In two previous installments, David R. Warren employed a compelling blend of satire and somberness in turning his personal experience of being fired from squadron command into a useful bevy of warnings, cautions, and notes for others. You can review those previous installments here and here.
While his two previous offerings made quite a splash and were digested by many senior officials, the problem of wrongful relief in the Air Force persists. JQP is currently investigating several reports of squadron commander firings that appear unwarranted, each evincing patterns running parallel with the abuses and misconduct chronicled in the cases of Craig Perry and Blair Kaiser. The problem is culturally entrenched, and will only be rooted out when senior officials embrace fundamental reform that restores a semblance of bona fide bargaining power on both sides of key power relationships.
Fundamental reform is what Warren offers in closing out his trilogy, answering those who believe complaints (no matter how skillfully clothed in satire) should always be accompanied by suggestions. He’s got some insightful notions in mind for how the Air Force should calibrate its most important relationships. It wasn’t long ago I offered a few thoughts of my own on this account. Now, with plenty of ideas on the table, the real question is whether the Air Force will explore and act on them.
David R. Warren is the pen name used by a former Air Force squadron commander. JQP has verified his identity and his standing to make the remarks that follow. He will be watching the comments, and welcomes your reactions.
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Following up on my previous guides for how to fire Air Force squadron commanders and how to recover from being fired, this guide contains policy proposals to hopefully reduce or eliminate unjust firings and how to mitigate their consequences. This guide groups these proposals into three sections: Human relations, fairly treating and supporting our Airmen, and other general suggestions.
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Part I: The current process (or lack thereof) results in significant human relations, talent management, and return on investment issues. Ignoring these consequences or doing nothing to solve them will not make them disappear.
Reform Squadron Commander Screening Process. The Air Force’s process to vet and select squadron commanders needs reform to improve its success rate. As the Air Force Personnel Center (AFPC) notes when releasing command lists:
“Being selected for squadron command is the culmination of years of preparation, training, and education.”
With the apparent and relatively recent increase in squadron commander reliefs for non-criminal issues, one possible explanation lies in the methods used by the Air Force to select and place commanders. A thorough review should be conducted to identify which issues involved in relieved commanders’ selection portended their failure. The current process, involving multiple senior leaders, evaluation and recommendation from an officer’s current chain, application to command, records review, Developmental Team review, Major Command review, AFPC review, and the gaining chain’s inputs must be missing something that matters in commander performance.
Reform Group Commander Selection Process and Training. If the above Squadron Commander selection study nets no results and identifies no factors in selecting the wrong officers to command Air Force squadrons, then perhaps some significant portion of the fault lies with Group Commander selection and training processes. There is currently no methodology to identify toxic and/or incompetent leadership. Group Commander training needs to address the role of mentoring and developing Squadron Commanders versus expecting “yes” to every input. A leadership mantra of many O-6s in the Air Force today when responding to organizational problems is to “just do something–that’s leadership.” Unfortunately, many O-6s were raised on the belief that the appropriate “something” to do is to fire someone. Strategically, they believe such behavior demonstrates engagement and leadership, while also buying a little more time for luck and chance to improve situations. This type of leadership must be plucked out by the roots. It obliterates the dignity and agency of subordinates, using them as pawns. No one who chooses this method can be thought a moral person nor, therefore, a leader in any sense of the word.
Reform Human Relations (HR) Management. The Air Force has a massive system for managing humans. In theory, the system selects its workers for increasing levels of responsibility based on demonstrated performance and potential. That an entire system of many different layers and reviews over a 12-18 year career could competitively select an individual for command and then allow a single O-6 to utterly and completely destroy that career and eliminate any future pay-back for the system’s investment is illogical, unfair, and wasteful. When a commander is fired, either a 12-18 year HR process was wrong or a single O-6 is wrong (although perhaps shielded, sponsored ,or abetted by superiors). Whichever is the case, the HR system needs to have a way of diagnosing and understand how it failed, or how it didn’t.
Create a Firing Process. Revise AFI 51-604 to include a process to relieve commanders vs claiming “loss of confidence.” Unfortunately, a “loss of confidence” is whimsical, impossible to prove or disprove, and provides opportunity for abuse by toxic leaders. Better guidance to Group and Wing Commanders is needed. The guidance should include requirements to provide feedback to Squadron Commanders, similar to that listed in the evaluation system regulation (but which is not followed). Sleep with, murder, or sell drugs to your Airmen—gone! By contrast, alleged “poor performance” should warrant a documented and acknowledged feedback and an opportunity to improve before firing, especially when the squadron has exhibited strong mission results. Commander Directed Investigations should require a more thorough and objective legal review and a higher standard of proof rather than the sole opinion of an “investigator” serving under the same higher level commander, followed by a rubber stamp legal review.
