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9th AF commander sets priorities

U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Scott Zobrist, 9th Air Force commander, shakes hands with Airman 1st Class Michael Gradecki, a 20th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief, as he prepares for takeoff at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., Dec. 1, 2016. Zobrist assumed command of 9th Air Force in May 2016 and has held staff positions at the Air Staff, Air Combat Command and U.S. Forces Japan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Kelsey Tucker)

Maj. Gen. Scott Zobrist, the Ninth Air Force commander, shakes hands with Airman 1st Class Michael Gradecki, a 20th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief, as he prepares for takeoff at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., Dec. 1, 2016. Zobrist assumed command of Ninth AF in May 2016 and has held staff positions at the Air Staff, Air Combat Command and U.S. Forces Japan. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Kelsey Tucker)

SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. (AFNS) -- Maj. Gen. Scott J. Zobrist assumed command of Ninth Air Force in May 2016.

Since then, Zobrist visited the wings under Ninth AF, gained impressions and set his commander’s priorities.

“We have absolutely top-notch Airmen who are doing the job day in and day out with some significant resource and time constraints, which is indicative of how busy they are, and how busy our nation’s military is,” the commander said. “But, our Airmen are absolutely top notch, completing the job professionally and making the mission happen.”

Although Zobrist said he has three priorities for Ninth AF, he considers his top two priorities to be on the same level in terms of importance.

“Our mission as a Numbered Air Force is to ensure the readiness of the wings for the current fight,” he explained. “So, that’s my job -- to ensure our Airmen and the wings are ready for their current mission. However, equally important is taking care of our Airmen and their families.

“I’m very passionate about taking care of our people, and that priority is not mutually exclusive of mission readiness,” the major general said. “In fact, taking care of our Airmen and their families really is an integral part of ensuring mission readiness.”

Zobrist said his third priority is to pave the way for Ninth AF’s future as a deployable joint task force headquarters. This priority lines up with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein’s “strengthening joint leaders and teams” focus area.

Goldfein outlined the need for the Air Force to have the capability to field a deployable JTF headquarters in his October 2016 focus area paper and tapped Ninth AF to begin the process of giving the Air Force that capability.

“We’re making a lot of progress as a team, and I’m excited about what that will do not just for the Air Force but also for our joint partners and the combatant commanders,” Zobrist said. “Of course, there’s a lot of work to be done to transform Ninth AF into the core of a joint task force headquarters.”

When operational, Ninth AF could be tasked to lead a JTF headquarters in a designated location, commanding operations as directed by the combatant commander. Ninth AF would provide the leadership and core functions of a JTF headquarters and personnel from other services would fill in the rest of the JTF staff.

“The idea is to reorganize, or remission, Ninth AF so it can continue to perform its organize, train and equip mission and be capable of deploying as the lead core organization for a JTF,” said Col. Rhude Cherry III, the Ninth AF lead planner for the deployable JTF headquarters initiative.

“The question then is, how does the Air Force fill that lead role? By filling key billets with Airmen, providing the headquarters staffing function and then bringing in the joint force around it, you now become a JTF,” Cherry said.

With Ninth AF providing the operational piece of organize, train and equip for Air Combat Command, Zobrist said he likes to stay “closely connected to the Ninth AF wings.”

“The way I view that relationship is, it’s our job to support them -- I work for them, not the other way around,” he added. “We’re continually looking for ways we can help the wings without slowing down their daily mission. Numbered Air Forces are the operational connectivity between Air Combat Command and its wings.”

Zobrist visited the eight wings in Ninth AF to meet with Airmen and see their mission firsthand as part of his duties as the commander.

“We’ve got fantastic commanders at all levels -- squadron, group and wing -- and I have been very impressed with the leadership they’ve shown, and how they’re focused on not just the mission but especially taking care of Airmen and families,” Zobrist said. “Commanders realize they have to enable the Airmen and their families in order for Airmen to complete their mission.

“Our Airmen and the wings are all extremely busy. There are a lot of challenges -- time is one of them,” he continued. “They’ve got a lot of different training requirements in addition to real-world missions. ... Despite all those challenges, they continue to get the mission done; that to me has been the most impressive part -- they’re finding smarter ways to do things to make the mission happen.”

While the wings complete their day-to-day mission exceptionally well, Zobrist said he saw room for improvement in the ability for the wings to rapidly deploy.

“For the last 25 years, the Air Force has been engaged continuously in multiple wars in the Southwest Asia region, and we’ve been routinely deploying on timelines known well in advance,” he added. “However, we have not honed the skills needed for no-notice deployments. Our wings can make it happen, but our processes, procedures and practicing those rapid deployments definitely need some improvement.”

Another area Zobrist said could use some enhancement is one that doesn’t cost money -- unit sponsorship and key spouse programs.

“A unit’s sponsorship program is the gateway to all the support our Airmen and families will need at their new base, and it costs zero dollars,” he explained. “There’s absolutely a requirement to get information to inbound Airmen and get them prepared for the new assignment. A good sponsor program, with personal involvement by the commander, can make that happen.”

Additionally, the key spouse program works hand in hand with the sponsorship program, as it welcomes the spouses and then ensures they have the support they need after becoming part of the squadron.

“A good key spouse program is vital to the family and mission because we all know we can’t do our job without the families being taken care of,” the Highland, Illinois, native added. “In the end, both of these programs are the commanders’ programs -- it’s up to the commanders, not their teams, to set the conditions for the success of these programs. I make it clear to my commanders at all levels I expect them to be very involved in their Sponsorship and Key Spouse programs, and I hold them personally responsible for the programs’ success or failure.”

As the Air Force’s mission continues to evolve, Zobrist said it’s important for senior leaders to understand policy and guidance should be written for today’s Air Force -- one that has vastly changed from even 10 years ago.

“Our Air Force is organized very differently today. We have new mission sets, and it requires a change of mindset with how we issue policy and guidance,” Zobrist said. “The standard wing of the past, with three flying squadrons and one wing commander running the whole base, is now a rarity; non-traditional is the new standard -- multiple wings on one base, joint basing, air base wings, air-ground ops wings, remotely piloted aircraft and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance wings, total force, Air Force units on other service bases and vice versa -- very different from when I was a captain. And, today’s leaders need to consider this new Air Force when we make policy and guidance.”

Zobrist said nothing makes this new reality clearer than seeing the Ninth AF units in person.

“That’s why we visit the units -- to find out, first and foremost, what the Airmen are thinking, and to understand their mission so we can advocate on their behalf,” Zobrist concluded.

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