Reporter Colin Clark of DoD Buzz, the on-line defense and acquisition journal, has touched off a wave of speculation within the Air Force.
Yesterday, Mr. Clark reported that as many as five USAF generals--and "several" Colonels--are facing disciplinary action in connection with last year's nuclear mishaps.
A Congressional aide told Clark that DoD had informed lawmakers of the planned punishments; however, the source did not know the names of the officers facing sanctions. Other sources declined to provide the names, pending an official Pentagon announcement. There was no word on when the disciplinary actions might be revealed, although we're betting on the usual, "late Friday afternoon" media dump.
Meanwhile, a lot of people in and out of the Air Force are wondering which generals are on punishment list. We don't have any inside information (at least, not yet), but there are a number of potential candidates for disciplinary action.
Let's begin with the nuclear debacle that started it all, last year's mistaken transfer of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles between Minot AFB, North Dakota and Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. Both B-52 units are part of Eighth Air Force (also located at Barksdale), which falls under Air Combat Command, headquartered at Langley AFB, Virginia. Following that operational chain, there are a number of flag officers who could face sanctions.
On the other hand, it's a sure bet that some officers will be punished in connection with the accidental shipment of ICBM components to Taiwan. That chain-of-command flows from Hill AFB, Utah, to Air Force Material Command at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. And, of course, we can't forget their bosses, who run nuclear-related programs at the Air Staff.
In any case, the sanctions imposed on the generals will be mild compared to the Article 15s handed out to lower-ranking personnel at Minot at other bases. While some of the NCOs lost a stripe, had their pay docked for several months (or both), the senior officers will (likely) receive a letter of admonishment or reprimand. Then, they'll quietly retire, pension and other retirement benefits intact. With an Article 15 on their records, the non-commissioned officers sanctioned in the nuclear mishaps will probably be denied reenlistment, dashing any hopes for a military career.
There is one other intriguging element in this game waiting for the hammer to fall. We're wondering if the punishment was imposed by the SecDef, and not the Air Force chain. If that was the case, then it would be another black eye for the service, suggesting that Mr. Gates waited for the service to discipline its own, and finally stepped in when the USAF failed to act.
Friday should be a very interesting day.