America’s Air Force is in trouble. Anyone who can read the headlines can see that. It’s understaffed by 70,000 airmen, doesn’t have enough pilots to fly its planes, hasn’t passed a financial audit in nearly two decades, and is leveraging its future (and our national defense) on the $1T lemon known as the F-35.
But the most toxic and intractable problem the service faces is one only close observers have noted: its unwillingness to hold senior commanders to account for abuses of power, which has created a cultural sickness capable of trumping any and all policy initiatives that might otherwise succeed in pulling the Air Force out of its institutional tailspin.
The latest example of this problem will likely leave even the most jaded student of the service’s cronyism gobsmacked.
Colonel Brian Hastings, who falsely accused three officers of drug use based on misinterpretations of their private text messages, has been rewarded for his toxicity with a nomination for promotion to Brigadier General. The Air Force quietly announced the move in an internal memo.
Hastings took aim at unprofessional relationships during his stint as the wing commander at Laughlin Air Force Base. His focus on unwinding a long-entrenched party culture and re-establishing clear professional boundaries is defensible, if deeply hypocritical. After all, it was his generation that laid the groundwork for this culture in the first place, as he discussed openly in a “wingman day” mentorship session during his command. If nothing else, Hastings recognized that times had changed, and that politics now required the appearance of total intolerance to even the vaguest implication of sexual impropriety. He set out to create that appearance.
But if his objectives were valid, his tactics were fascist and unforgivable. Hastings sought formal administrative punishments against officers for failing to report mere rumors of errant relationships, creating a paranoid climate that destroyed trust and degraded teamwork among instructors. Here’s an excerpt from an October 2015 report detailing Hastings’ illegal reprisal campaign, for which he has never been called to account:
“One officer’s performance report had already been signed when Col. Brian Hastings, then Laughlin’s wing commander, learned he had written a letter for the defense of another officer Hastings was punishing under Art. 15. The performance appraisal was intercepted by the wing commander’s office before it could be filed and held there past the deadline when it should have been filed in the officer’s record. The officer pressed administrative personnel for an explanation. Instead, he was presented with a revised version of his report — one that removed the superior performance assessment he’d earned and which had already been certified, replacing that assessment with lukewarm words painting him as a mediocre performer.”
Worse yet, Hastings unchained a cabal of toxic lawyers and investigators, authorizing a wide-ranging witch hunt on the prowl for political scapegoats wherever they could be found.
This led to false drug accusations against three instructor pilots whose cellphones were seized and searched in conjunction with a separate investigation. Some of their texts playfully joked about drug use, referencing lyrics from Miley Cyrus and quotes from the movie Entourage. Hastings promptly issued orders to permanently ground the three and issued them career-ending reprimands. This without drug tests or any other form of corroboration. This despite reasonable and factually supported explanations from the officers involved.
The way Hastings went about addressing these text messages tells us all we need to know to judge him unsuitable for generalship. Confronted with evidence too thin to support a court conviction, he conducted an administrative end-run around the justice system, issuing unchallengeable reprimands that had the same impact. The absurdity of issuing mere reprimands for drug use — serious misconduct entitled to severe punishments only available at court — reveals the gaping maw between the facts and the results. If Brian Hastings really believed he was looking at conduct so serious it should lead to permanent disqualification from flying, then by definition he should have had plenty enough evidence to go to court. He didn’t, and it’s because his interpretation of the evidence was dead wrong.
When commanders find a way to ruin someone based on their subjective beliefs about the person’s culpability rather than what the evidence objectively shows, they demonstrate fundamental unsuitability for any role that includes legal authority over others. Commanders of appropriate conscience and temperament don’t look for ways to ruin people. They certainly don’t do so as a means of soothing their own egos by supplying an official conclusion that spares the wrongness of their initial assessment. They evaluate the facts dispassionately and take appropriate action. They live within the bounds of their power by tethering it to an ethical baseline.
Hastings didn’t do that. And the rendition here merely scratches the surface of the mishandling and misconduct he demonstrated during the Miley Gate scandal. He and his fellow commanders overreached, pre-judged, over-punished, and refused to adjust in the face of clear evidence upending their predetermined conclusions. The Air Force has admitted as much by honorably discharging one of the three pilots while sending the other two forward in their careers. Both are now flying major weapon systems. This happened because Congress and the media pressured the service into taking a closer look at the case. But it also means the Air Force is certain the Molly Three never abused drugs, even if it has tried to have it both ways by exonerating both the accused and their accusers.
But this in turn means the Air Force believes Hastings was wrong. And yet, he is now being invited to the elite level, where his ability to influence subordinate commanders and infect the justice process will be exponentially greater than before. It also means that airmen who have watched this scandal unfold and know how wrong his actions were will continue to hemorrhage confidence in the moral and ethical core of their service’s leadership. His promotion reinforces the cynical belief that advancement in the Air Force is dependent on who you know or how politically favored you are rather than the potential to lead well at the next level.
That’s the real puzzle here. Brian Hastings’ promotion will be politically costly for the Air Force, especially with certain members of Congress and among its own airmen. And yet it’s happening, which means either someone very powerful is sponsoring his advancement … or he has some serious dirt on some very powerful people. Perhaps both things are true. In any case, it’s a damning statement about the service’s ethical posture that Hastings’ abuses are being heralded rather than condemned. It reeks of cronyism.
In the few months since Gen. Dave Goldfein took over as Chief of Staff, there have been many hopeful signals that the long-awaited organizational turnaround many have wished for might be finally underway. Goldfein has confronted with refreshing honesty the pilot shortage, the degradation of Air Force squadrons, and the unchecked growth of administrative and self-support task saturation among airmen.
But all of that will be for naught with the wrong leaders running the show. Policy changes are a great and necessary start, but they require committed leaders to implement them. Brian Hastings railroaded three people and tried to ruin their lives because he judged them guilty and couldn’t stand to be wrong. This is the conduct of a toxic and self-obsessed commander who thinks he knows better than the system he has signed up to support and has no respect for the rule of law.
Promoting the toxic and self-obsessed to the highest level threatens the focus on airmen necessary to rebuild the street-level Air Force. This is a horrible move by Goldfein that threatens to start undoing all he seeks to do before he is able to genuinely start doing it. If we’re to have one rule for all, where commanders and commanded are treated equitably rather than senior officers being given a break over serious misconduct while they burn subordinates for far less … people like Hastings should be disciplined, not promoted.
But since the service was dumb enough to nominate the guy, it now falls to the Senate to refuse his confirmation. This will send the appropriate message to the Air Force that abuse of power by commanders will not be tolerated, much less rewarded.
Read through the archive below and see if you agree.