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Air Force Critics Seek to Clip Wings of an Elitist Culture : Military: Recent troubles point to a lack of accountability. Blame is pinned on the rapid rise of top pilots who form a clubby upper echelon.


LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. — Air Force Col. Michael Perini peers into the sun as two sleek F-15 jet fighters zoom along the runway of this sprawling military base and soar into the azure sky.

"It's the perfect day to watch airplanes," Perini says, clearly pleased with what is considered the hottest fighter in the Air Force.

His pride--both in the F-15s and in the Air Force itself--is easy to understand. Technologically speaking, the service is at its apogee. Its equipment was never better, its flying skills never sharper.

But the picture is deceiving. The Air Force is encountering unexpected turbulence over a series of mishaps and scandals that, some critics say, have jarred its integrity as an institution.

Over the past 2 1/2 years, four top Air Force generals have stumbled into trouble over allegations ranging from publicly insulting the President to improper use of a government airplane.

Last year, a B-52 crashed and narrowly missed a nuclear weapon bunker after its pilot--apparently for the thrill of it--turned too sharply. A safety officer charged that the service had covered up 30 other such mishaps.

Most alarming of all, a pair of Air Force F-15s shot down two U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters over Iraq in April, 1994. Although the disaster left 26 dead, the Air Force initially allowed the senior officers involved to escape with just a slap on the wrist. Only a captain was court-martialed, and he was acquitted.

What worries even some Air Force boosters is that while these events may seem unrelated, they have a common link: In virtually all cases, the service has failed to hold its senior officers accountable.

Williamson Murray, a military expert and former Air Force officer, said he fears that the turbulence could ultimately threaten the service's stability.

"If commanders are willing to cover up and pretend," Murray said, "it eventually erodes integrity inside the institution and degrades its ability to carry out war-fighting missions. If you don't have accountability, then [the Air Force] isn't going to be able to learn from its past military experience and it won't be equipped to handle the future."

To some military experts, the blame rests partly with the Air Force "culture"--the traditions and institutional mind-sets that help make the Air Force different from the other services.

Robert W. Gaskin, a retired Air Force colonel now with Business Executives for National Security, a nonpartisan defense-monitoring group, said the service's "cavalier" mentality had too often led to lapses in integrity and accountability. "It's time to turn it around," Gaskin contended.

Unlike the other services, the Air Force is dominated by one group: fighter pilots. Their critics call them freewheeling and say they are too often willing to disregard the rules and behave as they choose.

The Air Force's resulting lack of self-discipline, according to the critics, dates at least to the mid-1980s, and maybe even to World War II, when bomber pilots ruled the roost.

"The pilot mafia--and the fighter-pilot mafia in particular--has too much control over the Air Force, and that hurts the institution," said Carl Builder, a RAND Corp. military analyst who studied the situation for a 1994 book, "The Icarus Syndrome."

Aggravating the problem is the service's unique "functional-stovepipe" career system. Unlike other branches, Air Force officers spend their entire careers flying one kind of aircraft or assigned to a specific area, such as space.

A former Air Force higher-up explained: "If you ask an ex-Army officer what he did, he'll say: 'I was an Army officer.' He'd have an institutional pride. But if you ask an ex-aviator, he says: 'I was an F-16C pilot.' They view themselves as heavy-equipment operators."

The Air Force's promotion system, particularly the process by which generals are selected, often informally taps officers as candidates well before they are actually eligible. That has the effect of producing an inbred and self-protective senior leadership.

"The kind of general officer you get is the kind who all too often has come through a system that has rewarded him too early in his career, without having had his nose rubbed into the day-to-day nasty business of flying," said a former officer who has studied the problem. "It gives people who have believed since they were captains and majors that their careers were blessed."

As a result, Builder said, while the Navy and Army leadership has become more "collaborative" and "collegial," the Air Force brass "too often acts as a flying club that caters to the hottest fighter pilot. That kind of elitism and exclusivity is not helpful to the Air Force."

Finally, critics blame what is known throughout the Air Force as "the looking-good syndrome"--an ethic that too often places a higher premium on making superior officers look good than on uncovering the truth.

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