward deployed locations. We visited every unit in the NAF to ensure all members of the command family understood their role in our mission success. This included integration of Air Reserve Component advisors and visits to Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard units to ensure they were fully integrated into war-fighting team. Visiting other service units also paid huge dividends in the joint fight.

Major Generals Jim Hawkins and Pete Peterson were the 18th Vice Commanders. Their work with the executive officers and administrative staff was integral to taking care of the troops. Together we cleared a backlog of several hundred active duty and reserve performance reports, awards and decorations, and promotion recommendation forms. Especially noteworthy was the resulting improved promotion rates and movement of our folks to key Air Force and joint assignments. Most of the current AMC leadership and many in key DoD positions had a leadership tour in 18th Air Force. We took care of the troops and they took, and are continuing to take care of the mission! The addition of a Chief of Staff as we departed was an important upgrade to give the Commander and Vice Commander some additional support and flexibility.

Building the new Expeditionary Task Force/Contingency Response organizational structure and evolving the AMC/18th Air Force role in the U.S. Transportation Command war fighting mission was more difficult than it should have been. Although the four-star guidance was clear, there were emotional ties to the old Tanker Airlift Control Element structure and conflicting views on the Air Force Transportation (AFTRANS) definition, expectations, and AMC staff interface. As the first EMTF Commanders, Brigadier Generals Kurt Cichowski and Rick Perraut were highly effective at building credibility in the field and within the AMC staff to mature the EMTFs. In addition, we were able to upgrade the Headquarters in Europe and the Pacific to wings, thus giving them the proper organizational level to meet mission demands. The AFTRANS role began to take shape, but it took further definition and time to properly evolve 18th Air Force into the AFTRANS responsibilities.

Knowing our history was a goal of our 18th Air Force team. After a short search, we found that one of the three original commanders from the fifties was living in Utah near Hill Air Force Base. We established a relationship with retired Col. Earl and Virginia Young and recognized them by naming the 18th Air Force Conference Room in his honor and involving them in several events. In recent years, he has attended several more events. He is living history and will be 100 years old on July 11. In addition to being the first 18th Air Force Commander, Earl wrote the documents that joined the air and naval commands into the Military Air Transport Service MATS (he also coined that name) and the documents that formed 18th Air Force. He currently lives in Rome, GA.

Although some of the "elegance" envisioned in 2003 has been lost with the growth of a parallel NAF A-Staff and the movement of war fighting units from 18th Air Force, those are the evolutionary decisions made as time passes and are not best judged by those now on the sidelines. Most important has been the preservation of 18th Air Force as AMC's war fighting headquarters with the ever-vigilant 618th Air and Space Operations Center (Tanker Airlift Control Center) as the premier worldwide, Air Force Operations Center. Successes over the past 10 years speak for themselves and cannot be denied!

It was truly an honor for Sue and I to serve our country and to have the opportunity to command 18th Air Force. We have enjoyed seeing the command evolve and are proud to see those we know and respect follow in leadership roles at 18th Air Force and in other key DoD positions. 18th Air Force continues to be our "War Fit, War Fighting, Family"!