Inspections cost 8th Fighter Wing chief his job, new commander says
The former commander of Kunsan Air Base was relieved of his job earlier this month because the base’s maintenance group did poorly on a performance assessment in the spring, and again on a reassessment in September, the new commander said Friday.
Col. Jerry Harris, who assumed command of Kunsan’s 8th Fighter Wing in mid-November, said the decision to relieve Col. Bryan Bearden was an "eye-opener" that left many puzzled.
"When a commander comes in, they need to fix the issues of the wing they were given," Harris said.
Bearden was relieved of his duties Nov. 10 by Pacific Air Forces commander Gen. Howie Chandler due to lack of confidence in the colonel’s performance.
"The decision was driven solely by duty performance factors," a Kunsan news release said at the time.
Bearden was halfway through his one-year tour at Kunsan when he was relieved.
The 8th Fighter Wing, which includes two F-16 squadrons and four other groups, received an overall rating of "satisfactory" during the routine Unit Compliance Inspection in April. The inspections are conducted by Pacific Air Forces inspectors, and the ratings, which range from "outstanding" down to "unsatisfactory," become an official measure of a unit’s performance.
The 8th Maintenance Group, which is responsible for the upkeep of Kunsan’s F-16s, received a "marginal" rating on the April assessment, the second-lowest score. PACAF re-inspected the maintenance group in September, and gave the group another "marginal" rating.
During a second re-inspection, which began Nov. 10, two days before Harris arrived, inspectors decided the major problems had been corrected, he said.
"Had this been a first look, [the maintenance group] would have been rated an excellent," he said.
Harris, 45, said he was chosen to replace Bearden because he had recently been assigned to a position in Hawaii and could be moved easily. He had been director of Air, Space and Information Operations at Hickam Air Force Base since July 2008.
"They had the ability to replace me pretty quick," he said.
Harris said he will lead Kunsan’s 8th Fighter Wing for at least 12 months and possibly for as long as 14 or 15 months.
During that time, U.S. Forces Korea is expected to continue moving toward normalizing tours — doing away with one-year tours without families — for all troops.
Most other U.S. military bases in South Korea have a least a small percentage of troops who are stationed there with family members.
But Kunsan has no schools, family housing or other facilities needed for accompanied, family-friendly deployments that military officials want to make standard across South Korea.
"We are years behind everybody else and the starting point that they’re on," he said. "If we have to normalize in the next two, three or four years, we do not have the infrastructure, and we could not get it in time. We would rely almost 100 percent on the local community."
About 2,700 airmen and soldiers, all on unaccompanied tours, are stationed at Kunsan.
Harris said the base would need more buildings and more space to normalize tours, and he plans to talk with Gunsan City’s mayor about the issue.
Simply adding more high-rises for housing wouldn’t work at Kunsan because the buildings are so close to the flightline, and families might have to live in off-post housing.
This is the first time Harris, an F-16 pilot who flew combat missions in Operation Desert Storm, has been stationed in South Korea.
He said Kunsan is different from other Air Force bases because airmen don’t have their families and can be more mission-focused.
He also said it is a "refreshing change" to be able to work closely with South Korea’s air force, which shares a runway with Kunsan.