Off the beaten path, meet 20th Air Force vice

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Emily Seaton
  • 20th Air Force

In July 2021, Col. Barry Little went from being the vice wing commander of the 91st Missile Wing at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota to being the vice commander of 20th Air Force located on F.E. Warren AFB in Wyoming. From being born in Okinawa, Japan to spending time studying in China as an Olmsted Scholar, Col. Little has a unique set of experiences to share with his fellow Sentinel Warriors.

Q. Where did you grow up?

A. I was born in Okinawa. I am an Air Force brat, so I have lived in a lot of places. We left Okinawa and went to Texas. We left Texas and went to Minnesota. From there we went to Taiwan, then Nebraska, and then back to Okinawa. From Okinawa, we went to California. We were actually there for a long time. I graduated high school and went to college in California. My dad retired there.

Q. Is California where you call home then?

A. Absolutely. I'm a California resident and my family has California roots. My dad retired out of March Air Force Base in Riverside. Actually, my extended family on my dad's side lives in Riverside, so I have a lot of roots there.

Random fact, I went to University of California Davis. Both my parents were Davis graduates. I met my wife and we got married at Davis, so we are a UC Davis family.

Q. What drew you to joining the Air Force?

A. Service. After college, my wife and I decided we wanted to live in Hawaii. So we spent five years in Hawaii, and I spent five years in restaurant management there. There were a number of factors in my life that led me to say, “I want a different job.” I was working from two in the afternoon to two in the morning. Functionally, I didn't know my daughter who was two years old because we were on opposite timetables. And I thought, “This isn't right; I need to figure something out here.” I fundamentally wanted to look back and have done something meaningful with my life. The Air Force was the right answer.

Q. Tell me a little more about your family?

A. We have three kids. Two are out of the house. My youngest is 15 and he's a sophomore. My daughter's a geologist in California and my other son is actually starting a nuclear engineering degree at Air Force Institute of Technology as an Air Force civilian. My wife and I have been married for 28 years.

Q. What has been your most rewarding experience so far in the Air Force?

A. The most rewarding has got to be the changes to intercontinental ballistic missile operations and the career field that I was privileged to contribute to as part of the Force Improvement Program. It actually overlaps with one of the most challenging parts of my Air Force career as well. That was a very, very difficult time for our career field. I was the Operations Support Squadron commander at F.E. Warren AFB during the Malmstrom incident, and repercussions were felt throughout the force.

There are things as a young officer that you have this idealistic view about and you think, “If I ever get the chance, I'm going to change that.” Then to have an opportunity like the one we had in 2014, ‘15 and ‘16, and be able to actually change those things, and to make a difference, that's the most rewarding thing, I think, that I've been able to do in the Air Force.

Q. How did you get through that challenging time?

A. It was challenging personally and professionally because my mother-in-law was suffering from stage four cancer and my wife had to be with her. And so, in addition to the stress in the unit and the difficult times within the career field, it was personally and for my family a very challenging time too.

I think the way I got through it was to reach out for help. I needed to make sure I could take care of my responsibilities at home, while also leading the squadron. And then, really, I just stayed focused on the people, focused on the Airmen, whether we were working through necessary changes in our career field or just working through the personal impacts of all of the things that were going on with individual members.

There's a lesson I was given very early in my career: no one chooses their boss. If you're a supervisor of Airmen, it's your job to be the best boss you can be. I think just staying focused on what your Airmen need, regardless of the rest of the trauma that's going on in the Air Force, or in the unit, is the way through it. At the end of the day, it's a people business, and the people are going to take care of the mission. As a supervisor, you have to make sure you're getting them what they need, whether it's resources, help or just somebody to listen to them.

Q. You have had some very interesting experiences and a unique career path; can you tell me more about that?

A. I am a big supporter of taking advantage of everything the Air Force has to offer. I am a 23-year ICBM nuclear operations officer. I have overlapping credentials as a foreign area officer, but they are not two separate tracks. I'm a core nuclear operator. And I think a lot of our force forgets that you can be a core 13 N and still have a number of diverse experiences that add to your qualifications and your value to the Air Force.

