Is it time to close the Air Force Academy?

Until President Clinton changed the policy in the early 1990s, officers who received their commissions from service academies received a “regular” commission. They incurred a relatively short obligated term of service, but the regulars were the core of the commissioned officers, intended to make the military a career. ROTC and OCS grads, with a few exceptions, were received a commission in the reserve component, and were called to active duty for the term of their obligation. A limited number of those reservists who whished to make the service a career would be permitted to augment to the regular component.

But in the ‘90s, the policy change meant all newly commissioned officers received a reserve commission. That meant service academy graduates would have to compete after a few years of service against all the other accessions to augment to the regular commission. This was seen as leveling the playing field. And to be honest, the quality of an officers service is more a matter of his or her actual service than the means by which they entered.

Soon after that change, critics asked the reasonable question of why the services maintained the academies since ROTC and OCS were cheaper means of finding sufficient quality officers. The answer was the the academies were the keepers of the core cultural touchstones of each services officer corps.

But if the recent news coming out of the Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs is any indication of that culture, perhaps it really is time to shutter them.

First, we would hope that the culture of the academy would be that espoused by the AFA’s core values: “Integrity first, service before self, and excellence in all we do.”

But apparently the culture is more aligned with that of their civilian counterparts, so much so that the Office of Special Investigations has had to turn cadets into informants against their classmates.

Facing pressure to combat drug use and sexual assault at the Air Force Academy, the Air Force has created a secret system of cadet informants to hunt for misconduct among students.

Cadets who attend the publicly-funded academy near Colorado Springs must pledge never to lie. But the program pushes some to do just that: Informants are told to deceive classmates, professors and commanders while snapping photos, wearing recording devices and filing secret reports.

For one former academy student, becoming a covert government operative meant not only betraying the values he vowed to uphold, it meant being thrown out of the academy as punishment for doing the things the Air Force secretly told him to do.

Eric Thomas, 24, was a confidential informant for the Office of Special Investigations, or OSI — a law enforcement branch of the Air Force. OSI ordered Thomas to infiltrate academy cliques, wearing recorders, setting up drug buys, tailing suspected rapists and feeding information back to OSI. In pursuit of cases, he was regularly directed by agents to break academy rules.

“It was exciting. And it was effective,” said Thomas, a soccer and football player who received no compensation for his informant work. “We got 15 convictions of drugs, two convictions of sexual assault. We were making a difference. It was motivating, especially with the sexual assaults. You could see the victims have a sense of peace.”

Through it all, he thought OSI would have his back. But when an operation went wrong, he said, his handlers cut communication and disavowed knowledge of his actions, and watched as he was kicked out of the academy.

“It was like a spy movie,” said Thomas, who was expelled in April, a month before graduation. “I worked on dozens of cases, did a lot of good, and when it all hit the fan, they didn’t know me anymore.”

So off post drinking and spice smoking, and sexual assault are so prevalent that the whole point of the honor code has to be turned inside out. If the concept of honor has to be so deeply compromised in the accession program, there’s simply no restoring when these young officers reach the force. And it’s not just the abstract concept of honor for honor’s sake. Integrity lapses in the real world have real consequences. The maintenance officer who lies about the work done on a plane can kill crews. The Intel officer who says he reviewed defenses can lead fighters into a trap.

And sadly, it seems pressure from some quarters, particularly alumni, has come to see the academy as more a host for a sports program, putting the cart before the horse. A good sports program exists to build well rounded, physically capable officers. But there are suggestions afoot to give the AFA a fifth year for some cadets in order to improve their chances in collegiate athletics.

Discussions are being held within the Air Force Academy that could lead to expanding the basic four-year classroom program for graduation to a five-year program for some cadets in order to enhance academic achievements. Such a plan, if adopted, could have a huge effect on the athletic program, thereby allowing an extra year of competition.

Air Force football coach Troy Calhoun has expressed frustration this season about the competitive disadvantage of not being allowed to have cadets play a fifth year. The Falcons are 2-9 and winless in Mountain West play. Their season finale is Saturday at Colorado State.

One guesses the impetus is almost wholly the Division IA football program.

CDR Salamander has long bemoaned the football programs at the academies driving the academy in the wrong direction. Looks like once again, he has been proven right.

The service academies are supposedly some of the most selective schools in America. Shouldn’t we, the “customer” of the product, expect a degree of excellence above and beyond the run of the mill product from other institutions? And if not, why do we have them?


Filed under Air Force

8 responses to “Is it time to close the Air Force Academy?

  1. Bill

    An independent Air Force is unnecessary. Return the components to the Army and Navy and eliminate the department.


  2. The service academies haven’t been worth the money for a very long time. There are other touchstones, or “keeps of the core” that can be utilized that would easily replace the academies. They aren’t worth the money, and they have become something they were never meant to be.

