This Time We Were Lucky

The pressure was on.  Before the young Major General could take the podium, the Secretary of the Air Force had some opening words.  Those words included breaking the ages-long tradition of neither confirming nor denying the existence of nuclear weapons.  However, this time it was undeniable.  The basic facts of the embarrassing scandal of temporarily losing a pylon of nuclear missiles confirmed their existence to even the most casual observer.

The seats in front of him were filled with reporters.  Their nonthreatening, inquisitive faces stared up at him as he began.  He looked down at his prepared notes, apparently to make sure he got the facts correct before he spoke.  There could be nothing so serious as to make a faux pas in reporting on this serious event.

His eyes never strayed far from his notes as he said, “Nothing like this has ever happened before.  This was a failure to follow procedures that have proven to be sound.  It involved a limited number of airmen at two bases.  Our extensive six-week investigation found this to be an isolated incident, and that the weapons never left the custody of airmen.  They were never unsecured, but clearly this incident is unacceptable to the people of the United States and to the United States Air Force.  We owe the nation nothing less than adherence to a high standard.  In addition our investigation found that there has been an erosion in adherence to weapons handling standards at Minot Air Force Base and at Barksdale Air Force Base.  We have acted quickly and decisively to rectify this.”

Confident in his prepared notes, he went on to read the details of the event where the weapons were lost, but not really, and then recovered, confirmed the firings of a handful of Colonels and Lt Colonels and the disciplining of an undisclosed number of lower-ranked airmen, and then he discussed the follow-up steps that were being taken.  Before long, he was ready for questions.  He motioned to a reporter near the front.

“My question is about what you meant when you said, ‘in addition,’ what did you mean by that?”

“It means that I was repeating the information that I had just covered.”

“Are you sure?  Because normally when someone says, ‘in addition,’ they are usually adding something to an original list or statement,” the reporter quizzed.

“Hey if I had wanted to add something to the things I had already said, I would have made it clear with the words that I used.  After all, I was reading from my carefully prepared notes.  When I said, ‘in addition,’ I was merely going on to repeat the information that I had said earlier.”

Of course the General didn’t really get asked that silly question.  Therefore he didn’t really say those silly answers; I just joked that he did.  Instead he was asked something much more serious about his opening statement.  However, his response was just as elusive as the silly answers I just joked about.

He was asked by several reporters about what he had meant with his statement about “an erosion in standards.”  Each time he was asked about it, he repeated the first part of his opening statement in slightly modified words.  Mostly to the effect of, “This was an isolated event, with a failure of attention to detail, a failure to follow tech orders, checklists and procedures.  It involved only a limited number of airmen.”

At 7 minutes and 25 seconds into the filmed account of the press release, it only took 8 seconds for General Newton to say, “In addition, our investigation found that there has been an erosion in adherence to weapons handling standards at Minot Air Force Base and at Barksdale Air Force Base.”  He had already covered the data about the “isolated” event, and it was clear to see that he had prepared notes for the briefing.  What does “in addition” mean?

A common man would believe it to mean: There was a serious mistake made, but the Air Force and DoD are handling it.  And in the course of an investigation, it was discovered that something else had happened to degrade the way airmen are following established standards dealing with certain types of weapons.

That “something else” was metaphorically called “erosion,” which everyone knows is something that happens over time due to some catalyst.  For example, wind or water can erode the earth supporting a building, road, or a dam.  Eventually the foundation begins to crumble, small pieces fall away, cracks in the structure appear, then widen, and eventually the entire structure fails.  Small pieces have been falling away from the Air Force for years with little notice.  Was the serious incident a crack appearing or widening?  When is the structural failure coming?

Of course the reporters had questions about that!  However, General Newton retreated into a standard barrage-answer tactic to fend off any of their probing for more information.  The reporters eventually abandoned that line of questioning, but with obvious frustration.

Things that would be nice to know are (1) Who is responsible for the erosion; (2) What started the erosion; (3) When did the erosion begin; (4) Where is the plan to reverse the erosion; and (5) How bad has the erosion become?  Those are the basic who, what, when, where, and how questions that if answered candidly would probably reveal a clothes-line of embarrassing stains that could be the talk of the neighborhood for decades.  And as bad as that would be, it would be even worse to conceal the data and do nothing about it.

Something has happened to the Air Force.  The Air Force used to be very good at adherence to tech orders, checklists, and procedures.  Some time in the past, an erosion of standards began.  That erosion is probably the root cause of the serious incident.  The serious incident is only a symptom of that erosion.  The people fired were, at the most, part of that erosion – not the cause of it.  The cause of the erosion must be identified, targeted, stopped, reversed, and eliminated or other serious incidents are likely to happen in the future.

It just makes sense.

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