How the Air Force Lost its Way
A lack of accountability over decades past led to current problems.
by Nate Hale
Service Before Self
Excellence in All We Do
Those simple statements form the Core Values of the United States Air Force, principles designed to set the ethical foundation for every airman and the service’s civilian employees.
Unfortunately, those standards have sometimes been ignored over the past two decades—and by the very individuals charged with setting the example: the USAF’s highest-ranking officers and civilian officials. Since the early 1990s, the Air Force has suffered through a series of scandals involving senior personnel, creating an ethical cloud that lingers to this day. Some of these incidents were highly-publicized; others remain virtually unknown outside the service.
But all share something in common; not only did these scandals involve high-ranking officers and civilians; they (typically) resulted in minor punishment for the offending parties. Only one of the senior Air Force officials (a civilian) went to jail for their wrong-doing—and she emerged from prison with pension benefits intact. The rest escaped with lesser sentences, ranging from administrative punishment to reduction in rank.
“Different spanks for different ranks” is a military maxim that probably dates back to the Crusades. But in today’s Air Force, the notion of lesser punishment—or a lack of accountability -- for senior personnel has been carried to an illogical extreme, creating an atmosphere where misconduct is seemingly tolerated and sanctioned only as a last resort.
Consider the case of one USAF general, now retired. As the leader of a training command in the early 1990s, this officer became angry when a female subordinate, who happened to be an African-American, failed to arrive on time for a meeting. “Where is that g—d---ned black b---h?” he thundered to his staff.
When she learned of his racist rant, the black officer filed a complaint with the command’s inspector general. However, any hopes of a serious inquiry were quickly dashed when a Colonel was appointed to “investigate” the three-star.
In his subsequent report, the colonel concluded that the black officer was not the victim of racist or vile behavior, because the general in question “treated everyone like that.” Incidentally, the lieutenant general in question went on to earn his fourth star and led both an allied and joint command before retirement. He is but one of several flag officers who evaded serious punishment for misdeeds in recent past.
Sadly, that case represents only the tip of the ethical iceberg. On April 14, 1994, two USAF F-15s mistakenly shot down two Army Black Hawk helicopters over northern Iraq, killing 24 Allied personnel. Over the year that followed, the incident was exhaustively investigated by the Air Force, other government agencies and the U.S. Congress. But only one Air Force member, Captain Jim Wang, faced a court-martial for his role in the incident.
Wang, who was later acquitted, had served as a crew member on the AWACS radar plane that was controlling the F-15s. Members of the military jury apparently believed that Wang was made a scapegoat—and their concerns are not unfounded. The pilots who fired the fatal shots received only non-judicial punishment, as did senior officers in charge of the operation.
Indeed, it’s worth remembering that some Air Force officials appeared reluctant to file criminal charges, despite command and operational failures that led to an appalling loss of life. The pilots’ wing commander described their errors in the shoot down as “reasonable” and one of his superiors concurred; in late 1994, the three-star general with court-martial authority over the pilots and on-scene commanders declined to pursue criminal disciplinary action against them.
The gross lack of accountability stunned the Air Force Chief of Staff, General Ronald Fogleman, who discovered that many of the officers involved in the incident received glowing performance reports, and recommendations for more important assignments. That prompted Fogleman to take the rare step of placing letters of evaluation in the personnel files of seven officers, noting their “failure” to meet Air Force standards.
While General Fogleman’s actions were widely praised, a subsequent controversy suggested his own inconsistencies in the area of accountability. In 1997, Fogleman requested early retirement, protesting the results of a DoD investigation into the terrorist bombing at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, which occurred a year earlier. General Fogleman believed the probe unfairly criticized the senior Air Force commander at Dhahran, who was completing his year-long tour at the time of the attack.
The preliminary DoD inquiry, led by retired led by retired Army General Wayne Downing, offered a blunt assessment of Brigadier General Terry Schwailer, the wing commander in charge of the Khobar complex. Downing’s panel determined that General Schwailer should have taken additional measures to protect against a possible truck bombing at the Khobar facility—the same type of attack that killed 19 of his airmen in the June, 1996 attack.
Critics of the Downing Report claim that his inquiry was unduly influenced by political pressures, and there is some evidence to support those allegations. But those charges ignore another salient point, namely that Pentagon officials found serious fault with USAF investigations into the attack, which determined that no personnel should be sanctioned.
