Friday, June 06, 2008

The Replacement Game

Following yesterday's sudden resignation of the Air Force Secretary and the service's Chief of Staff, Defense Secretary Robert Gates appears to be moving quickly to fill both posts.

Sources tell the AP that a former acting Secretary of the Air Force, Michael Donley, would be nominated to replaced Michael Wynne as the USAF's top civilian. Donley, who currently serves as the Pentagon's Director of Administration, held the post of acting secretary for seven months in 1993, prior to the confirmation of Sheila Widnall. Before that, Donley was the Air Force's top finance official, beginning in 1989.

Donley has held a number of high-level government posts during his career, including a stint on the National Security Council during the Reagan Administration, and a staff position on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Before assuming the secretary's job, Donley must be confirmed by the Senate. There was no word on when the nomination would be submitted, or when confirmation hearings might be held. However, one Capitol Hill source speculated that Donley would be easily confirmed, given his service under Democratic and Republican administrations, and his past experience as an Air Force leader.

Mr. Wynne and the Air Force's senior uniformed officer, General Michael Moseley, were forced to resign after recent reports showed a long decline in USAF nuclear standards. Those problems became public over the last year, after a B-52 mistakenly carried six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles between bases in North Dakota and Louisiana, and an Air Force depot accidentally shipped nuclear fuses to Taiwan.

Gates said an internal investigation led by Adm. Kirkland Donald found a common theme in the B-52 and Taiwan incidents: "a decline in the Air Force's nuclear mission focus and performance" and a failure by Air Force leaders to respond effectively.

To underscore his demand for greater accountability, the Defense Secretary plans to visit three Air Force bases next week: Langley AFB, Virginia; Peterson AFB, Colorado and Scott Air Force Base, Illinois.

Langley is home to Air Combat Command Headquarters, which controls the nation's nuclear bombers. Air Force Space Command, based at Peterson, is responsible for the nation's intercontinental ballistic missiles, while Air Mobility Command, headquartered at Scott, provides aerial tankers that refuel the nation's strategic bombers and nuclear-capable fighters.

While Mr. Gates is expected to deliver a strong accountability message at all three installations, the trip also gives him an opportunity to talk with potential replacements for General Moseley. Many Air Force insiders believe that General John D. W. Corley, the Commander of Air Combat Command, is the leading candidate for the Chief of Staff job.

Before his arrival at ACC last fall, General Corley served as the Air Force Vice Chief of Staff. A career fighter pilot, General Corley has not been tainted by the various scandals that have ensnared other Air Force leaders.

General Robert Kehler, the leader of Air Force Space Command at Peterson, has spent his entire career in missile and space units. If selected, he would be the first non-pilot to fill the Chief of Staff position. While General Kehler is highly regarded in defense circles and Gates could use his nomination to send a powerful message to the "fighter pilot mafia" that has dominated the Air Force's upper ranks for more than 20 years.

However, some analysts believe that Kehler's lack of flying experience would be a liability in a service that still revolves around manned (and unmanned) aircraft. At this point, Kehler seems to be a dark horse candidate for the Chief of Staff position.

The Commander of Air Mobility Command, General Arthur J. Lichte, is viewed as another non-traditional candidate. While Lichte is a command pilot with over 4,000 flying hours, all of his experience is in tanker and transport aircraft--not bombers or fighters.

But Lichte's command has played a critical role in delivering troops and supplies to the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, and provided refueling support to aircraft that attack terrorist targets. Given Mr. Gates' belief that current conflicts are a template for future operations, he may believe that General Lichte has the right background to lead the Air Force.

Other potential candidates for the Chief of Staff job are General Kevin Chilton, the former astronaut who now leads U.S. Strategic Command, and General Duncan McNabb, the former AMC commander who is now the Air Force Vice Chief of Staff.

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