How to Fire an Air Force Squadron Commander: A Handy Guide

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This guide should sit on every United States Air Force Group or Wing Commander’s desk as a handy reference tool and an outline to successfully conduct the firing of a Squadron Commander. Keep it at arm’s length for that day when you wake up, have your breakfast, and for whatever reason or no reason at all, decide to destroy a career without incurring personal jeopardy of any kind.

The reason(s) for firing a Squadron Commander may be myriad and diverse, including: alleged misconduct; poor performance; a personality conflict; they may have told you “no” at some point instead of being a “yes man/woman” in every instance; perhaps they are smarter or taller than you; maybe you want to bring in your favorite boy/girl; you might be upset that you didn’t get to hire your subordinates; or simply that you don’t like them. The actual reason is irrelevant. After all, let’s keep in mind these people aren’t “real” commanders. Squadrons are just the minor leagues. Equally irrelevant is that “the system” produced every Squadron Commander via a stringent vetting and selection process to determine key Air Force leaders entrusted with leading America’s sons and daughters in preparing for, and conducting, our nation’s wars.

What actually matters is that you, the Group or Wing Commander, decided to fire a subordinate Squadron Commander. You and your desires are really all that matter. But while “the system” is inherently designed to protect you, following a few steps will minimize the appearance of your stupidity later and guarantee the lock-tight destruction of your Squadron Commander’s career with zero chance of recovery.

The Lead Up: This section contains guidance on the process immediately prior to firing your Squadron Commander, including developing the foundation for your bulletproof case.

Develop a narrative. As stated above, the actual reason for firing a Squadron Commander doesn’t matter. Maybe s/he is more popular with the troops than you are or drives a nicer car. Still, it is important to develop a logical narrative, and to consistently stick to it. This will demonstrate your leadership ability by doing something/anything. Even firing people—that’s leadership!

Consider using a Commander-Directed Investigation (CDI). One could argue that any allegation of anything improper brought to your attention on your Squadron Commander requires your duty-bound investigation. Plus, who could fault you for conducting an investigation, regardless of how spurious the charges? Use your JAG/legal office to craft the investigation topics carefully, as in many investigations the outcome can be pre-determined by the initial allegation shaping. For example, “yes or no, have you stopped beating your wife/dog?” results automatically in misconduct, while “are you aware of personnel actions attempted to be taken?” results in no misconduct.

Select an investigator who will be watching closely for details or evidence that might exonerate the Squadron Commander.
Hire the right investigator — one who won’t notice any evidence that goes against your decision.

Also, list as many charges as possible, aiming for around 30, utilizing police and prosecutor tactics to encourage plea bargaining. Appoint a green and subservient investigation official that isn’t trained, or that can be given a short course conducted and influenced by your lawyers. Once you have the CDI results showing ANY form of misconduct or questionable judgment, even if insufficiently substantiated, you now have backing to remove your Squadron Commander. The fact that you have a CDI that fails to disprove any allegation of misconduct (especially relating to today’s political hot topics of domestic abuse, alcohol, sexual abuse/harassment, religion, race, sexual orientation or anything else under the equal opportunity umbrella) is grounds for immediate removal.

You can ultimately do whatever you want, as chances are likely this CDI will never see the light of day, and if eventually released via the Freedom of Information Act process, it will be too late to question your judgment. Finally, throughout this entire process, it is important to remember that the lawyers are on your side and owe you a chop approving any/all actions you want to take. Their interest is the same as the Air Force’s interest, in protecting the chain of command from any scrutiny.

Conduct a fair and impartial inquiry.
Conduct a fair and impartial inquiry.

Create a paper trail. Document every discussion and meeting as a memorandum for record or even label them as “verbal counseling.” You don’t actually need to show these to anyone to justify the decision, and your Squadron Commander doesn’t even need to know you viewed them as verbal counseling sessions. If this person is too dumb to read your mind, you’re obviously justified in firing them.