Announcing his verdict on the incident, Defense Secretary William Cohen wrote that the Air Force reports did “not reflect a thorough, critical analysis of all of the facts and issues,” and arrived at conclusions not fully supported by the facts. Determining that Schwalier bore some measure of blame, Cohen removed Schwailer’s name from the promotion list for Major General, a decision that infuriated Fogleman and influenced his retirement decision.
But debates over the various Khobar reports—and their findings—obscure another issue: the same Chief of Staff who demanded accountability in the Black Hawk incident was much more sympathetic to a fellow general, implicated in a tragedy of similar magnitude.
As Air Force standards of accountability grew more fuzzy, it was inevitable that ethical lapses would occur more frequently. And, as the service moved into a new century, they happened with alarming regularity. In 2004, the USAF’s former top procurement official, Darlene Druyun, pleaded guilty to corruption charges in connection with a plan to lease tanker aircraft from Boeing. Druyun was accused of inflating the contract price to favor Boeing (which promised her a job upon retirement) and leaking information on a bid from a rival firm, EADS. She served a nine-month prison term, but still receives her federal retirement benefits.
The same year, the Air Force’s senior legal officer, Major General Thomas Fiscus, was punished for a string of “inappropriate relationships” with female subordinates. While Fiscus was demoted two grades (to Colonel), he collects an annual pension of $85,000. The former head of the service’s Senior Leader Management Office, Brigadier General Richard Hassan, suffered a similar fate, after he harassed female personnel in his organization, and engaged in inappropriate relationships with other women. Hassan retired from the Air Force as a Colonel in 2006.
Another scandal involving a senior officer has yet to be resolved. Colonel Michael Murphy was removed as Commander of the Air Force Legal Operations Agency in 2006, after investigators learned that he had been disbarred as a civilian attorney in the early 1980s. Murphy served his entire career as a judge advocate general without a valid law license—an essential requirement for any military attorney. He faces court-martial next month, on a variety of charges, including dereliction of duty and making false official statements.
Also in the offing is the latest investigation into “Thunder Vision,” a $50-million support contract that was steered by senior officers to a firm with close ties to USAF leadership. At least five officers have been disciplined in the matter (so far), and the current probe is focusing on the conduct of senior leaders, including the outgoing Chief of Staff, General Michael Moseley. A preliminary inquiry revealed that Moseley maintained personal ties with executives from the company that won the contract, while it was up for bids. General Moseley has denied any wrong-doing.
In fairness, the number of misconduct cases involving senior officers and civilian officials remains small. And, their prosecution suggests that the system still works, to some degree. But sadly, these incidents also suggest a larger problem, rooted in the ethical climate that permeates today’s Air Force. Having observed scandals in years past, some leaders apparently believed they could get by with unethical conduct, illegal behavior, and deadly mistakes—or face only minor sanctions if they “got caught.”
None of this was lost on Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Since assuming his post, Dr. Gates has been waging an intense battle with the Air Force, over issues ranging from UAV support for the War on Terror, to the number of F-22s needed to assure air supremacy. In his dealings with Air Force leadership, Gates found a service that was both arrogant and implacable, resting on past laurels instead of focusing on contemporary issues.
And, the SecDef apparently viewed the Air Force as incapable of policing itself. After recent nuclear incidents at Minot AFB, North Dakota and Hill AFB, Utah, Mr. Gates gave the service an opportunity to fix its problems. But when an independent report showed continuing problems in nuclear operations--including a lack of accountability--the secretary moved quickly, forcing the resignation of the Secretary of the Air Force and the service's Chief of Staff. The problems at Hill and Minot simply gave Mr. Gates the ammunition he needed, imposing a measure of high-level accountability that the service couldn't muster on its own.
The USAF proudly boasts that it has never court-martialed a general officer in its 60-year history, suggesting a leadership corps with bedrock integrity. But the recent scandals that have rocked the service speak otherwise, tarring the reputation of thousands of airmen, officers and civilian who serve with pride and honor. Those men and women—not to mention the U.S. taxpayer—deserve better.
Restoring accountability throughout the ranks should be the #1 priority for General Norton Schwartz, nominated today to be the next Air Force Chief of Staff. Without it, the service’s vaunted core values will be nothing more than empty buzz-words.