Lt. Col. Tyson Willis was given command of the 30th Airlift Squadron in February when his predecessor was unexpectedly relieved.  Just six months later, Willis himself has been similarly removed, raising serious questions about leaders further up the chain of command.

Lt. Col. Tyson Willis was given command of the 30th Airlift Squadron in February when his predecessor was unexpectedly relieved. Just six months later, Willis himself has been similarly removed, raising serious questions about leaders further up the chain of command.

Lt. Col. Tyson Willis was relieved of command of the 30th Airlift Squadron (30 AS) on August 25th, replaced by Lt. Col. Joey Dible.  Willis’ wing commander, Colonel Patrick Rhatigan, reportedly flew out to the squadron’s location in Cheyenne, Wyoming to personally preside over Willis’ departure message and to explain the firing decision to the airmen of the 30 AS.  This marks the fourth change of leadership for the squadron in roughly a year’s time. Morale in the squadron is reportedly abysmal, and this is not a surprise under the circumstances.

Willis was relieved just six months into his tour, having replaced Lt. Col. Blair Kaiser, whose surprise relief in February of this year has been the subject of multiple internal investigations, at least two legislative inquiries, and considerable public controversy.  At issue in the Kaiser firing was whether Rhatigan had proper cause to justify the action.  Kaiser had just returned from a superbly performed combat deployment and had not been warned or even given any negative feedback before his sudden relief, which Rhatigan justified by citing a “loss of confidence.”  This same rationale was cited in the decision to can Willis.  With no additional details provided, questions about the supportability of this latest decision are inevitable, especially given the trauma this move inflicts on a troubled squadron fighting through a turbulent couple of years as its airmen fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the toughest questions now are reserved for Rhatigan himself, and the command climate within which he’s been serially firing his most trusted subordinates. In just six months, Rhatigan has fired five Lieutenant Colonels from leadership positions: four squadron commanders and an operations officer who was slated to take command within a few months.  This is astonishing.  What it means, if nothing else, is that Rhatigan’s organization is in deep trouble.

But this pattern also makes one of two unfortunate notions true.  Either Rhatigan is right and the Air Force (and specifically Air Mobility Command) cultivated and selected a horrible batch of O-5s for command before sending a particularly inept cluster of them to work in one organization, or the Air Force chose the right candidates and Rhatigan himself is the problem.  No matter which of these theories prevails, the situation reflects poorly on the Air Force, since it developed and selected both Rhatigan and the officers he’s been busy firing.  Also open to question is the judgment and efficacy of General Darren McDew, who in his position as Eighteenth Air Force (18 AF) Commander oversaw the grooming and selection of these now disgraced officers, and who as leader of Air Mobility Command (AMC) has stood by Rhatigan and approved his decisions. Something is evidently wrong with the way AMC, 18 AF, and Rhatigan have built and operated the 19th Airlift Wing (19 AW), and to believe it’s simply a matter of a bunch of bad apples is a logical stretch.

One thing is certain.  Rhatigan’s tenure as commander of 19 AW is peculiar by any standard.  Since taking the reins of what seemed to be a healthy wing previously commanded by one of the Air Force’s best operational leaders, Rhatigan has chewed through squadron commanders at a rate of roughly one every two months.  There is not a system devisable by the Air Force that could supply him with the dozen high-caliber command candidates he would need on an unplanned basis in order to sustain this habit throughout his entire tour.  The Air Force expects squadron commanders to spend roughly two years in their positions, and expects failures to be extremely rare.  Rhatigan is testing the ability of this system to maintain the mission intact when its planning limits are grossly violated, sending waves of leadership instability rippling through units across the command as they struggle to cough up replacements.  Allowing him to continue on his warpath is a hell of a gamble, especially with the joint mission of supporting and sustaining troops in combat hanging in the balance.

