Curbing Wrongful Termination in the Air Force: Four Common Sense Reforms

The viability of any Air Force organization rides on the appropriate exercise of authority by commanders.  When authority is misappropriated to push subordinates out of their leadership roles as a matter of preference or convenience, the entire system is at risk of collapse.
The viability of any Air Force organization rides on the appropriate exercise of authority by commanders. When authority is misappropriated to push subordinates out of their leadership roles as a matter of preference or convenience, the entire system is at risk of collapse.


Over the past couple of years, JQP has documented the Air Force’s difficulty with the proper calibration of power relationships, manifested most lucidly by the occasional firing of squadron commanders under questionable circumstances and without official explanation.

Last summer, we showcased two such commanders, Lt. Cols. Craig Perry and Blair Kaiser. Each officer was relieved of command without justifiable cause, an assertion validated by investigations into both cases. Nonetheless, each officer was punished and his career ended. In the year since, many others have suffered similar fates and shared their situations privately while choosing to remain publicly silent.

The issue is more pervasive than public accounts demonstrate. Toxicity is relatively unchecked, partly because senior officials are unwilling to admit a problem and partly because of the face-saving incentives attached to closing ranks around an unhinged senior officer rather than holding him to account for abuses. These incentives effectively counterweight the ethical and moral costs associated with adopting unsupported decisions to destroy others over minor errors and professional or stylistic disagreements.

Squadron commanders caught in this hyper-political web are furnished with a stark lesson: individual justice simply does not apply in the current system. Power is unmoored from reason in this command climate. The “protections” afforded to someone relieved of command are useless. Appeals are predestined to fail. Official complaints presume themselves unfounded. Legal advocacy is arrayed against anyone complaining of abuse.

Power relationships in today's USAF are more consistent with the Spanish Inquisition than the values you'd expect to find in an American public agency. That must change.
Power relationships in today’s USAF are more consistent with the Spanish Inquisition than the values you’d expect to find in an American public agency. That must change.

As David R. Warren’s recent writings (here and here) and the reaction to them attest, the service’s command climate is increasingly gripped by nihilism and apathy. It’s assumed that whether a selected officer survives and thrives in a command tour is a matter of whether his boss wills it so rather than a matter of performance or results.

What should the Air Force do to address this problem?

First, acknowledge the problem exists, which General Mark Welsh and Secretary Deborah Lee James have thus far refused to do. Despite ample evidence of toxicity in the senior ranks, Welsh says he’s quite happy with the service’s ethical state. James, when asked in a social media engagement what she would do about the problem of toxic leadership, cited a proposal for 360-degree performance reviews as her sole idea, without elaboration. Neither leader has publicly admitted that the Air Force has an issue with unhinged senior officers. Their failure to do so enables and emboldens toxicity.

But if we were to imagine, for the sake of argument, that service leaders were to publicly take a stand against self-absorbed leadership (which I predict will happen only after Welsh leaves his position), what should happen next? 

I propose that four relatively straightforward actions, implemented together, would go a long way toward re-calibrating the service’s power relationships such that toxicity would be systemically checked without unduly undermining command authority.

Your reactions to these proposals are not only welcome, but essential to crafting the conversation the Air Force refuses to officially conduct.

First, Right Certain Wrongs.

A healthy crop of leaders cannot arise from salted soil. The Air Force needs to re-plow the field of command screening and repair the perceptual damage done by the occasional scorchings of the recent past. [I can attest personally to officers with high potential quietly steering themselves away from command, content to ride out promising careers in staff or operational jobs rather than subject themselves to the system they’ve noticed in the last year].

Welsh should have the Air Staff glance backward a couple of years and collect information on fired squadron commanders. Each case should be evaluated carefully, and where relief was potentially unjustified, a full investigation performed to set things right. There is still time to restore a few careers immolated without cause, and visibly doing the right thing by making some airmen whole (and explaining why) would restore some of the confidence Welsh and his staff have hemorrhaged.

Where to start in such an effort? Perhaps with Blair Kaiser, who remains in professional purgatory despite the fact that multiple investigations produced no evidence of misconduct, ineffectiveness, or failure of any kind. 

Perhaps with Kaiser’s colleagues in the 19th Airlift Wing who similarly lost their positions, most often without cause or explanation.

Perhaps with Craig Perry, whose sole misstep was failing to ingratiate himself to an unreasonable boss, as sometimes happens in any human activity. His reprimand and firing were based on hearsay evidence from biased sources who were co-opted to hound him over stylistic differences. In the legacy command system developed by Gen. George Marshall, which serves as the intellectual foundation of our modern system, Perry is exactly the kind of officer who would be put at the front of squadron again and given a another go, any past friction left squarely where it belongs. 

