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Dec 2, 2017
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The Air Force’s response to last year’s nuclear incident at Minot AFB, North Dakota was both immediate and predictable. After learning that six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles were inadvertently transferred from the northern tier installation to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, the service launched an immediate investigation, commissioned a second, wider inquiry by a retired general officer and fired key commanders at the two bases.

Three months after their dismissal, three Colonels who lost their jobs as a result of the mishap have settled into new assignments. Their latest postings speak volumes about how the Air Force handles the “firing” of senior officers, their potential for rehabilitation, and who is considered most responsible for the Minot incident.

By any standard, the highest-profile casualty of the unauthorized nuclear “transfer” was Colonel Bruce Emig, commander of the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot. Emig had been on the job for less than 90 days at the time of the incident, but because he was the wing commander and it “happened on his watch,” the Colonel was held accountable and sacked.

After leaving Minot, Emig moved to Air Combat Command (ACC) Headquarters at Langley AFB, Virginia, where he now runs the UAV division in the requirements directorate (office designation: A8U). For anyone with military experience, that type of posting is hardly surprising. Major command (MAJCOM) staffs have often been a repository for fired commanders, allowing them to finish their careers in a bureaucratic backwater.

But not all staff jobs are created equally. With drones playing an ever-increasing role in military operations, Emig’s new job is an important one, shaping the development and acquisition of new UAVs by the tactical air forces (TAF). The division’s responsibilities (and budget) have grown steadily in recent years, so the Colonel’s assignment is anything but a sleepy staff position.

Selection for the UAV job also suggests that Emig’s career may not be in free-fall. There is a perception (in some Air Force circles) that the former wing commander was a fall guy for Minot’s failure. In that post for less than three months, the thinking goes, Emig did not have enough time to fully diagnose the unit’s problems, let alone correct them.

Following that rationale, some believe Emig deserves a second chance, and running ACC’s UAV acquisition program may be the first step in rehabilitating his career. And while he’s a definite long shot for another wing commander billet, it’s not beyond the realm of possibilities. The Air Force is often criticized for allowing single mistakes to end prospects for promotion and advancement, but there are some notable exceptions.

Major General Larry New, currently Deputy Director for the Force Protection Directorate on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, lost his first assignment as a wing commander, the result of a fatal helicopter crash and training problems in his operations group at Nellis AFB, Nevada. But after a tour in the Middle East, New’s career got back on track, and his advancement continued.

Another senior Air Force leader, Major General Mark Shackelford, overcame similar, supposedly career-ending problems. Fired as Director of the F-22 System Program Office (SPO) due to severe cost overruns, Shackelford subsequently resurrected his career in the Missile Defense Agency and on the Air Force Space Command Staff. He currently serves as Director of Global Power Programs at USAF Headquarters.

Even without another shot at command, Emig could move on to other important assignments in the coming years. His predecessor at ACC was recently named air attache to Turkey–a high-visibility diplomatic post–and Emig’s move to ACC was endorsed by the command requirements director, Major General Mark Matthews, and (most likely) by the ACC Commander, General John D.W. Corley.

Incidentally, Emig, Matthews, Corley, New and Shackelford all share something in common: they are graduates of the U.S. Air Force Academy. Consequently, Emig’s move to a key staff job–after being relieved at Minot–may create grumbling about the “ring knockers” protecting “one of their own,” although the former wing commander graduated well after the other officers.

By comparison, the former commander of Minot’s 5th Maintenance Group, Colonel Cynthia Lundell, did not gravitate to a “second chance” job. She is now serving as a special assistant to the Commander of the Warner-Robins Air Logistics Center in Georgia.

Special Assistant posts are (typically) make-work positions, created for a senior officer in transition. While such billets are occasionally used for officers waiting on a particular job, a special assistant is often a Colonel who’s been removed from a job (or their command tour ended), and they’re preparing to leave the military. If Lundell’s career follows the usual track, her retirement will follow in a few months.

Meanwhile, the third Colonel fired in the wake of the Minot incident has remained in a command position, albeit at a lower level. Colonel Todd Westhauser, the former Commander of the 2nd Operations Group at Barksdale is now Deputy Commander of the 608th Air Operations Group (AOG) at that base. The 2nd Ops Group “owned” the B-52 and crew that mistakenly flew the nuclear-tipped missiles to Barksdale, prompting Westhauser’s dismissal.

In his current post, Westhauser helps direct an organization that is responsible for the Air Operations Center for 8th Air Force–the service’s designated command for global strike and cyberspace operations. Obviously, moving from a commander’s billet to a deputy’s position is a step down, but it’s still a far cry from a “special assistant” position.

The assignments for the three Colonels also suggests that the Air Force affixes most of the blame for Minot’s nuclear incident on the maintenance organization, led by Colonel Lundell. As group commander, she was responsible for training and managing personnel who stored, inventoried, repaired and loaded Minot’s nuclear weapons. Most of the mistakes that led to the mishap occurred in her organization.

On the other hand, some might say that Colonel Lundell is simply the chief scapegoat for the nuclear episode. Organizational responsibilities aside, it’s worth noting that Lundell (like Colonel Emig) had been on the job for only a short time when the transfer took place. While there’s no room for error with nuclear weapons, it might be argued that if Emig is getting a second chance, perhaps Lundell and Westhauser deserve one, too.

Or, if all are deemed culpable in the nuclear incident, then perhaps they deserve the same assignment. Creating three “special assistant” positions isn’t that difficult.

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