Allow “I Don’t Like You” Firing. As long as the Air Force has no way to identify and eliminate toxic leaders and behavior, and Group Commanders and above have complete control over who serves under their command, “I don’t like you” firings will continue. This option needs to become perfectly acceptable, with the option also to not ruin the member’s career. Relatively recent guidance intended to reduce no-impact firings ratcheted up the impact of being fired. The result has been significant career and life impact for firings that can only be explained by this “I don’t like you” rationale. Additionally, not allowing this type of firing inspires witch-hunting and spurious commander-directed investigations, or requires senior leaders to fabricate rationales that violate core values such as “integrity first.”
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Part II: The following proposals seek to eliminate unfair treatment, establish transparency, establish trust in the system, and improve support to Airmen.
Reform Article 138 Process. Has the General Court-Martial Convening Authority (GCMCA) ever granted redress after it was denied at a lower level? Has the legal review at the Secretariat level ever overturned a GCMCA review? How often has a GCMCA actually initiated a comprehensive review based on an Article 138 request versus simply conducting a legal review and denying redress? An interesting and illuminating exercise would be for the Air Force to determine the rate at which GCMCAs grant redress, and at which rate the Secretariat review has granted redress or in any way overturned the GCMCA’s decision. An undoubtedly accurate speculation would be 0.0%. If the Air Force is not actually going to conduct genuine reviews, it should at least drop the pretense and eliminate a few staff and senior positions that move paperwork around and apply rubber stamps. Better yet, it should redesign the process by which Article 138 is implemented by having an objective reviewer with legal training assess each case file and determine whether the GCMCA’s review should be de novo (look at the case anew, investigating as necessary) or clear error (looking only for process mistakes). The current arrangement lacks any meaningful incentive for appeals to be rigorously evaluated, and doesn’t force officials to get past incentives. The results are predictably unfair.
Reform Review Process. Establish a transparent, fair, and accountable review process of firings to reestablish trust in the system. At minimum, to remove conflicts of interest, all complaints of abuse of authority relating to firing actions should be investigated by either the IG or no lower than the GCMCA level. Additionally, the Air Force should issue clarification to AFI 90-301’s acid test for abuse of authority, because its current form is entirely subjective.
Reform or Eliminate the Evaluation Reports and Appeals Board (ERAB). Immediately replace the top officer, civilian, NCO and SNCO in the chain of those implementing the ERAB for operating an exceptionally slow and opaque process. Certainly more evidence exists to warrant this action than existed in the relief of many squadron commanders. Improve transparency of this process by publishing a redacted reading room similar to the service-specific Boards of Correction. Increase robustness of the process to actually change anything, or eliminate this review. The same office that runs the ERAB also comments on Board of Correction of Military Records (BCMR) cases, so this is a somewhat duplicative process. Perhaps a revision of the BCMR process would allow the ERAB folks to correct a record if they agree, or submit their dissenting opinion to the BCMR, eliminating the extra step. This would also save manpower, because the same office would not have to handle each case twice.
Create Electronic Application Process to Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records (AFBCMR) Process. Unbelievably, in 2015, the application to the highest Air Force agency to correct records must be printed single-sided and travel via mail to San Antonio, from where it is presumably also mailed to the Pentagon. AFI 36-2603 and AFPAM 36-2607 (last revised in 1994) govern this process and could use an update.
Revise Developmental Education (DE) Process. The current regulation and/or the personnel apparatus’ application of this regulation is inappropriately executed, inconsistent, and unfair. First, paragraph 8.1 of AFI 36-2301 explains procedures for how an officer designated a “Select” from a promotion board can decline school at any point over several years before being matched to attend a specific school/year. This is currently being used to classify relieved squadron commander Selects as voluntarily declining school with prejudice. Second, paragraph 8.5 of AFI 36-2301 covers procedures on how to remove a school designee from attending a specific school/year, referring to “selects and alternates”, which happens only after the Developmental Education Designation Board (DEDB). This is currently being applied to any relieved squadron commander promotion board-designated school Selects, before the DEDB. These two misapplications clearly result in a difference in treatment between promotion board school Selects and non-Selects. The result of the same action (firing) is much more severe for those that previously sustained high performance and were designated school Selects, as the Select is permanently ineligible to attend future DE and a permanent removal/”declination” letter from the AF/A1 is placed in the Officer Selection Record (OSR) and is visible on the officer’s SURF, DQHB, and OSB. The non-Select receives no such letter after getting fired and is still eligible to compete for future DE.
