The Air Force Nosedive Will Continue Until it Deals with Toxic Commanders

Gen Welsh

The Air Force is losing its people. They’re bailing out. The generals are asking how they can reverse this flow and once again make the service a place people want to stay.

Part of the answer is that it must deal seriously and swiftly with toxic leadership, and make it clear the Air Force is no place for professional bullies. Not getting at this problem has been the major failure of the last decade.

Before the problem can be solved, we have to change and complicate how we think about it.

First, we have to stop using the term “toxic.” It’s too vague, which leaves room for rationalizing that someone is or is not toxic. Abusive is what we really mean, and that’s what we should say. Abuse of people, position, or power cannot be permitted among commanders.

Clear examples of abuse of people include public shaming, collective punishment, and personal attacks. In all cases, these are wrong no matter what is motivating them. More subtle examples might include weekend recalls, mass liberty restrictions, mass drug tests, and uniform policies or inspections. These are not always abusive. It matters what is motivating them. If they’re done to everyone as a response to frustration over the conduct of one or a few people, they’re abusive.

Abuse of position is all about pretext. Under the guise of doing something legitimate, a commander uses the special trust and confidence that derive from his position to concoct unnecessary rules, to devise overbroad or extreme control and monitoring schemes, or to develop inappropriate leverage to distort bargaining power or smother individual agency. This is tough to spot and even tougher to prove, precisely because commanders are presumed trustworthy and because there are always legitimate rationales that can be used as cover to conceal the pretext.

For example, if a commander insists on straight rather than curly apostrophes because, he argues, it is part of creating the most excellent performance reports, he is likely abusing his position to enforce a personal preference under the guise of a legitimate purpose. If a commander outlaws electronic cigarettes in tent city because, he argues, the batteries used to power them pose a particular fire hazard, he is likely abusing his position unless he also outlaws cellphones that use similar batteries. He obviously just doesn’t want people vaping. The same logic extends to General Order Number One, which has long been used to enforce the personal preferences of senior officers and to help make their jobs easier rather than for any legitimate military purpose.

Wherever you see the phrase “good order and discipline,” be alert for abuse of position. This is the calling card of the master bureaucrat, who by his very nature hijacks the rulebook and uses it to fulfill illegitimate and usually unstated purposes. In today’s Air Force, the rules are used to create appearances that gain the Air Force political and budgetary favor, with the dignity and agency of the airmen subjected to those rules not even registering as afterthoughts.

Abuse of power is the most serious form of abuse, and that which can have the most disproportionate and lasting effect on the morale and discipline of the Air Force, which are inextricably linked. 

The nature of power is that it cannot be meaningfully resisted or challenged. It is exerted with impunity, which means that the only constraint on the wielder is that person’s commitment to its responsible and ethical exertion.

In the Air Force, commanders are given considerable powers impacting the lives and livelihoods of fellow airmen. The powers to punish, prosecute, investigate, and relieve are most prominent among those. Improper exertion of these powers is abuse, as is the failure to exercise these powers when it is appropriate to do so for the sake protecting a crony, a tribe, or one’s own image. When one airman is less subject to the exertion of power than another because of an improper motivation, abuse is present.

When Col. Debbie Liddick relieved Lt. Col. Craig Perry from command without proper cause, it was abuse of power. When she had him investigated to give credibility to her lie, it was abuse of power. When Brig. Gen. Mark Camerer failed to relieve Liddick of command for her actions and failed to punish her, he abused his power.

When Col. Pat Rhatigan relieved Lt. Col. Blair Kaiser from command without cause, it was abuse. When Gen. Darren McDew failed to remove or reprimand Rhatigan, McDew himself became culpable for abuse.

When Col. Brian Hastings reprimanded and grounded three of his officers without proper evidence, he abused his power. When Gen. Robin Rand failed to relieve Hastings or investigate his actions, Rand abused his power. When Gen. Mark Welsh allowed Hastings to be placed on the promotion list for Brigadier General in spite of his conduct, Welsh participated in and deepened the abuse.

When Brig. Gen. Robert LaBrutta ignored the fact that Maj. Michael Turpiano had been railroaded by a sham prosecution containing zero evidence of sexual misconduct, he abused his power.