The documentation has nothing to do with your hapless victim. It’s for use later for expected IG and Article-138 complaints to which you may have to respond. Be sure to keep the dates and subjects straight and to try and actually do them real-time—it could be quite embarrassing to have parts of your memos disproven later (i.e. the date at the top being 8 months in the future of the date claimed to be signed at the bottom, claiming someone was in a meeting on X day when they can later prove they were TDY, or statistics that greatly exaggerate over time versus the facts). Due to the nature of the investigations and the inevitable support you’ll receive from your chain, you’ll be able to submit these documents without any chance of review/rebuttal by your fired Squadron Commander in the first investigation anyway. While it is better to be accurate and truthful up front, you can also rest assured that any subsequent proof of your lies will not be investigated by your chain.

Construct bulletproof rationale. The reason(s) given for relieving the Squadron Commander should be constructed in such a way that they can’t be refuted, such as “caused X failed result…required my intervention.” This implies that your leadership saved the day and prevented catastrophic mission failure, and in relieving your Squadron Commander for poor performance or misconduct it appears that you prevented an even worse outcome. However, it must be worded carefully, because this could also be construed as your leadership failure in documenting your interventions that were unable to actually prevent the claimed mission failure.

Solving problems of your own creation and then blaming subordinates...and then firing them. Now THAT is leadership.
Solving problems of your own creation and then blaming subordinates…and then firing them. Now THAT is leadership.

Use the term “Loss of confidence”: While this is not written in any known legal terminology as a reason warranting relief of command, it has become standard lexicon to defend relief of commander decisions. Behind this phrase hides a myriad range of issues, such as misconduct, criminal behavior, poor performance, and more, none of which have to be revealed or substantiated. Furthermore, no one else can argue with the statement that you have lost confidence in a subordinate, and by the time you admit it in announcing the firing, there is no way to restore such confidence. A Squadron Commander’s position is held ONLY by maintaining your confidence, and employing such an unfalsifiable rationale gives you unlimited latitude in your actual reasoning.

Avoid reviews. When Wing Commanders and above are presented with a request from a Group or Wing Commander to relieve a Squadron Commander, it is advised to not actually do any “due diligence” and request to see documentation—doing so would unnecessarily question subordinate Group or Wing Commanders. Furthermore, it allows plausible deniability in any subsequent investigations. You are free to support your subordinate commander with statements such as “see, they documented it” or “see, they gave feedback”, without actually reviewing any of it. In the rare case that it may be pointed out that such documentation doesn’t exist, did not allow due process, or is inadequate, you can point the finger at your subordinate Group or Wing Commander for misleading you.

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Obtain written approval. You should e-mail your supervisor documenting generalities of the case to request approval and/or support for your decision to fire your Squadron Commander. This will guarantee their “ownership” of the decision. Furthermore, since any complaints of the firing action would be theirs to investigate, this step guarantees your position of security, as they certainly would not admit fault or a mistake later. Similarly, as a Wing Commander or higher, you should request an e-mail if briefed on intent to fire a Squadron Commander, as this will cover your hiney—should a finger be pointed later, an e-mail will back up the claim that “they” lost confidence, and who were you to argue or in any way ensure fairness?

The Actual Firing: This section contains guidance on the process of the firing itself, up until the point where the Squadron Commander is assigned to another unit.

Issue a no-contact order. This order to your relieved Squadron Commander prevents contact with any member of their “former” unit, peer units, parent units, etc. Make it for as long as possible and make it as generic as possible to be construed that they can’t talk to anyone without risk of severe punishment.   The goal here is to prevent the individual from finding anyone else who can refute your version of the events and support your Squadron Commander in any future appeals. Ultimately, your aim is to isolate them and make them go away, one way or another.

Restrict access. Immediately send your Squadron Commander home and significantly restrict all access to e-mail, shared drives, office computer, etc. Do not allow the individual further access to their office. A recommended approach is to appoint someone who doesn’t get along with your relieved Squadron Commander, or to use a “yes man” type of loyal subordinate, and give them clear instructions to handle removal of everything from the office and delivery to the Squadron Commander’s home. This might even lend the false impression of benevolence and compassion in the matter, though it’s not relevant. Furthermore, sending the relieved Squadron Commander home with nothing to do will most likely cause severe distress in an individual who most likely became a Squadron Commander in the first place by being a type-A personality motivated to accomplish a mission. This isolation and restriction will prevent the individual from gathering information used in any future complaints or appeals.

