For an Air Force wing commander, an operational readiness inspection (ORI) or Nuclear Surety Inspection (NSI) represents the defining moment of your tour. The evaluation represents the commander's ultimate report card and will determine--to a large degree--their future prospects for promotion.
That's why the results of two recent inspections are rather revealing, and deserve additional scrutiny, In recent weeks, the 8th Fighter Wing at Kunsan AB, Korea and the 341st Missile Wing, located at Malmstrom AFB, Montana, fared poorly during recent evaluations.
In the case of the 8th Wing, the unit actually passed its most recent ORI (conducted in April 2007), but that evaluation--and subsequent inspections--revealed major problems in its maintenance group. The discrepancies were apparently so serious that the wing commander, Colonel Bryan Bearden, was relieved of his duties by General Howie Chandler, the commander of Pacific Air Forces.
Sources tell Air Force Times that the problems at Kunsan stemmed from poor adherence to technical orders and documentation issues within the maintenance complex. Technical orders (or TO's) provide detailed guidance for repairing aircraft and other equipment. The process also requires extensive documentation of problems discovered and the actions taken to correct them. TO compliance and documentation are major inspection items for all Air Force maintenance organizations.
Ironically, Bearden served as commander of the 43rd maintenance group at Pope AFB, North Carolina before assuming the top job at Kunsan in May. Based on that assignment (and more than more than 15 years of experience as an F-16 pilot), Bearden had detailed knowledge of maintenance procedures, and what's required in terms of documentation. That may be one reason that General Chandler was quick to give Bearden the boot.
From the general's perspective, Colonel Bearden had the background to fix problems in his maintenance complex--but somehow failed to get the job done. In fact, given Bearden's limited tenure at "The Kun" it appears that the maintenance issues predated his arrival, and he was sent to the base (in part) to fix that part of the wing.
A PACAF press release said that "duty performance factors" led to Bearden's dismissal. It's also worth noting that Kunsan's maintenance group commander, Colonel Harry Truhn, remains on the job, despite his organization's performance problems. That suggests a potential conflict between Truhn and his former boss; perhaps Bearden was willing to tolerate standards that the maintenance group commander found unacceptable. Or, perhaps General Chandler simply wanted to send a signal, and the ultimate responsibility for the wing's performance rested with Colonel Bearden, not his subordinates.
As anyone who's served at Kunsan will tell you, being commander of "The Wolfpack" is one of the toughest jobs in the Air Force. Everyone at the base is one a one-year remote tour; with the constant turnover of personnel, it's difficult to sustain an experienced, combat-ready team. And, with the DMZ less than 200 miles away, the 8th Wing is on the tip of the proverbial spear, facing a very real North Korean threat.
But that doesn't excuse poor performance. Scores of wing and group commanders have served their time at Kunsan, maintaining the standards required of a front-line combat unit. Colonel Bearden had his chance and (obviously) came up short. Now his replacement, Colonel Jerry Harris, will get a chance to turn things around.
While Bearden moves to a new assignment, his counterpart at Malmstrom, Colonel Michael Fortney, escaped a similar fate. Fortney's unit received failing grades in two elements of its recent NSI, resulting in an unsatisfactory rating for the overall evaluation. But Air Force Space Command, the wing's parent organization, has already announced that there will be no leadership changes at the 341st. According to a press release, Space Command believes "the right leadership" is in place to make the needed changes at Malmstrom.
Fair enough. There's nothing in Air Force inspection guidelines that mandates the firing of a commander of a failing unit. And, while contrasting a fighter wing to a missile unit may seem like an apples-and-oranges comparison, there are similarities between the situations at Kunsan and Malmstrom. Both wing commanders had been on the job for only six months, and both had troubled maintenance organizations that were affecting the unit as a whole.
But Fortney kept his job, despite the USAF's new, tougher critieria for nuclear inspections--and recent problems in the service's nuclear enterprise. Malmstrom is at least the fourth nuclear unit to fail an NSI this year, but Colonel Fortney will keep his job. That will raise new questions about accountability, supposedly a cornerstone of the Air Force's nuclear reform effort.