Some will argue that what’s happening in 19 AW is not without precedent.  After all, the service sent nine commanders packing at Malmstrom Air Force Base earlier this year.  But context is important.  The Malmstrom commanders were fired in a “clean sweep” operation designed to address a failed culture that had made cheating on nuclear certification exams a normalized deviation. While the Malmstrom response was unfair to a few of the hapless commanders who hadn’t contributed to the problem, the service could clearly be seen addressing a systemic issue with a system-wide response that favored mission viability over individual justice. It was at least understandable in military terms, and the clearest signal of a systemic approach was the removal of Malmstrom’s wing commander right along with his command team.  But If the bloodbath within 19 AW is to be considered in similar terms, the real question is whether Rhatigan is the person to address the wing’s systemic ills, or whether he’s part of the problem.

It’s probably important to mention a word or two about squadron commanders here, both to knock down a few recent assertions implying “just anyone” can get the job, and to ensure they’re not reduced to argumentative props in a discussion that is really all about them.

Squadron commanders are the best Air Force officers at their level.  They typically have around 15 years of experience, have one or two developmental education tours, and have proven themselves in their core career fields as well as in staff or advisory posts outside of the operational world.  Commanders of flying squadrons are typically instructors or flight examiners with strong records of achievement and considerable depth in both combat and other rigorous environments. To reach their positions, commanders have often been promoted ahead of peers, have almost universally exhibited performance consistently placing them at or near the top of their peer group, and have met a screening and selection process that chooses a few dozen winners from a field of hundreds of qualified candidates across a community.  There has arisen in the last few years a nasty institutional tendency to play down the role of the squadron commander and to pretend there’s a limitless bench of ready replacements capable of stepping into the breach with no harm to unit performance when one is sidelined.  This is fantastical.  These people are not infallible, but they are carefully selected for the critical roles they play leading the basic units from which the Air Force is built, and for even one of them to come up short – let alone dozens in the space of a year – is cause for concern.

This is why Rhatigan’s peculiar actions are a noteworthy subject for analysis. Blair Kaiser was pushed out of command by Rhatigan earlier this year without a clear reason.  Neither the scant public statements offered nor the post-emptive investigation directed by Rhatigan supplied proper cause for his relief.  The best theory to have emerged thus far to explain it was that the squadron Kaiser had been entrusted to lead was in bad shape, that Rhatigan had only come to recognize this fact while Kaiser was out on a combat deployment, and that by the time Kaiser returned, Rhatigan had warmed to the idea that Willis was better suited to get the squadron back on-track.  It didn’t hurt that Willis was a favored protégé of the 4-star who would decide whether Rhatigan would stay on-track for generalship.

New evidence supports this idea. In an email from Rhatigan to McDew on February 4th (obtained by JQP through a Freedom of Information Act request),  Rhatigan explains that he has made the decision to fire Kaiser and replace him with Willis.  The email discusses perceptions and concerns about the climate in the 30 AS and attributes them to Kaiser, even though Willis had been commanding the unit for the previous five months while Kaiser was deployed.  The email does not provide a clear cause for Kaiser being removed.  Instead, Rhatigan touts his intuition, telling McDew “[I] feel [Kaiser] is not the right commander to turn that climate around.”  Closing the message, Rhatigan declares “[I] believe [Willis] has the right temperament and leadership abilities to turn this squadron around as the permanent [commander].”

McDew apparently offered no objection, and Kaiser was relieved the following day, with Willis installed shortly after as the permanent commander.  The available facts make it reasonable to speculate that despite the absence of any demonstrable misconduct, Kaiser was fired simply because Rhatigan favored Willis and didn’t mind trashing a career to make a change he saw as necessary. Kaiser now finds himself in the odd position of having never been admonished, counseled, reprimanded, or punished in any way, yet pushed into a backwater staff job on the slow roll to retirement with no way to understand it, let alone explain it.  Not only is it highly likely that the unsupported referral performance report he received will be overturned, but the replacement he was shredded to make room for has now himself been shredded.  It’s a “you can’t make this stuff up” moment for AMC that would be hilarious if it weren’t for the lives, careers, and mission hanging in the balance.  Those factors make this serious business, and a serious embarrassment for the command and the Air Force. No one wants to feel s/he works for an amateur corporation, and that’s what this feels like to ordinary airmen: amateur hour.