Or perhaps with the mob of red-carded Malmstrom commanders condemned to the professional gallows by Maj. Gen. Jack Weinstein in what many observers regard as a vulgar exercise in political sacrifice.

Taking a fresh look at these cases would cost the Air Force nothing. On the other hand, restoring even a few officers’ reputations and careers would breathe new life into the relationship between senior management and frontline commanders.

Second, Implement a Two-Tiered Relief System.

Commanders don’t always agree on the direction of an organization. Generally, when that happens, it’s the duty of the subordinate to align with the superior in action, even if there isn’t alignment of intellect or philosophy.

But sometimes, despite the genuine desire to align in action if not in thought, a commander’s valid exercise of his own authority within his own organization will manifest philosophical or stylistic differences with superiors.

In such a case, the commander hasn’t done anything wrong. He’s not willfully insubordinate, disloyal, or even subversive. He’s doing his job the best way he knows how, exercising authority bequeathed to him when he took command — authority he has been taught that he must exercise to avoid being derelict in his duty. Too often, the unavoidable friction resulting from two commanders who don’t align well results in the superior officer ejecting the junior from command as a matter of preference.

That might be alright if it did no violence to the junior’s record. But the Air Force doesn’t allow firings without cause. Relief without a valid reason is unlawful, and the superior might be found culpable under the “capricious and arbitrary” standard applied by the Inspector General when complaints of abusive firing are levied. As a result, senior officers routinely paper over firings to make a cause seem apparent even when there wasn’t one.

This isn’t mystical or even unpredictable. Senior officers know the rules and have their own legal advisors. In cases where firings are not triggered by criminality or mission failure, covering their tracks by coming up with reasons to reprimand, counsel, and downgrade the performance reports of juniors is necessary for their own survival. In other words, strong incentives exist to co-opt the tools of investigation and administration. This leads to the false legitimation of firing decisions.

The Air Force's current command climate contains too few disincentives to wrongful reliefs of squadron commanders, and too many incentives for papering over a bad firing using tools of false legitimacy. The freedom to fire without explanation is the chief enabler of this climate.
The Air Force’s current command climate contains too few disincentives to wrongful reliefs of squadron commanders, and too many incentives for papering over a bad firing using tools of false legitimacy. The freedom to fire without explanation is the chief enabler of this climate.

Never mind that the logic is often circular. It’s not uncommon for a commander to be fired based solely on an unelaborated premise such as “loss of confidence,” and to then have his performance report marked “does not meet standards” because he got fired after he lost the confidence of his boss. The report, once filed, becomes the thing justifying the firing, even though it is also the result of the firing. In a good service, such absurdity could not live.

Blair Kaiser’s case tracks along these lines. He was fired based on a rumor that he had behaved improperly. That rumor proved unfounded, but he’d already been fired. His boss, who clearly erred in firing him, marked down his performance report because he had failed to successfully complete his command tour. That referral report is now the reason he can’t command again, be promoted, or attend developmental education. The firing generating the report is the only thing justifying itself.

The way to tame the impulse to paper over firings is to provide a non-punitive avenue by which wing commanders can set their houses in order without having to invent pretexts for removals. There needs to be a middle path that allows for the setting aside of a squadron commander based on stylistic differences that do not impeach the performance or results generated.

The service should allow for firings with and without prejudice. Under the former, a commander is culpable for things like misconduct or mission failure, and his removal is documented in punitive terms that likely disqualify him from future command roles. Under the latter, he is simply set aside, temporarily, from the business of command and given another role commensurate with his abilities and qualifications.

This would allow for an amicable dissolution of the command relationship for the good of the mission without the baggage of unjustly destroyed careers and reputations. It would also dispense with the need for necessary fictions, which in current form is a destructive force gnawing at the service’s ethical fabric. After all, no one worth his salt wants command in an institution that runs itself like a second-rate mafia, plying the tools of paperwork and propaganda to sell the fiction of public accountability rather genuinely living out its values.

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This second proposal makes sense for a couple of reasons. First, it acknowledges that leadership is highly situational, and that success or failure under one peculiar set of circumstances does not tell the whole story of an officer’s potential. Second, it compensates for the Air Force’s unique organizational structure, which limits command opportunities until the scope and stakes are broad and high enough that the risk of organizational friction or partial failure cannot, in most cases, be responsibly countenanced.

On the one hand, senior officers need to be able to manage their commands as they see fit. On the other hand, this can’t mean destroying juniors who don’t happen to fit the frame through not fault of their own save for the refusal to say “yes” and align themselves like moral cowards. It’s an area where a middle ground makes sense, especially bearing in mind the larger objective of developing a cadre of senior officers who have taken their lumps along the way and learned the lessons necessary to effectively lead large organizations under dynamic circumstances.

