In F-35 Debate, U.S. Air Force Leaders Bully Critics
It happened to me
Shortly before I retired from active duty at a small Air Force base outside of Boston, I received a cryptic voice mail from an unfamiliar colonel. He identified himself as working at the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program office in Washington, D.C. and he wanted me to call him back ASAP.
I had recently published a pair of articles about the F-35 (I’m not a fan), and although both articles had been approved by my chain of command and the base public affairs office, something about his message made my Spidey-sense tingle. I called him back despite my misgivings and we played a few rounds of phone tag before he left a more detailed message that explained the reason for his call.
“I read your article about the Joint Strike Fighter. You need to come to my office for an extended visit so we can show you how the largest program in the DoD does business.” Before I had an opportunity to respond, he continued “If you refuse to come, I will elevate this issue to your commander.”
This was not an invitation, it was a summons. A demand. A threat. He clearly did not view this as an optional activity, but frankly I had no intention of making that trip.
Nevertheless, I dutifully called him back and left yet another voicemail (he never seemed to answer his phone). Ignoring the threat, I played what I hoped would be a trump card and explained that while I appreciated the invitation, I must decline as my retirement orders were in hand and my departure date was just around the corner. I simply could not squeeze in even a short trip to D.C. during the mandatory outprocessing activities already on my calendar, much less an “extended visit.”
I hoped that would be the end of it, but he persisted. Our epic game of phonetag now transitioned to email as he asked two questions: What is your commander’s name? And what is your retirement date? The first question I saw coming and I was glad to answer it. But the second question caught me by surprise.
This twist removed any lingering doubt about what kind of person I was dealing with. Here was a bully, plain and simple. I was reasonably certain that if I were to share my calendar with him, he would insist that he saw plenty of time for a long visit to his office and would demand I make the trip, chain-of-command issues and personal inconvenience notwithstanding.
I also had a pretty good idea how a face-to-face meeting would go.
Now, every school kid knows there are three steps to dealing with a bully. The first is to ignore the provocation and walk away, as bullies will sometimes give up if they don’t get a reaction or if the target moves out of easy range. This was apparently not one of those times, as my deflection / departure strategy wasn’t working. So I moved on to Step Two: tell a grown-up.
I walked into my commander’s office and explained the situation. “Sir, you’re going to get a call from Col. X.”
My boss, also a colonel, was cut from more enlightened cloth. He agreed there was no time or need for me to make a trip to D.C. He also agreed there was no sense in allowing this other colonel from outside our chain of command to review my calendar and confirm my unavailability. That was my commander’s prerogative, no one else’s.
He received the inevitable call and that was the last I heard from my erstwhile bully. Fortunately, that meant I never had to go to Step 3: Punch bully in the nose as hard as you can. Unfortunately, it’s not the end of the story.
In the waning days of my active duty career, I continued to write articles for publication, as I had for more than 12 years. I dutifully submitted each piece to the public affairs shop for approval, just like always. But suddenly the review process ground to a halt.
While previous articles occasionally took as long as two weeks for an approval, I now found myself waiting more than two months without an answer. Each time I checked with the local PA they were unable to even provide a status on my request. For reasons they could not explain, my articles were now being forwarded to higher authorities at distant locations. After an extensive delay on one particular piece I got a note back saying the PA office at a higher echelon had “declined to review” the article.
This was new.
The local PA office had no explanation of what “declined to review” meant and it took several more weeks to get clarification. The consensus was that this response was a de facto approval, because apparently the reviewer felt the article (about how to improve the defense acquisition process, my usual topic) was outside the scope of their key function and thus did not merit a review. Refusing to review the article meant they would neither deny it nor approve it, so I was free to publish it at my own risk.
I have no evidence that the JSF office had anything to do with this change in the timing, nature or rigor of the review procedure, but the timing is suspicious. Over the course of my career I had published upwards of 80 articles and two books. I never had any problem with the review process. In fact, both my books got a green light from the Pentagon just three weeks after I submitted the manuscripts.
