AURORA, Colorado -- Last September, Air Force Gen. Mike Minihan, the head of Air Mobility Command, was receiving mountains of applause from a packed crowd at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor Convention Center, Maryland.
The four-star general had just wrapped up a high-octane keynote speech at the Air Force and Space Force Association's 2022 Air, Space and Cyber Conference, where he gave an address titled the "Mobility Manifesto." While shouting into a wireless microphone away from the podium, he underscored two main points: "Lethality matters most" and China's military is "tailor-making an air force to kill you."
Months later, in a memo dated Feb. 1, Minihan took it a step further. He told his command that war with China was right around the corner, and he called on airmen with weapons qualifications to "fire a clip into a 7-meter target with the full understanding that unrepentant lethality matters most. Aim for the head." He also advised airmen to update their virtual Record of Emergency Data, essentially their dependents' contact information and wills.
"I hope I am wrong," Minihan wrote. "My gut tells me we will fight in 2025."
That prediction and advice were received very differently than his earlier speech. Minihan's memo was shared widely on the internet, drawing immediate criticism from some of his own airmen and the Pentagon, which decried the rhetoric as "not representative of the department's views on China." Other politicians and defense experts praised Minihan's comments, saying they underscored the need to be prepared and were spoken like a true warfighter.
If the general received a rock star-like reception from airmen at the Air and Space Force Association's 2022 conference, 2023's held last week in Aurora, Colorado -- less than two months after his memo made headlines -- was very different. Reporters and attendees didn't see much of Minihan.
Minihan didn't have a keynote speech like the previous conference, though Air and Space Force Association spokeswoman Amy Hudson said that decision had been made long before the memo was released. Minihan was featured only on a 30-minute panel to discuss the importance of logistics as it related to future conflicts. He received an enthusiastic round of applause when he was introduced and some scattered cheers throughout, but constrained his remarks to similar themes as his September speech.
Unlike other commanders and top brass, Minihan didn't host a round table with reporters. Department of the Air Force leadership largely spoke out against some of the messages in his memo during the symposium.
Without naming Minihan directly, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told attendees during his keynote speech at the conference, known by its initials of AFA, that there shouldn't be attempts to predict when war with China will occur.
"The possibility of aggression in the western Pacific is real, particularly against Taiwan, but war is not inevitable and there is no reason to believe it is imminent," Kendall said in his remarks. "In fact, there is no specific timeframe in which conflict can be predicted to occur."
Kendall later told Military.com during a media roundtable that he believed "Gen. Minihan was trying to motivate his people to be ready at all times" but underscored that "nobody knows" when a conflict could occur with China.
"My own view is that we will be able to successfully deter; it's not in anybody's interest to start a war over Taiwan or anything else between the U.S. and China," Kendall said. "War is certainly not inevitable. But it could come at any time. We need to be ready all the time."
Likewise, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles "C.Q." Brown told Military.com during a media roundtable that there were aspects of Minihan's memo he was "disappointed in" and said perhaps the biggest mistake was that parts of it were a distraction from the overall message-- one he agrees with.
"I think it detracted from the key message of the sense of urgency that is required," Brown told Military.com. "The sense of urgency is the most important part out of his memo."
Both Kendall and Brown have made it clear that the top challenge for the Department of the Air Force is China. But their concern appeared to be less with the message Minihan conveyed than how he conveyed it.
An Air Force officer with Air Mobility Command who received the email and attached memo, who spoke to Military.com in January on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media, said the communication sparked immediate concern.
"Some of my airmen are going to get scared when they read this memo," the officer said. "I felt like a random email blast to thousands of airmen was an inappropriate way to direct them to essentially prepare for war with a near-peer adversary."
The memo was tagged "Controlled Unclassified Information" -- a categorization the military uses to protect information that doesn't warrant classification. The original poster of the information cut the "CUI" tag from a screenshot shared online, Beau Downey, a spokesman at Air Mobility Command, told Military.com.
The memo was widely circulated and chatted about among airmen, before reaching the national press.
Chief Master Sgt. JoAnne S. Bass, the top enlisted leader in the Air Force, told Military.com during a reporter roundtable at AFA that, in her opinion, having the memo go as viral as it did was concerning. She viewed it as an internal document, a message that made sense within the context of the rank and file.
"It's interesting how memos can take strong legs on [their] own," Bass told Military.com. "It's pretty disappointing when a memo that is intended, you know, within the United States military, from a commander to his fellow commanders, gets leaked on [social] media."
Despite the headlines and how widely circulated Minihan's message was, it doesn't appear that there will be any major repercussions for the general. In fact, Minihan's memo was praised by some lawmakers and defense experts, though it was criticized by others.
Air Mobility Command has undertaken some of the biggest missions in recent history, ranging from playing key roles in evacuating service members and refugees out of Afghanistan, delivering aid and weapons to Ukraine during Russia's unprecedented invasion to, most recently, providing support for the devastating earthquakes in Turkey.
But the command's role could transform from supporting warfighters to taking on direct combat missions itself, especially if tensions with China boil over.
In November, the Air Force conducted a live-fire demonstration of "Rapid Dragon," a system designed to drop and fire pallets of long-range missiles from the back of cargo aircraft such as C-17 Globemaster IIIs or C-130 Hercules.
Earlier this month, it was revealed that Minihan directed Air Mobility Command's refueling and cargo planes to obscure the majority of identifying information painted on the aircraft, citing national security concerns -- an unusual move that alarmed government watchdogs.
Shortly after Minihan's memo went public, a massive Chinese spy balloon began floating its way across the United States and was eventually shot down by an F-22 Raptor. Since then, military officials have continued to speak to the importance of preparing for potential conflicts, and the American public has become only more aware of a potential conflict with China.
Six months after delivering his "Mobility Manifesto" speech to that packed room in Maryland, and even after the backlash to the memo earlier this year, Minihan said his focus hasn't changed.
"Six months after the manifesto, I'm in a really good place," Minihan said during his March 7 panel in Aurora, explaining he had visited with airmen at various bases to see how they're putting his ideas into place and reflected on all the work they’ve done for the military. "I take that culture, I take that feedback, and I have an enormous amount of confidence."
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.