Some will worry that creating this middle path might provide an incentive for senior officials to fire even more junior commanders. That concern is not unfounded, but it is unwarranted. In the hyper-political, uber-sensitive command climate currently predominating in the Air Force, officials will be made to answer for their decisions to upset the apple cart, whether or not doing so implicates an official cause or an issue of personality fit.

Third, Require Evidence Before Permanent Black Marks.

In today’s Air Force, a commander can issue an administrative sanction for any reason and absent any standard of evidence. On the basis of rumor or suspicion alone, a letter of counseling or written reprimand can be issued. When such punishments are given to officers, they become a mandatory feature of that officer’s permanent record, instantly putting a practical end to any chance of future advancement.

This is a perversion, violating several bedrock principles of any responsible administrative or judicial process. There is no presumption of innocence. There is no opportunity to confront witnesses. There is an opportunity for rebuttal, but it is notoriously perfunctory. There is no meaningful appeal. Power speaks, and its object is ruined. This reflects a corrupt system – one that has fed a fascist cultural movement in the ranks in recent years.

The fix is easy in this case. Require that for any entry into an officer’s permanent record — whether a letter of counseling, reprimand, unfavorable performance report, or unfavorable performance comment — a “preponderance of the evidence” standard be met. This is a modest standard, requiring only that the facts show it more likely than not that an accusation be true. This would require commanders to show what they allege to be true to a 51% level of confidence. Currently, they needn’t even demonstrate 1% certainty.

From their origins, American legal traditions have embraced the requirement for confrontation, which has roots dating to the trial of Sir Walter Raleigh in 1603. The modern Air Force has abandoned this tradition in quasi-judicial processes, creating s system where serious and lasting punishments can be levied without the opportunity to confront witnesses.
From their origins, American legal traditions have embraced the requirement for confrontation, which has roots dating to the trial of Sir Walter Raleigh in 1603. The modern Air Force has abandoned this tradition in quasi-judicial processes, creating s system where serious and lasting punishments can be levied without the opportunity to confront witnesses.

Require commanders to submit their deliberations to independent review. In an electronic age where information is free from surface tethers, such a review could be done by another commander or judge advocate distant from the situation, and thus impartial. The very fact of a review and the risk of professional embarrassment and loss of face in the event a sanction is overturned would compel commanders to be more certain of the merits before upending subordinates’ livelihoods.

Reprimands and unfavorable reports are the primary vehicles by which toxic commanders legitimize their decisions to fire subordinate commanders without proper foundation. This reform would nullify the possibility of cheaply papered adverse actions. It would also provide a powerful incentive for constructive mentorship, rather than comfortably lazy disposal, when things aren’t clicking between fellow leaders.

Fourth, Collect and Study Data on Fired Commanders.

The Air Force has no ongoing effort to understand toxicity in its own ranks. That fact says a lot about what kind of organization Welsh and James want, and why they have such scarce credibility on this issue.

But beyond giving senior officials a better foundation of understanding, there are three additional reasons why the Air Force should adopt this proposal.

The first is to pick up on trends that may be otherwise obscured. When Col. Patrick Rhatigan disposed of five field grade officers in the space of months, his actions were able to go mainly unnoticed by the Air Staff. This is because obscuring patterns of conduct by the sponsored or anointed that might raise eyebrows in high places is the natural, unalterable tendency of the chain of command. But if there were a system for tracking fired commanders, such a Steinbrenneresque spate might spark concern in dispassionate quarters, instigating the right queries to expose and forestall toxicity.

The second good reason to collect this data is to impact the behavior of would-be abusive commanders. Just knowing that what they do will be visible at the highest levels – where their professional fates could be unfavorably influenced by perceptions of toxicity — would stay the hands of many who might otherwise misappropriate their power to devastate subordinates.

Third, the Air Force needs to understand if it is hiring the wrong people and why. Attrition rates and rationales are a key data point in this regard.

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Squadron commanders are selectively hired. They are the best-qualified officers available for arguably the most important roles in the Air Force, and have demonstrated sufficient leadership potential to earn the trust of the system and the officials who administer it. The process of removing one of these people from a position of special trust and responsibility should be a careful one that respects not only the broad discretion of the decision agent, but the dignity and presumptive honorability of the individual under review. Most importantly, such a process should be governed by what’s best for the mission and people of the Air Force.

This means getting power relationships right, which in turn means structuring them for fairness, moderation, and mission primacy. It means making room for healthy disagreement among leaders. It means giving junior commanders enough bargaining power that they can steer their organizations using the authority they’ve been granted without fear of losing their job because the boss would steer differently.

As it stands, power relationships among Air Force commanders are built to fail. Not surprisingly, the more the service resists reforming its power structures, the more it courts institutional disaster.


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