The Boys in Blue
Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates sacked the Air Force's top leadership. Although he cited breakdowns in nuclear weapons security as the main cause, I've heard a lot of chatter since then about how Gates intended it to serve as a broader message to the Air Force about the need to play team ball.
Yesterday, Gates announced his picks to head the embattled air service. He tapped Michael Donley, currently director of the Pentagon's administration and management office, to be Secretary of the Air Force. And he picked General Norton Schwartz, commander of the Air Force's Transportation Command, to be the Air Force's top uniformed officer.
What do the choices signify?
In Donley, Gates gets a competent manager and "systems guy," whom he can rely on to be a good steward for the Air Force until the next administration. Given Donley's history of work for a Democratic administration, it's even possible that he will be kept on in some acting capacity should Sen. Barack Obama be elected this November.
In Schwartz, Gates gets something more. Schwartz comes from outside the Air Force's fighter-bomber jock culture. He flies transport planes and helicopters and has spent term moving between the special operations and logistics communities of the military. Schwartz is unlikely to be parochial on things like the Joint Strike Fighter or B-2 Stealth Bomber; it's highly unlikely he will go around Gates's back to ask Congress for more fighter jets. (Sidebar: Schwartz is likely to be substantially less parochial on one issue in particular -- religious tensions at the Air Force Academy -- given that he's Jewish.)
In comments yesterday to airmen at Langley Air Force Base, Gates acknowledged there was more to these leadership replacements than nuclear security:
Fixing the nuclear stewardship issue is the most important task for the new leadership team, he said. Nuclear deterrence is going to become more critical, not less so, in the future, the secretary said. He said the rising threat of nuclear proliferation is one reason for his conclusion.
The second important task the new Air Force leadership team will face is "figuring out how to get the modernization program back on track," he said.
Air Force tanker procurement is at least 10 years behind where it should be, Gates said. The new team will have to figure out "how to work with the Congress and get this thing done."
There also needs to be a decision by the next administration on the balance between the F-22 fighter and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and then "just getting on with it," Gates said. "End the debate, make a decision and move on. 'Start getting stuff built' is just so important. The tankers we are flying today are the tankers I rode in as a second lieutenant in 1967."
. . . The secretary told reporters he chose Schwartz as the new Chief of Staff because he "brings fresh eyes to these issues. He's very smart, very process-oriented. The changes he has made in Transportation Command have been pretty dramatic.
"It was mobility, jointness, special operations and being very, very smart" that led him to the choice of Schwartz, Gates said.
Gates clearly wanted a team that's willing to work with other services and agencies, responsive to his priorities, more flexible on force structure and budgeting, and more open to new roles and missions for the Air Force.
Gates has talked a lot about a "balanced" force -- and one that's capable of doing everything on the spectrum, from major combat operations to humanitarian assistance. But the services have resisted, seeking to maintain their traditional focus on conventional warfare. In one example, the Air Force publicly broke with the secretary of defense over the number of F-22 Raptors worth purchasing.
Ultimately, the nuclear security issues may have been a pretext for Gates, who had plenty of larger policy disagreements with the Air Force's leadership.
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