Whether to call in a relief pitcher is a tough call for any manager.  But calling in too many can look less like judgment and more like reckless impatience, which is bad for the team.

Whether to call in a relief pitcher is a tough call for any manager. But calling in too many can look less like judgment and more like reckless impatience, which is bad for the team.

But there is a more obvious question hanging over Rhatigan in the wake of this most recent firing.  Quite simply, does he know what he’s doing?  Is he competent enough as a judge of talent to maintain his post?  Six months ago, he relieved Kaiser because he was sure Willis was the right person for the job.  Now he’s relieved Willis.  If Willis wasn’t ready for the challenge – a logical conclusion when someone is canned after six months but no misconduct is cited – then it’s reasonable to expect some answers from Rhatigan concerning how he assesses commanders and judges the readiness of candidates.  Was he wrong six months ago, or is he wrong now?  If he relieves Dible in another six months, will AMC continue to indulge what feels like a running experiment with extremely steep costs?  A baseball analogy works well here.  If a manager is having trouble getting his team off the field because his pitcher is getting rocked, he has a tough choice to make.  Bring in a reliever, or maintain confidence in the guy you put on the mound in the first place.  But if you bring in a reliever and he gets beat up as well, do you let him ride it out, potentially letting the game get beyond reach? Or do you bring in another reliever and risk looking desperate or incompetent?  Too many changes is bad for the team, and can kill the confidence of individual players.

It’s possible Rhatigan was wrong about Kaiser but right about Willis.  Maybe he should have left Kaiser in the seat, but maybe leaving Willis in there would only let things get further out of hand. But as this metaphor wanders back to reality, it’s important to remember that real people and national defense are the stakes.  This isn’t a game.  But even if it were, managers sometimes get fired for their decisions, and Rhatigan’s judgment can only be seen as seriously in question.  Whether anything Rhatigan does at this point can heal previous decisions is an open question, and one hopefully on the minds of the senior generals at AMC Headquarters.

Amid all of this unwelcome drama, one conclusion can’t be avoided: AMC needs to do better for the men and women of the 30 AS and their families. This squadron was given a new commander a year ago only to have him sent away for several months, replaced by a relatively green stand-in with a vastly different leadership style. The squadron then had its boss fired without explanation, endured a distracting investigation ensnaring 40 of its members in extensive questioning, and has now had its commander fired once again. It’s as if Rhatigan and the AMC chain of command are set on mangling these airmen with a string of comically horrible decisions.  While it was good of Rhatigan to personally attend Willis’ relief and explain it this time (an improvement from the Kaiser debacle), no amount of explaining can change the consequences of his decisions, which are incredibly disruptive to the morale and welfare of dedicated airmen who just want a steady set of hands at the controls and the resources to do the job.

Through all of this, the Gunslingers have continued to perform superbly, even with the added complexity of being a geographically detached total force unit with unique structural challenges.  They’ve carried the fight to the nation’s adversaries in Afghanistan and supported humanitarian objectives in Iraq.  Their performance, and the sacrifices they make to generate it, should be center focus. The mobility airmen of the 30 AS and broader 19 AW are not a collection of crash test dummies to be treated as perfunctory pawns in the career development of wayward commanders.  They deserve better.  But better won’t happen until the command gives them strong leadership at squadron, group, and wing level.  Let’s hope Lt. Col. Joey Dible is the beginning of a new vector, and that AMC continues with a bottom-up review of the 19 AW, including the rationale for each of the firings undertaken by its commander.  It’s increasingly difficult to assume those firings were properly done, especially in the absence of a fulsome and transparent explanation for each. At this point, curing any bad firings is an opportunity AMC cannot afford to miss, because its airmen are getting fed up.

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