    Bill is correct as well. The USAF isn’t worthy of independent existence. They have proven that in every war we have fought since 1947. I have no trouble with an independent strategic command that would control Strategic airlift and the nuclear weapons, but that should be a joint command which can rotate between the Navy and Army. The Army should directly control its own TacAir and not have to fight with the AF for it.


  3. A very large number of people with long experience and high rank lied those young men & women, used them like dogs, then spit them out. Then they lied to representatives of Congress.

    I am so furious I can hardly see straight.

    They need to drop the hammer on that place. As John Donovan likes to say, I want to see some officer’s heads on this one.

    Agreed. There is something seriously wrong with that academy, and the two older services seem to be trending that direction as well.


  4. diogenesofnj

    The service academies started to head down hill in 1976 – see if you can figure what happened in that year. Get rid of all of them (Coast Guard included) and sell off the real estate – it would make for a really sweet deal for high rolling democrat donors.


  5. The service academies were top institutions with tradition, honor and well rounded graduates dedicated to serving their country as best they could. Do they currently fulfill their commissions and obligations as academies? No. Now they are playgrounds and little separates them from any university or college in America. Drug abuse and illicit behavior occurred in the past but was dealt with swiftly. Now it is condoned, not only by the staff but by the cadets. As much as we don’t want to admit it, we must remember that the military is still a small cross section of America. Drug use, sexual abuse and improper personal behavior come from the individual. The cadet role models have the same poor standards as the cadets so there is no doubt as to why all the academies are plagued by these problems.

    There are several good books discussing the option of closing the academies available at the Air Force Academy library if anyone wants to take the time to read them. The bottom line is that there is still some good that comes from a four year service academy and as noted above the academies produce the best and worst of our junior officers. Does the cost of an academy exceed its value? Of course. But they will never be closed.

    The changes have to be from the top down. After being on active duty for six years, one of the USAFA ’91 grads told me that he and his classmates thought that whenever they were addressed by majors and above or TSGT and above they were being lied to. The thread about firing all the generals was a good start.

    Note: There is still a need for an independent air force if it were run as an air force and not as it has been.


  6. Pave Low John

    I graduated from USAFA back in 1992 and I can attest that its been a shitty place to learn “leadership” since at least 1988. If you want to spend four years surrounded by a bunch of back-stabbing douche-bags, then by all means, go there. I was lucky, I was in a squadron that had some really great guys, but that was the only redeeming feature.

    I say shut it down and spend the money on ROTC, at least you’ll get 2nd LTs that have actually dealt with some semblance of the real world.


  7. phat


    Sorry it took me a bit to get around to commenting on this, but I needed time to go back and read the original article.

    A few thoughts on the scandal in no coherent order:

    1. If this program existed and the cadet’s story checks out, many heads need to roll. I was in the AF for 29 yrs (counting 4 at USAFA) and this is the first I’ve ever heard of anything like this. I’m still stunned by it.

    2. Gen Welsh was the Supt a few years ago and is now CSAF. If he says he never heard of it, I believe him without question. He’s one of the finest Commanders I ever had. That leads me to…

    3. The current Supt, Lt Gen Johnson, was appointed on what appeared to me to be very short notice. The change of command happened once the academic year had started, which is highly unusual. I wonder if word of this had gotten out and the previous Supt was canned? But then point #2 would be wrong, so who knows?

    4. I would not want to be on the receiving end of a congressional inquiry led by Sen Thune. Someone’s lying, we need to find out who and hang ’em high.

    On the broader question of the Academies in general, I somewhat reluctantly agree that we need to shut them down. Of course it will never happen, but my recommendation would be to consolidate the DOD services: USA, USA, and USAF) into one Academy and the non-DOD (Coast Guard and Merchant Marine) into another.

    Once they stopped giving out regular commissions and giving USAFA grads preference for Pilot Training slots, I stopped seeing the point of going. If you’re good enough to get into an Academy, you can waltz into a ROTC scholarship and I’ve never observed a significant difference in the performance of ROTC grads vs. Academy grads. Needless to say, I’m not an effective advocate for USAFA. I tend to steer interested kids into the Guard/Reserve or ROTC.

    As for D-1 football: It’s a recruiting tool that produces enough revenue that the Academies can fund the other NCAA sports. I’ve always thought of them as similar to the T-Birds and the Blue Angels in that regard. They enhance the visibility of the service in general.

    The ‘5-year program’ will never happen and in a sense we already have it in the Prep schools. I know it’s a bitch to be competitive in D-1 with a student body of around 4,000 cadets, suck it up Coach Calhoun.

    Sorry for the long comment, needed to throw it all down before I go out and try to avoid falling off the roof while hanging Christmas lights.


    • Interested Party

      Excellent post and the only cogent one of all those that have been posted in regard to this article and issue. The rest defy logic and any common sense.