One of the things I was able to take advantage of was the opportunity to broaden my horizons, learn a new language, and study a culture up close through the Olmsted Scholar Program. I'm more than happy to share experiences with folks that have any interest in talking about the things I was exposed to while I was there or the takeaways I have from my experience living in China as a foreigner and the only U.S. government employee in a city of 6 million people. It was fantastic and life-changing. It's also only one of a myriad of opportunities out there that can add a level of depth, breadth and value to your Air Force career.

Another example is when I was at the Pentagon working on New Start Treaty implementation; sounds like a core nuke job, right? I got tapped on the shoulder, and because my return overseas date was one of the highest in the book, they said you have ten days to report to Manas, Kyrgyzstan. At the time, there were those in my immediate office who thought that was a distraction from the work I needed to do because the New Start Treaty was going into effect and we needed the Air Force plan set.

In retrospect, what I did there and my experiences as the director of staff for an air refueling wing, turned out to be critical to the things that we needed to do in the ICBM career field. Unbeknownst to me, my next job was going to be as the OSS commander in a unit that experienced a traumatic event and required complete realignment of ICBM operations to look a lot more like flying operations. I spent six months face-to-face with air operations in the Asian steppe, over the middle of winter. I firsthand experienced 24-hour refueling operations in frozen conditions as a director of staff, getting to understand how that looked, what the complexities of that mission were, how they maintained training, how they assessed risk and handled resource management.

So you never know where your experience is going to go. There are so many things the Air Force has to offer. I would say to stay engaged. If you have an interest, pursue it and add value to yourself, add value to the Air Force.

Q. How does your experience in China relate to your current position?

A. The primary way is by bringing a different perspective to the conversation, which is really the purpose of the Olmsted Program. As we enter a period of strategic competition with China it’s critical to understand how the Chinese people view themselves, their historic role on the world stage and the ambitions of their government.

My time studying in China gave me firsthand experience working and interacting with Chinese people from all walks of life. It gave me up close insight into the Chinese experience, and the fundamental differences in how our cultures approach the world and our place in history.

We all know, ironically from Sun Tzu, that understanding your adversary is fundamental to military science. It is even more fundamental to deterrence. Deterrence is about affecting the decision calculus of the person you are trying to deter. To do that, it’s critical to understand how they view themselves and how they think. That’s probably the biggest way I can leverage my time in China at this job, by informing the approach to Chinese strategic deterrence with a personal perspective.

Q. Sometimes it can be hard for people to know where to even start, like your opportunity to study in China, how did that come about?

A. It started when I was doing language study to participate in something called the Language Enabled Airman Program. I was studying German and a friend of mine, who was also studying German, mentioned to me that this program existed. The Olmsted program is very competitive; I applied three times before I was selected. So there's a level of persistence that's required sometimes if you really want to do something.

Chinese was a happy accident because I didn't speak Chinese. I didn't have a background in Chinese. I was born in Okinawa and, ironically, had taken some Japanese in the past. I was studying German because it was interesting to me. So this is a complicated story, but the Olmsted foundation is a private foundation and they manage which countries and programs people are assigned to in conjunction with the Air Force, but largely the foundation is the one who gets the final say. They looked at my aptitude and said, “We should send this guy to China, if he's willing to go.” I was more interested in participating in the program than I was in any specific language. So German went away, and Chinese came on the slate.

One of the best parts of the program was that our entire family went. My job was to be a student, so I was on the school schedule while I was in country. I was also given a travel stipend in order to travel the region and gain as much experience as I could by interacting with people. I think learning Chinese at 35 is the hardest thing I've done in my life, but it led to an irreplaceable set of experiences.

Q. What would you like to accomplish as vice commander of 20th Air Force?

A. This is my second time being a vice, I was a vice wing commander at Minot AFB, so I've been able to really hone in on what is the fundamental purpose of a vice. One of my goals is to clear obstacles for everybody in 20th Air Force, whether that's people here on the headquarters staff or the subordinate units. Maj. Gen. Lutton has a clear vision for where the Numbered Air Force is going, and he has folks who are making that vision a reality. My job is to get them what they need and clear things out of the way, so they can get the job done.

Q. Is there anything you would like the Airmen of 20th Air Force to know, or a message you would like them all to hear?

A. My door is open, and I'm genuinely and enthusiastically interested in helping with whatever they need help with.