To fix this, several options are proposed: 1. Rewrite AFI 36-2301 to match the unfair and unwritten policy as currently implemented. [OR] 2. Rewrite AFI 36-2301 to permanently bar any fired commander from attending DE, regardless of select status. [OR] 3. Rewrite AFI 36-2301 to permanently remove select status from fired commanders, without the AF/A1 letter permanently filed in records. [AND] 4. AF/A1 should immediately review all previously issued “declination” letters and remove them from the records to comply with existing guidance while executing a fair and equitable system.
Reform the Area Defense Council (ADC) System. Assign several (one to four) ADC offices to handle relieved squadron commanders to develop experience in the applicable issues and provide competent advice. The current system randomly assigns relieved commanders to an ADC that must be at a difference base, due to seniority and possible conflict over pending, past and/or future cases. While it seems the Air Force has been firing squadron commanders at an increasing rate, it also seems that ADC experience on this topic has not caught up. Multiple ADCs consulted had zero experience regarding relieved commanders, Article 138 requests, Evaluation Reports and Appeals Boards, and/or the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records. Additionally, ADCs rarely consult one another on similar cases. A similar precedent for a recent programmatic ADC system change exists: the Air Force’s Special Victims Council.
Ensure Family Support Accountability. All manner of support mechanisms kick in following natural disasters and accidents, but nothing happens for self-imposed or “blue on blue” significant stressors. Commanders who fire people should be held accountable for the care of those they relieve.
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Part III: The following section contains suggestions to establish accountability and attack toxic leadership.
Establish Accountability. The Air Force needs to establish some level of accountability at higher levels for improper firings. Is there even a single case of the system admitting a mistake and restoring confidence in the review system? Has the Air Force ever identified and then restored an improperly relieved squadron commander or has every single relief been justified? Has a Wing Commander ever been held accountable for “absentee leadership” by failing to conduct due diligence and meekly approving an overzealous subordinate’s firings? Did the chain notice when Col Rhatigan fired four squadron commanders and do anything about it? Until the Air Force identifies such a case and holds someone senior accountable, the assumption is there are zero cases and zero accountability, which further validates future whimsical firings and toxic leadership.
Root Out Toxic Leadership. The Air Force simply doesn’t have enough people to sustain high firing rates, at all levels, especially based on the recent reduction in end strength not accompanied by a significant reduction in billets (i.e. a cut of faces without cutting spaces make every unit undermanned). Several career fields do not have the inventory to fill all their squadron commander billets and are tapping other fields for fills. Those career fields also suffer from a not insignificant number of relieved commanders deemed ineligible.
While admitting toxic leadership is a bad thing in general, there are currently no specific ways for the organization to identify it and root it out. A hypothetical group commander that fires 20% of his officers in 60 days and over 25% in 6 months is commended for taking action and leading, instead of being fired for failing to train, mentor, and build up subordinates, or for demonstrating toxic leadership. Leadership involves motivating and developing subordinates, not just firing them for no reason. Proposals to mitigate toxic leadership include: 1. Make toxic leadership a command interest item. 2. Add a category under AFI 90-301 to allow toxic leadership complaints and provide teeth to investigate. Include a definition of the term developed by studying it. 3. Add toxic leadership questions to both formal online climate surveys and out-and-abouts. 4. Require climate assessments at the one and two year points in command, not just shortly after assuming command.
Congress Should Assert Additional Oversight. Clearly the Air Force has been unable to identify and eliminate toxic leadership. Perhaps additional oversight from Congress could help. One option is to conduct an inquiry into rates of commander firings. Another is to hold closed hearings with relieved commanders. When several Senators held up promotions over the past few years, the system responded promptly in addressing their concerns.
Act Before the Ship Sinks. Failure to change the current process will only have negative impacts on the future Air Force. One impact is on the desire of younger officers to command. Many look up to respectable and competent squadron commanders they see devastated by unfair firings and deem the risk greater than the reward. Also, many squadron commanders tiptoe around as passive flag holders, trying to avoid upsetting their bosses and hoping to survive long enough to hand off the flag, instead of actually leading their units. With the uncertain future we face, the system has to produce better outcomes than these.