Standards matter, says the new leader of the Air Force’s largest swath of air combat forces. Now he wants assurance that all airmen are measuring up.

Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, who took over as Air Combat Command’s top officer at the end of February, is giving all wings under his purview a month to inspect each of their airmen to ensure they adhere to the service’s latest dress and grooming standards and are following the service’s customs and courtesies.

Wings are also directed to inspect all personnel records for compliance with medical and religious exemptions, according to a command-wide memo sent Tuesday.

Wilsbach, who oversees more than 157,000 uniformed and civilian employees, wrote that while most airmen comply with the service’s professional standards, he is “concerned by a discernible decline” in troops’ commitment to and enforcement of those rules.

“As an all-volunteer force, we willingly relinquish a portion of our individual freedoms in order to be part of an elite team,” Wilsbach wrote in the memo, which was circulated on social media and verified by ACC Tuesday. “An essential element to being part of this elite team is the high standards we hold as an institution. Adherence to higher standards of conduct, dress and appearance, physical fitness, and the observance of customs and courtesies are critical to our identity as military members.”

According to the memo, ACC’s wing leaders have until July 17 to complete and report their inspection results.

The Air Force last updated its appearance standards in February, solidifying several revisions made in recent years to help recruit and retain talent, including allowing neck tattoos. Unverified photos often surface on social media of airmen who appear to be out of regs, from wearing sandals in uniform to questionable haircuts, frequently drawing criticism from current and former troops alike.

An ACC spokesperson said there was no specific incident that sparked Wilsbach’s directive, telling Air Force Times in an email that the command “will be increasingly focused on readiness” as the service shifts to facing an adversary like China in a protracted battle.

The spokesperson added that “readiness begins with the enforcement of high standards” and that unit-level inspections are a “natural progression” in ensuring they’re met.

The command oversees more than 260 locations around the world, including 28 wings. It supplies fighter and intelligence-collection aircraft, cyber warfare specialists and more to commanders in North America, South America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

It’s not the first time that Air Force leadership has issued a sharp reminder to the force on the importance of standards. Last June, then-Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass warned in a memo that eroding of standards could damage the credibility of the service.

Bass, too, worried of the slippery slope that could emerge from an unauthorized nail color or wayward uniform choice.

“History shows that when standards erode, military capabilities and readiness decline,” she wrote. “We can’t afford to let this happen and still expect to keep pace with the rapid expansion of the Chinese military, Russian aggression, and other emerging global challenges.”

“When something isn’t right … have the moral courage to do something about it,” she said.

Courtney Mabeus-Brown is the senior reporter at Air Force Times. She is an award-winning journalist who previously covered the military for Navy Times and The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., where she first set foot on an aircraft carrier. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and more.

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