Execute paperwork properly. Due to multiple Squadron Commander firings that had little documentation and resulted in little career impact to the officers, AFPC has implemented some changes requiring that a firing is a career-ending event. You will owe a letter to AFPC explaining why you fired the Squadron Commander. A referral OPR should be initiated. Any documentation such as a LOC or LOR should be completed properly and an UIF initiated correctly, if applicable. You will need to submit a permanent change of station request, as keeping the relieved Squadron Commander in the area will provide an opportunity to prepare a defense, while a PCS will be one more significant stressor for the Squadron Commander and their family, and a distraction from filing appeals.

Prepare a back-up plan for local assignment, as AFPC time on station rules and/or EFMP may preclude an assignment. Finally, if the Squadron Commander was a school select, then initiate immediate actions to remove their select status. Through a discriminatory policy and misinterpretation of the regulations, a school select will be permanently barred from school and receive a declination letter from the AF/A1 placed in their records to meet all future developmental education and promotion boards. If not a school select, this does not apply, so find some other way to ensure any future door to developmental education is slammed shut.

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Ignore them. You have zero responsibility to hand your relieved Squadron Commander off to their next unit or to care for their well-being, even though they are still a fellow Airman and a member of your unit. You probably can’t really explain your actions to a peer, and anything you may say to their next supervisor could be used against you, so it is best to provide no information to the gaining unit. Furthermore, as a relieved Squadron Commander, they are now a disgraced and outcast member of your great Air Force community and they should be treated as such. No effort should be made to ensure they have a sponsor, or that they are adequately adapting to your career-ending action, regardless of if they have their family nearby or if they are departing from the AOR. Any harm that comes to them via any avenue would not bring discredit on you for your total indifference; it would instead be viewed as proof that your decision was correct.

Control information. You have no requirement to explain the firing action to anyone and you should resist all temptations to do so. If pressed for a reason or to make a public statement or announcement, stick to the “loss of confidence” mantra. While the chain will protect you regardless of any false statements, libel, or slander, your goal should be to avoid committing these offenses without surrendering logical and rational fortitude. For example, when relieving a commander for a unit’s poor performance, issuing no new corrective guidance and telling the unit to keep doing what it has been doing is inconsistent. Similarly, it is advisable to avoid making up false allegations in a commander’s call, such as referring to the relieved Squadron Commander as a serial killer, pedophile, thief, or racist.

The aftermath:   This section contains guidance on what to expect from your fired Squadron Commander as they deal with the fact of a shattered career trajectory and attempt to clear their name by presenting their version of events. It also contains an explanation of some appeal procedures for dummies.

Don’t worry. The first thing to remember is “don’t panic.” The truth simply doesn’t matter. You have the upper hand over the disgraced and outcast Squadron Commander, and “the system” is inherently designed to protect itself, and you! Picture “circling the wagons” from the Wild West days of our nation’s history—you are the wagon, and the circling is done by the chain and the system to protect its wagon. In the appeals to follow, the system must only portray a modicum of interest in review and fairness, without a requirement for substance behind this portrayal. The Air Force’s core interests lie more in protecting the chain’s (your) decision than ensuring fairness and conducting a true review.

Inspector General (IG). One key IG complaint protection for you is that the Squadron Commander only has 60 days to file it. Another is that very few items are actually investigated by the IG itself, and almost every scenario for relieving a Squadron Commander doesn’t meet this short list. Therefore, you can expect that any complaint would be referred to your supervisor, with the option to initiate a Commander-Directed Investigation (CDI). As stated above, CDIs have a lot of leeway in how they are framed and the guidance given to the investigator, so rest assured you will have the chain’s backing in exactly the opposite way your Squadron Commander had backing from you. While the chances are very low that anything you provide to the investigator will ever be second-guessed, checked for accuracy, and/or verified, you should also take care to be consistent and avoid exposing any lies. A review of the “arbitrary and capricious” nature of your actions is completely subjective, and as the chain shapes and controls this subjective review, you will almost certainly be cleared of abuse of authority.