These are just a few prominent examples of a phenomenon that has been baked into the Air Force’s institutional climate and is now pervasive, no where more obvious than in reprimand and Article 15 proceedings that often curtail liberty and remove property from airmen without sufficient evidence to meet even a modest preponderance standard. The phenomenon is that the Air Force has given commanders the power of professional assassination and turned them loose to wield it without training, education, or accountability.

Any commander can reprimand any subordinate without evidence, and there is no meaningful resistance to be had. A reprimand ends upward mobility and therefore kills a career, meaning any commander has the unchecked ability to destroy fellow airmen without even needing to worry about being challenged. This kind of power becomes irresistible to commanders who are graded on their ability to maintain discipline and prevent their airmen from committing misconduct. It becomes easy for them to look tough on indiscipline, real or perceived. Commanders are trained to view mistakes by airmen as opportunities to “set an example” with a quick infusion of deterrence-driven punishment. Everything in the system incentivizes unwarranted disciplinary action, and nothing in the system punishes it.

This fuels utilitarian reasoning run amok, and the worst part is that the commanders who draw this card most frequently are often the most successful on the Air Force’s terms. They run organizations cowed into rote compliance and tidy conformity by the hovering threat of career-ending punishment for the tiniest of infractions. The service sees these commanders as running “tight ships.” But it’s an illusion masking savaged morale, a defensive mindset, and the rewarding of moral cowardice. It’s a recipe for a war-losing service culture.

What the can Air Force do about all of this? 

It’s a longer discussion, but fixing it will require fundamental changes in leader development, organizational structure, and ethical training. Most officers don’t get real authority over people until too far along in their careers, and are not mentored through its exercise in the right ways (at least partly because they’re being mentored by bosses who had the same development). Our organizations hold too much authority at too high a level, preventing junior officers from exercising it and learning from that experience. We also have too many organizations that are geographically dispersed, and too many chains of command where squadron and group commanders are isolated from their bosses, who should be mentoring them daily. The service spends next to zero time exploring the subjects of ethics and professional responsibility, and even less on how to administer a system of law and order.

Our service schools must educate on the nature of abuse and the pitfalls of power. 360-degree evaluations must be implemented in a real way, allowing for the signals of abuse to get through. Currently, commanders are capable of largely blocking these signals through intimidation and manipulation of the rulebook to prevent open exchanges about these subjects (an example of abuse of position). The culture must change to promote a free exchange of views and to permit low-risk challenges to authority by those positioned to see a commander going off the rails. It would also help if relief from command could happen without prejudice, simply because of performance and not be necessarily because of a punishable disciplinary infraction. Command is hard, and we should have people who fail for non-disciplinary reasons and are simply relieved and sent to a different role. The current approach encourages commanders who fire subordinates to concoct fake charges and support them with pro forma investigations … because it can’t be that we simply hired the wrong person, it must be that they were secretly criminal all along. But false charges and sham inquiries are the tools of fascism, and they reinforce that abuse of power is acceptable.

More than anything, general officers must stop assuming a protective crouch when their subordinates go over the line. They must deal sternly and publicly with those who abuse people, position, or power. There are many reasons this doesn’t happen in today’s Air Force, and all of those reasons are irrelevant. The fact we’re still seeing officers who have clearly and obviously abused command authority promoted up the ranks demonstrates that as much as Gen. Goldfein seems to “get it” … he’s still no Ron Fogleman. If he’s going to be a great CSAF and usher the service back to good health, part of his approach must be uncompromising intolerance of abuse by his fellow generals or their proteges. Want to see retention trends reverse overnight? Punish abusive senior officers.

The Air Force’s machine-driven operational model abhors the messy and nonlinear. It yearns for a tidy, scientifically calculated fighting style with certainty, minimal disruption, and no loose ends. This high-velocity, minimal-turn view of the world feeds a culture that seeks the same kind of framework on the human side of the business. This ordered cleanliness is unlikely in the battlespace and hopelessly beyond reach in the squadron. But in its pursuit, Air Force officers become bullies. They rely on authority for every task rather than leaning on influence, bargaining, persuasion, and teamwork. In other words, they use brute force instead of leading.

Even in the military, this won’t work. But in the military, it places masses of power into the hands of people ill-equipped to exercise it.

This must change, and the Chief of Staff must lead the charge to change it … because only at his level does the authority sufficient to redistribute authority exist.

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