Friday, November 14, 2008

The "A" Word

The Air Force's renewed emphasis on accountability was a key factor in the recent firing of a wing commander at Kunsan AB, Korea.

Sources tell Air Force Times that Colonel Bryan Bearden, the former leader of the 8th Fighter Wing at Kunsan, lost his job because superiors lost confidence in his ability to lead. Bearden's dismissal came after recent inspections revealed problems in the wing's maintenance group.

Those problems caused Gen. Howie Chandler, Pacific Air Forces commander, to lose faith in Bearden’s leadership, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.

A PacAF press release said he was fired because “duty performance factors” led Chandler to conclude “new leadership was required to maintain the highest levels of precision and reliability.”


Bearden is not being investigated for any wrongdoing, sources said, but he presided over the wing during a series of recent inspections that found problems with the maintenance group’s adherence to technical orders and standards of documentation.

Maintenance is a critical function for any fighter wing, so it's not surprising that General Chandler decided to dismiss Bearden. Discrepancies in the maintenance complex impact the wing's ability to train and generate combat sorties--a situation that is unacceptable in any unit, particularly one that is located less than 200 miles from the Korean DMZ.

As readers of this blog know, the Air Force launched a major accountability movement after last year's nuclear mistakes at Minot AFB, North Dakota and Hill AFB, Utah. The commander of Minot's 5th Bomb Wing was fired last fall after crews mistakenly loaded nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on a B-52, which ferried them to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana.

More recently, a number of senior officers--including several generals--received administrative punishment over the Hill incident, when fuses for an ICBM's nuclear warhead were accidentally shipped to Taiwan.

However, the accountability movement may have its limits. As we noted yesterday, the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom AFB, Montana ran into problems during a nuclear surety inspection (NSI). Unsatisfactory grades in two elements of the evaluation resulted in an overall failing grade, and another visit from the IG team.

But there won't be a leadership change at Malmstrom. After the inspection results were revealed, the wing's parent organization (Air Force Space Command) announced that the leader of the 341st, Colonel Michael Fortney, would keep his job. According to a press release, Space Command has determined that the wing has the "right leadership team" in place to make required changes.

Admittedly, Air Force commanders need some degree of flexibility in handling troubled units. In some cases, the failings are well below the command level and corrective measures can be implemented without removing the wing commander. In other instances, widespread or serious discrepancies may dictate a change in senior leadership.

Unfortunately, "flexibility" is sometimes an excuse for selective accountability. We've seen cases in the past where failing commanders were given a second chance on the strength of their connections. We're not saying that was the case at Malmstrom. But it is rather odd that Fortney kept his job after failing an NSI--in a new era of "strict accountability" among nuclear-capable units.

What the Air Force could use is a little more clarity in such matters. In the days of Curt LeMay, any wing commander who failed an NSI--regardless of the reason--could expect a quick dismissal, no exceptions. Maybe that's what the service needs to get its nuclear enterprise back on track.

No comments: