LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. – U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates took action Monday to reorient the leadership of the Air Force, dramatically recommending the nomination of the first leader of the service not to have been a fighter or bomber pilot.
His recommendation that Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, who began his military career as a cargo pilot, be nominated by President Bush as Air Force chief of staff probably will mark a significant shift for the Air Force leadership.
Over time the move could lead the service to give more emphasis to missions that support ground wars, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan engaging in cargo flights and in-air refueling, over more traditional roles such as air-to-air dogfights.
Schwartz is head of the U.S. Transportation Command, which coordinates the Pentagon’s worldwide transportation operations and manages military logistics.
Last week, after receiving a classified report critical of the service’s oversight of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, Gates fired the civilian and military heads of the Air Force. In recent months, he and other Defense Department officials have been critical of Air Force leadership on issues such as concerns that the service had not done enough to shift its spending priorities to unmanned reconnaissance drones and was lobbying too hard for advanced fighter jets.
In a speech here Monday afternoon, Gates said the Air Force’s failure to properly oversee America’s nuclear weapons was the only reason he felt he needed to change the service’s leadership. He admitted to disagreements with Air Force brass but said such friction was normal.
Still, there is little doubt that Schwartz’s nomination will be seen as ushering in a new era. After Gen. T. Michael “Buzz” Moseley was fired as chief of staff last week, many observers had expected that Gen. John Corley, a fighter pilot and head of Air Combat Command, would replace him.
But senior defense officials said Gates wanted to make a dramatic move to signal a clear break with the past. One official said Gates was looking for an Air Force chief who did not come with a fighter pilot’s “call sign” nickname.
Officials said that in bypassing the “fighter mafia” for the chief of staff’s position, Gates is sending a message that the Air Force needs to focus more on Iraq and Afghanistan, where he has struggled to get the service to provide more unmanned reconnaissance drones.
Schwartz does have experience in combat aircraft. He participated in the 1975 evacuation of Saigon, Vietnam, and has piloted the heavily armed AC-130 gunships, the workhorse of special forces.
On Monday, Gates cited Schwartz’s assignments in so-called joint commands – positions where senior officials work in units made up of officers from all four military services. Among other postings, he was deputy commander of the Special Operations Command and director of the Joint Staff, which supports the Joint Chiefs.
Gates said he chose Schwartz because of his intelligence and attention to detail. As the new chief, Schwartz will be charged with improving nuclear oversight, modernizing the fleet of tankers and determining what kind of fighter planes to build.
“I just felt that Gen. Schwartz brings fresh eyes to these issues,” Gates said in a news conference on his plane en route to Colorado Springs, Colo. “He is very smart; he is very process-oriented.”
But it clearly was not lost on Gates that the appointment would break the fighter and bomber communities’ long lock on Air Force leadership. “This is about the transitioning Air Force,” Gates said.
A retired Air Force general praised Gates’ action, contending that improving airlift and tanker operations, and aerial reconnaissance, should be the service’s top priority.
“To tell you the truth, I think they needed to get away from an Air Force fighter guy,” the retired officer said.
Many officials and former officers interviewed requested anonymity, wary of speaking publicly about the nominations because they were unsure whether Gates intended to make more changes.
In his speech, Gates said he was trying to instill a deeper ethic of accountability in all the military services. The services must be “willing to admit mistakes when they are made,” he said. “That is the only way to fix them – and it is the only way to ensure that they don’t recur. …
“I have noticed that none of the services easily accept honest criticism from outside their branch, or scrutiny that exposes institutional shortcomings. This is something I believe must change across the military – for these critiques are often the most valuable.”
Despite Gates’ comments, senior and midlevel Air Force officers believe that Moseley was ousted, at least in part, because of his aggressive support for purchasing additional F-22 fighter planes.
Some of Gates’ advisers see the plane as expensive and of limited value in fighting unconventional wars. But many people in the Air Force’s fighter community believe it is critical because of the proliferation of sophisticated anti-aircraft systems in countries such as Iran and China.
The controversy surrounding Moseley’s leadership has divided the Air Force, with some current and former officers lamenting his demise and fretting that his departure could spell the end of the F-22. Its current production contract runs out next year.
But an increasing number of Air Force officers have begun to lobby for sacrificing the F-22, saying the fight has weakened the service in the eyes of the Pentagon’s civilian leadership. To this group, the Joint Strike Fighter, a smaller and cheaper fighter under development, will provide adequate air superiority and allow the dispute to end.
In his remarks Monday, Gates said he was trying to minimize the anxiety the firings had caused. He praised the airmen in Iraq and Afghanistan and said that although their role got little attention, it was deeply valued.
Gates also said he would end further cuts in the size of the Air Force, which is in midst of a reduction of 40,000 positions. Halting the cuts would leave the Air Force at about 330,000 – down from 356,000 in 2006.
Schwartz’s new role was the key move in a much broader shuffle that Gates announced Monday. He also recommended that a veteran Pentagon official, Michael B. Donley, replace Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne, who is leaving at the end of the month. The White House said that Bush intended to nominate Donley and to designate him acting secretary until he was confirmed.
In addition, Gates said he recommended that Bush nominate Lt. Gen. William M. Fraser III as the Air Force’s vice chief of staff and Gen. Duncan J. McNabb, the current vice chief, as Schwartz’s replacement.
The nominations require Senate confirmation.
The confirmations of Schwartz and Fraser, a veteran of the service’s bomber community, would mean that no officer with a fighter background would be in either of the Air Force’s top two spots.
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