At every base I served on, and even when I was deployed, my articles were always approved locally. Now, immediately after a run-in with a colonel from the Joint Strike Fighter office about an article that did not line up with his perspective, suddenly every new piece was being sent on a slow-boat to higher headquarters, who then declined to review my writing at all? Something’s fishy here.
Regardless of what or who triggered the shift, the extensive delays were entirely contrary to the Air Force’s public affairs regulation, AFI 35-101, which states “Air Force Public Affairs offices will clear, without delay, the maximum amount of information at the lowest competent review level.” The policy also explains that the purpose of the review process includes ensuring “information is not withheld merely because it casts criticism on or causes embarrassment to the Air Force.”
Now, I wasn’t aiming to criticize or embarrass anyone with my articles. I was offering my analysis as a military officer, doing some simple math and sharing my experience on how the DoD’s acquisition process could work better. Apparently this made some people uncomfortable.
That same regulation also points out that the “Air Force’s credibility depends on two factors: always maintaining professional integrity and communicating timely, truthful information to the public … Success ultimately depends on the credibility of Air Force people and their willingness to join in the public discussion.”
For unknown reasons, my ability to join in the public discussion and enhance the Air Force’s credibility was suddenly being restricted in ways it had never been before.
Happily, my retirement date arrived right on schedule, freeing me from the need to pass every op-ed and blog post through the formal review process. I was able to resume publishing at my usual pace and I put the whole incident behind me. Then I heard about Maj. Gen. James Post’s infamous treason comment, in which he discouraged members of his command from providing information about the A-10 Warthog to their members of Congress.
While I was never accused of treason over anything I published, I recognized the mindset.
Post – and the colonel who bullied me – were both fostering an environment that is hostile to divergent views. One incident might be dismissed as a fluke, but two might indicate a larger pattern of Air Force leaders taking steps to stop airmen from participating in public discourse. The problem is that such an environment quickly devolves into one that is hostile to thought entirely … and that has serious national security implications.
I decided this story was worth telling.
Let me quote AFI 35-101 one more time. Paragraph 1.6.4. states “It is the responsibility of all Airmen to tell the Air Force story.” I take that to mean leaders should not only encourage airmen to fulfill that responsibility, they should insist on it.
Those who try to prevent troops from being part of the public discussion about air power and national defense – whether it’s an article about the JSF or a note to a congressional representative about the A-10 – are doing a disservice to the Air Force and the nation. They are abdicating their responsibility as leaders. Thankfully the senior Air Force leadership shares that view, and Post was appropriately fired and reprimanded for his actions.
To be clear, my personal situation was not a collegial difference of opinion between fellow officers about the relative merits of various aircraft. It was someone outside of my chain of command objecting to something I had published and taking steps to discourage further contributions on that topic.
Even if the only thing the colonel from the JSF office did was try to force me on a boondoggle to get my hand slapped, he was crossing a line. This is not how professionals and grown-ups treat each other, and it’s not how leaders behave. And whoever was responsible for slowing down the publication of my subsequent articles was clearly violating both the spirit and the letter of Air Force regulations.
Now, aside from a delay in publishing a couple articles and a few nervous moments as I pondered the possibility of my retirement paperwork being pulled, I came through the experience unscathed. However, I suspect there are others in this colonel’s sphere of influence who were not as fortunate.
If this is how he treated me, a lieutenant colonel who was not part of his organization, I can only imagine how he treats the junior officers who actually are in his chain of command. I hate to think what happens to any captain or lieutenant in his unit who dares to offer an alternative perspective.
And ultimately, that is why I felt the need to tell this story. Uniformed personnel have a responsibility to participate in public discussions about national security, to help tell their service’s story, to write and publish even when their perspectives are askew from the party line. Particularly when their perspectives are askew from the party line.
Insisting on intellectual conformity, discouraging divergent views or introducing barriers that over-filter unpopular ideas is the surest way for the military to lose credibility with the country we are supposed to serve.
Our democracy is strongest when our men and women in uniform are actively engaged in public discussions about issues of national defense, contributing their unique perspectives and sharing their expertise. And keeping America’s democracy strong is the whole point of military service.