Brig. Gen. John Shapland, U.S. Defense Attaché to Israel, talks with Lt. Col. John Orchard, 492nd Fighter Squadron commander, prior to the Blue Flag exercise at Uvda Air Force Base, Israel, Nov. 20, 2013. Shapland met with Airmen from Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, and other allied nations prior to the exercise, which ran Nov. 24-28. Blue Flag was a multinational aerial warfare exercise hosted by Israel which improved operational capability, combat effectiveness, understanding and cooperation between the U.S., Israel, Greece and Italy.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Lee Osberry/Released)

Yesterday, we reported on remarks made by Brig. Gen. John Shapland at the Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) flight ops summit in which he threatened to “torpedo” the careers of airmen who would exploit “loopholes” to escape their active duty service commitments. “I know people” … he reportedly sneered, betraying more than a hint of menace.

Our report speculated that Shapland was targeting a particular subset of aviators exploiting particular perceived loopholes, though we couldn’t be certain since neither Shapland nor the Air Force provided much useful context with which to make sense of his comments. 

Since the report was published, we’ve continued to investigate and been able to unravel the mystery of what got Shapland riled up enough to make his wholly unacceptable comment — one that reinforces broad themes governing the pilot retention crisis even if he intended it to apply more narrowly.

Turns out there’s a debate raging within AFMC about just how much time airmen owe — be they pilots, navigators, or test engineers — after graduating from Test Pilot School (TPS). The debate shouldn’t be raging, because the rules are crystal clear.

Air Force Instruction (AFI) 36-2107 assigns a 3-year active duty service commitment (ADSC) to TPS graduates. However, that same AFI says two other things that matter. First, pilots who graduated from pilot training on or after 1 Oct 99 incurred a 10-year initial service commitment, and all other commitment run concurrent with this rather than extending it.

More importantly, all pilots and navigators who started their flying careers after 1997 will not have their initial ADSCs extended by any form of Advanced Flying Training, a subset to which TPS belongs.

Here’s a snip from the AFI.

ADSC

According to our sources, the raging debate is occurring because airmen (primarily pilots) are graduating from TPS and in some cases separating from the Air Force or transitioning to a reserve position not long after graduation. While this seems contrary to the purpose of sending them to TPS, it’s also perfectly permissible under the rules and a risk of which the Air Force is in all cases totally aware when it selects people for TPS.

But it’s pissing commanders off and creating rampant whining, which has triggered a particularly poor — but not at all surprising — response from the Air Force Personnel Center (AFPC). To fight the exodus of TPS grads, AFPC has undertaken a dirty tactic  of denying separation requests, justifying itself by retroactively tacking a 3-year ADSC onto graduates. It then attempts to lock them into additional service. This without legal foundation, proper notice, or even a signature confirming notice and accepting the obligation — which is supposed to happen when an officer accepts enrollment and before training actually begins. Only in the Air Force can you be contractually obligated to die for your country without even knowing about it.

Naturally, officers confronting this imbecilic, corrupt, and extralegal misconduct resist it by raising tickets to AFPC for resolution. These tickets are often closed without resolution or explanation, denied without a reference or even the name of the denier, or simply ignored until they age into inactivity on the official “system.” The officers then do what they have been trained to do: they exercise the chain of command to secure the right and proper outcome.

This is what Shapland shamefully refers to as exploiting a loophole to escape service. In his perverse mind, someone who does what the rules allow is being exploitative, while the bureaucracy attempting to ignore the rules to serve its own interests is doing the right thing.

This story is even worse than we thought. Not only did Shapland commit a toxic (and likely unlawful) wrong by threatening the future livelihoods of people who choose to leave service, he did it on the basis of a total misapprehension. There is no loophole. There is no exploitation. These airmen have served their commitments and are entitled to depart, period. The wrong being committed here is by AFPC, which either doesn’t understand its own rules or does understand them and is cynically and illegally ignoring them. 

If Shapland was much of a leader, he’d be targeting AFPC for screwing this up instead of browbeating his own airmen. If he’d spent much time thinking about the health of the force he’s charged to lead, he’d realize there’s nothing to be done about airmen who have made the decision to leave, but that trying to coerce and threaten them into indentured servitude might negatively impact retention of those who have not yet made up their minds. It might occur to him, had he not been developed within a corrupted system that rewards this kind of toxicity, that no one with basic moral and ethical sensibility wants to serve under a general obviously eager to arbitrarily redefine the rules rather than allow himself to be governed by them.

Here’s the real intuition we can extract from this sordid debacle: any time you’re having to threaten, coerce, intimidate, or attempt to bureaucratically entrap or hoodwink someone into staying in uniform, you have already lost. “How do we force Johnny to stay” is the wrong question, especially when you talking about TPS graduates who rank among the top 1% of practitioners in one of the coolest jobs in the world. The right question is “how do we improve conditions so fake ADSCs and threats from generals aren’t needed to keep Johnny onboard? … why doesn’t Johnny want to stay and how do we change that?”

Part of the answer is that smart, capable, conscientious people expect to be led by smart, capable, conscientious leaders. Looking around, I don’t see enough of them. I see too many who need to be flushed out of the service, chased by a loud message that we’re done tolerating a corrupt, bureaucratic culture that is preparing us to lose our next war … and we are done with those who symbolize it.