Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Second Chances

The Air Force recently released its annual list of Brigadier Generals nominated for promotion to Major General. If approved by Congress, these officers will receive their second star, and move on to higher-level military posts.

Normally, the release of a promotion list doesn't attract much attention outside service circles. But this Air Force list is unusual in at least one respect: it contains the names of two officers who suffered major setbacks in earlier jobs, but somehow managed to resurrect their careers.

The officers in question are Brigadier General Larry New, currently Deputy Commander of NATO's Combined Air Operations Center in Greece, and Brigadier General Mark Shackelford, now assigned to the Missile Defense Agency.

In late 2002, Shackelford was dismissed from his position as Director of the F-22 System Program Office (SPO), after Air Force officials learned of major cost overruns in the fighter program. He was later reassigned to the missile defense post.

New was criticized for his leadership of the 57th Operations Group at Nellis AFB, NV after a 1998 mid-air collision claimed the lives of 12 helicopter crewmembers. A formal investigation concluded that New--a career fighter pilot--failed to ensure proper training for his rescue helicopter crews, who were wornout after extensive exercises and deployments. New's projected assignment as a Wing Commander at Eglin AFB, FL was subsequently vetoed. However, he was later named commander of another wing at Tyndall AFB, FL, where he earned his first star, and assignment to the NATO post in Greece.

In fairness, Shackelford and New shouldn't bear all the blame. General Shackelford was only 9 months into his job when the overruns were discovered and General New commanded a sprawling operations group at Nellis that included a half-dozen squadrons and as many aircraft types. New could not micro-manage the training program of a single helicopter squadron, just as General Shackelford could not be blamed for years of cost overruns on the F-22.

There are two ways of looking at the promotion of Generals New and Shackelford. First, it might suggest that the Air Force has abandoned its "zero defect, no mistake" mentality, allowing officers to overcome mistakes and continue advancing. That would be a welcome change.

But sadly, that analysis would be false. Too many officers and senior NCOs still find that a single mistake--involving lesser offenses--are bonafide career-killers. Unfortunately, the promotion of New and Shackelford is simply more evidence that the Air Force's good old boy and girl (GOBAG) network is alive and well. With the right connections, it's still possible to keep moving up the military food chain, despite millions of dollars in cost overruns, or a defective training program that results in the loss of two helicopters and a dozen aircrew members. Incidents that would end the careers of other officers seem to be only minor impediments for Generals Shackelford and New.

Sadly, the nomination of these two officers suggests that double standard is alive and well in Air Force promotion circles. Congress needs to take a hard look at this list, and decide if Generals Shackelford and New are truly deserving of a second star. And, if they concur, then thousands of former officers and NCOs deserve a second chance as well.

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