Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Tale of Two Inspections

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.


kitanis said...

If the 8th FW failed a ORI.. its always bad news for the Air Forces in Korea.. And I think your evaluation of why the Wing Commander was fired was interesting.

But I always did find amusing on how the Wolfpack at Kunsan has always been called the Tip of Spear in a conflict in Korea..

When the 51st Fighter Wing is about 70-80 miles from the DMZ and offers the F-16's of the 51st FS and the A-10's of the 25th FS.. But because its always assumed that Osan would be hit in a first strike.. they don't count

I was assigned to Osan back in 1990-1991 and remember well when the A-10's were brought down from Suwon to be be based at Osan.

billmill said...

From what I have read and discussed with the few men I still know on active duty Aircraft maintenance is in deep trouble. What happened at Kunsan is probably just a symptom of the ill in the rest of the force.
When I retired eight years ago we were already sliding down hill. They had set up a so called mission ready training at Sheppard, my experience was that the men and women we received were just not ready to work on the E model avionics with any degree of competence. This was a far cry when I had done through Lowery for electronics, Holloman for instrument and flight control and when I arrived at Tyndall thirty-day hands on maintenance qualification program. By the time a young person completed all of this you could in fact go and do basic maintenance and troubleshooting without having to have your hand held 24/7 as you went through OJT upgrade training.
Another example is when I ended up at SJAFB. There were so few flight control rig qualified 7 level avionics people I initially ended up working flight control impoundments while I served as the specialist flight chief. This needed skill had gone by the wayside and we did not even have any FTD help to get the program running for almost a year.
This whole problem can be laid at the feet of senior leadership on the line and at the staff level. The AF has gotten away from promoting and retaining highly competent maintainers. Instead because of the lack of opportunity most technically qualified SNCO’s retire at 20 and take their skills elsewhere, so what you get left with are the guys who do a great job setting up chairs at the Chief BBQ and polishing the apple.

kitanis said...


You might have a good point there. I worked in a maintenance training flight for about ten years. I learned alot from those maintainers in that unit and listened to their view of maintenace..
When I went back out to another base and started to talk to the maintainers there.. I could see excatly what your talking about.

BuckeySandy said...

"But I always did find amusing on how the Wolfpack at Kunsan has always been called the Tip of Spear in a conflict in Korea.. " ~kitanis

We "were" the tip, but I can not confirm or deny the reason for that.

I don't know the current situation over there, since I've been retired for a number of years, but while I was the the "Kun" the "wolf's" canines were blunted and the claws got filed.

But for many things, we did not "play" they were for real and there was a real reason why no dependents were allowed.

T.O. compliance and duty training across the board were HIGH priorities back when I was there. If anything, you had PLENTY of time to TRAIN, and train and train. One of the advantages of a "remote" assignment, few distractions and lots of time on your hands, so to keep our people out of trouble, we did lots of training.

My husband is still a USAF civilian and he came in the same time I did, and we both "cut our airmen teeth" and were brought up in SAC. Back then there was a REAL difference to the expectations and duty performance, even in the early 1908s.

Something that he notes is lacking at many bases both in the CONUS and overseas.

We came in the only "war" was the Cold War, which make no mistake, it was a "real war" and "war-games" had real deaths.

Then there was the famous strict "Two-man" controls and "no lone zones" when dealing with "special weapons." There was the SAC way and the wrong way. Or as one famous version of a common saying went,
"To err IS human, to forgive is not SAC policy."

I saw many people's careers curtailed over "minor" things, the incidents being reported at this time as occuring at many bases would NEVER had happen; because people would have been discharged long before the apathy and lack of command leadership set in.

kitanis said...


I know what your talking about in the 1980's.. and when I got to Osan.. it was fairly much the same thing.. All buisness and no baloney. You usually were held accountable for your mistakes or even the appearence of a mistake.

I remember going to Bitburg right after being at Osan.. Just before the 36 Fighter Wing returned from Desert Storm.. got issued my field gear and chem gear bags.. I argued with the supply NCO for four hours because they did not issue Flak Vests in USAFE. Which were Mandatory field item in Korea.

It got even worse a year later when the Soviet Union Fell.. Try doing a NATO Tactical Evaluation Inspection with the premise of soviets invading your base.. when they could not even launch their jets to return them to Russia. Half the base was still in the mindset of fighting the Iraq Air Force during the 1st gulf war and we managed to squezze a excellent rating.. with us getting dinged for not having adequate wartime munition stocks in our bunkers.. because Bush Sr and Bill Clinton would not allow re-purchase of of munitions to replace those used after the victory in Kuwait.

But after Korea and Germany, I returned to the states and found a much different attitude towards training.. and it continued no matter how I or any other nco or officer tried to change it. The Higher ups were always talking about transitioning to a "new" mindset in how we do things. You learn it.. and in six months.. A NEW set of procedures would come about to just chuckout and begin again.

I retired out of a old SAC base at Ellsworth. But under ACC. .it has become a much different place.. people still got in trouble at times.. but usually with two or three ways out of any situation except for some real bad apples. I was happy to finally leave it behind me.

But I occassionally get phone calls from some airmen and NCO's keeping me abreast of whats going on.. its scary sometimes but the order of things.

Gem said...

WTFO, I suspect there were a lot of underlying reasons General Chandler fired Colonel Bearden. Scape Goat comes to mind first. If HQ knew there were problems in 2007 why did they let it go so long? It is unfortunate that he (Gen Chandler) felt it necessary to ruin a pilots career instead of firing people in the maintenance community. Maintainers will not feel the need to demand change because they have not had a significant emotional event. So what, they fired the Wing Commander. Who sees the Wing Commander? The Group Commanders, the Squadron Commanders and sometimes Command Post Controllers thats pretty much it. These maintenance problems have been a long time coming to the surface and not just in PACAF. It is amazing that anyone expects to correct maintenance malpractices in six months that have been allowed to deteriorate for more than 15 years. And what caused this deterioration? It started with the "Quality/Rightsize Air Force". Since then, there hasn't been the experience, manpower or time to dedicate to mandatory maintenance let alone training. They took the center echelon, SSgt's and TSgt's and offered them money for an early out. Then they turned training over to the young, barely qualified SrA and SSgt's and said, "train your subordinates." So you had youngins training youngins. As for manning, look at the manpower standard for an active duty airman, supposedly they are paid for a 9 hour day. That standard itemizes the duties each Airman are allocated per day. Several years ago they started mandatory PT. That program alone should have added additional manning to the books. Thats an extra 6 hours (at least) every week for every active duty member. Two years ago the manpower standard only gave 30 minutes PER YEAR. I doubt it has changed since then. If thats not enough to cause maintenance to go into the toilet lets talk about the maintainers they take from their aircraft duties and put in the Security Forces shack, at the transportation yard to marshal cargo, at the deployed location to watch Third Country Nationals, or in the drug testing facility to watch their counterparts pee in a bottle. Too bad maintenance doesn't have the advocate on the hill that the security forces troops have. Then they could pass out marshalling paddles to augmentees from all over the base. But I guess flying air planes is not real high on the national interest list (yet). I'm sorry General Chandler fired Colonel Bearden and not the maintainers at HQ who keep rolling over to additional duties and manpower cuts. The good news is that Colonel Bearden gets to leave before the blood precedence. The "message" I fired the Wing Commander went way over the maintainers heads. It's not personal to them yet...........

truttman said...

I think General Curtis LeMay put it this way, when he fired folks (I'm paraphrasing here): "I don't know if you're incompetent, unlucky, or a victim of bad timing and I don't have the time to find out."