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Raising the Bar?

Dec 2, 2017
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A renewed “Era of Accountability” seems to be taking hold in the U.S. Air Force.

The service’s Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwartz, has made it clear: officers in key positions–particularly wing commanders–had better shape up, or they may find themselves looking for a new job.

And Schwartz has backed up the tough talk with action. According to Air Force Times, five wing commanders have been fired since late 2008, the service’s biggest “house-cleaning” since the mid-1990s.

The most recent firings occurred in October at Minot AFB, North Dakota, where the commanders of the 91st Missile Wing and the co-located 5th Bomb Wing were dismissed, barely two weeks apart. Colonel Joel Westa, leader of the bomber unit, was relieved of his duties on 30 October, after senior officers “lost confidence in his performance.” Earlier in the month, the commander of Minot’s missile wing, Colonel Christopher Ayers, was removed for similar reasons.

While none of the commanders (all Colonels) were personally fired by General Schwartz, it seems clear that other generals are taking his guidance to heart. As Schwartz told the Times last month, both the service–and the public–expect command positions to be filled by the most capable officers.

“We owe it to our airmen and to the American public to ensure we have the right people for the times in these key positions, and this is what our numbered air force and major command commanders have done,” Schwartz told Air Force Times in a telephone interview [on] the same afternoon that official word of the latest sacking came down.

According to the Times, the USAF hasn’t sacked this many commanders since 1996, when 16 officers, including a major general, were punished in connection with the fatal crash of a CT-43 carrying Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. All thirty-five military and civilian personnel on board the aircraft, including Mr. Brown, were killed in the accident.
A retired Air Force general who spoke with the paper (on the condition of anonymity) suggested that the service needs to do a better job in screening–and selecting–individuals who serve as wing commanders. He noted that neither Colonel Westa and Colonel Bryan Bearden–fired earlier this year as commander of the 8th Fighter Wing at Kunsan AB, Korea–had previous assignments as an Operations Group Commander. Leadership of an operations group has traditionally been a stepping-stone for a wing commander billet.
But that factor alone doesn’t explain the Air Force’s new-found willingness to sack wing commanders. Westa and Ayers were fired, in large part, because of continuing problems with the service’s nuclear enterprise. In fact, Westa took command of the 5th Bomb Wing because of the unit’s involvement in a highly-publicized nuclear mishap. Ground crews at Minot mistakenly loaded nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on a B-52, which transported them to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. The incident triggered a series of Air Force and DoD investigations, and the firing of Westa’s predecessor, Colonel Bruce Emig.
Those inquiries revealed wide-spread problems in Air Force nuclear operations–issues that were not limited to Minot, Barksdale, or other installations supporting flight operations. As investigators discovered, declining emphasis the nuclear enterprise–and its workforce–created the environment that led to the Minot debacle and other, less serious incidents. Experts warned that the problems developed over time and it would take almost as long to fix them.
In other words, some wing commanders face an almost impossible task: meeting the Air Force’s exacting standards for nuclear operations, despite deficiencies in personnel, funding and even hardware. The U.S. hasn’t produced a “new” nuclear weapon in 20 years, and it’s becoming more difficult to maintain our existing stockpile. That problem is further exacerbated by a shortage of trained personnel, another by-product the the USAF’s neglect of the nuclear enterprise since the end of the Cold War.
That doesn’t mean the service should “go easy” on commanders that lead nuclear units. But the Air Force should also realize that problems exposed at Minot won’t be cured quickly–or easily. More commanders will get the axe, regardless of their professional pedigree, or how they are screened. But the hazards of command won’t deter ambitious officers. As one flag officer told Air Force Times, there is no shortage of Colonels who want to be wing commanders.
But the renewed focus on accountability may raise another question–namely, how far that emphasis extends up the chain of command. While several Air Force generals have been sacked over the past decade or so, the service has also rehabilitated some of them. We’ve written at length about two of them; Major General Larry New was fired as an Operations Group Commander in the late 1990s, after a deadly crash involving a helicopter unit under his command. Sixteen crew members died in that mishap.
Still, New went on to become a wing commander and earn two stars before retiring. One of his contemporaries, Mark Shackelford, has demonstrated even greater resiliency. Fired as a Brigadier General (in charge of the F-22 Raptor System Program Office), Shackelford was transferred to a missile defense post where he earned his second star. He was promoted to Lieutenant General last year, and now serves as military deputy in the office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition. Not bad for a guy whose career was supposedly over just seven years ago.
The ability of Generals New and Shackelford to survive “career-ending” incidents has led to charges of a double-standard. And, based on the available evidence, those accusations are hard to refute. In a “zero defect” Air Force, it’s hard to see how some leaders managed to survive such miscues.
To be fair, both New and Shackelford earned their stars before the new push for accountability. It will be interesting to see if other general officers earn a similar “rehabilitation” during the watch of General Schwartz. If that doesn’t happen, it will certainly be a step in the right direction. It’s a little hard to justify the firings of wing commanders when some members of the flag officers club keep advancing, despite past screw-ups.
ADDENDUM: The Air Force’s new-found demand for accountability also extends to the ranks of its most senior enlisted members. Chief Buddy tipped us earlier today to the sudden disappearance of Command Chief Master Sergeant William Gurney from his post at Air Force Material Command. Gurney’s biography and official photograph were apparently removed from the AFMC website last week, usually the first indication that a senior leader has been fired. So far, the command has been mum on the reasons behind Gurney’s sudden departure.

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