Article 138. You may have never heard of an Article 138 “complaint” (which by its name implies whininess), also known as a request for redress. This is actually an article in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. It is governed by AFI 51-904, last updated over 20 years ago, and containing only 4 pages, which is close to the limit of your attention span and reading comprehension. The Area Defense Council will recommend this option, and in an effort to avoid any work, so will every IG. By this process, the relieved Squadron Commander submits a request for redress to you. This forces them to lay their cards on the table and present any evidence they may have shooting holes in your narrative. You are then presented with two options: 1. Claim to grant the redress—this causes some confusion in the process because if the request is granted then the appeal to higher levels is stymied; or 2. Deny the request—provide your side of the story and documentation. After your response is provided, the relieved Squadron Commander can submit a response to the General Court-Martial Convening Authority (GCMCA), whose final response is submitted directly the Secretary of the Air Force’s lawyers.

Since an IG complaint quite possibly already triggered a CDI from this General Officer, and regardless of new information they could claim a CDI was already initiated, you most likely won’t even hear anything about these senior reviews. Even any allegations of lies are likely to be swept under the rug, as the system doesn’t want to admit a mistake. Finally, the passage of time allows that your relieved Squadron Commander, you, and/or the GCMCA may have moved. The regulation is unclear about how to handle these situations, but the easiest and most likely is for the GCMCA to simply deny the appeal without any further review. GCMCA’s take these reviews so seriously that they sometimes reply in about three months, often with one to two short paragraphs explaining the actions taken were within the Group Commanders’ authority, and while explaining they carefully reviewed the information provided, have replied without correctly using the Squadron Commander’s name.

Evaluation Reports and Appeals Board (ERAB). This is a murky and opaque process run by an organization of NCOs and civilians in the bowels of the Air Force Personnel Center, and is the first step in the relieved Squadron Commander’s attempt to remove the referral OPR from their record. It can only be initiated once the OPR is a “matter of record” or loaded in the system, which can take 2-6 months. The ERAB process claims to take 6-8 weeks, but waits of over a year now seem routine. This process is also transparent to you, unless you are asked to provide a memo recommending removing and/or replacing the OPR, perhaps via the Article 138 process.

Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records (AFBCMR). This is the second and final step in your relieved Squadron Commander’s attempt to remove/modify the referral OPR, and requires an ERAB be previously initiated. Due to delays in processing, loading the referral OPR, and then the time to submit an ERAB appeal and wait for the results, it will be at least a year before the AFBCMR process could even be initiated. Furthermore, the standard review is currently averaging “upwards of 8-10 months.” While these two years pass the referral OPR sits in their records and your relieved Squadron Commander will likely not be considered for stratifications or school, and will probably be placed in a low impact, low visibility position, further cementing the revised career path you devised. Even if the referral OPR is removed over two years after being relieved under questionable circumstances, their career is already effectively ended—well done, your goal was achieved!

Congratulations. Looking tough on Squadron Commanders was an unwritten eligibility requirement  for the General Officer deification process, and you’ve succeeded. You’re well on your way to an even greater latitude for unaccountable abuses.

David R. Warren is a pen name. JQP has verified the author’s identity and qualifications — not that any are necessary to construct brilliant satire on a topic long overdue for lampooning.

Note: While poking fun at this issue is both poignant and enjoyable, for the officers impacted (as well as their families and squadrons), it is no laughing matter. The Air Force doesn’t owe its squadron commanders a guaranteed job. It does owe them basic fairness, a relief process with safeguards that actually work, and continued entitlement to their dignity and place on the larger team. It owes them more than judgment by a “kangaroo court” or trumped-up administrative actions to make a decision appear more justified than the facts would allow.  As demonstrated in the Kaiser and Perry cases (and many others that we can’t report here because those impacted have chosen to stay out of the public eye), the service is sometimes falling short of these basic standards. We must expect better…the Air Force will rise or fall on the health of its squadrons. -Q.

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