Barely three days after announcing the biggest leadership change in Air Force history, Defense Secretary Robert Gates hit the road, explaining his actions to a group of airmen at Langley AFB, Virginia.
It was the defense chief's first public appearance since accepting the resignations of Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and the service's Chief of Staff, General Michael Moseley. Both were forced out last Friday, less than a week after Mr. Gates received a new report that detailed continuing problems with Air Force nuclear security procedures.
The message Gates brought to Langley was that of accountability--up and down the chain of command. As the Newport News (VA) Daily Press reports:
"I have emphasized to all the services that accountability must reach all the way up the chain of command — and that the military as a whole must be willing to admit mistakes when they are made," Gates said. "When systemic problems are found, I believe that accountability must reach beyond NCOs and even colonels."
Accountability problems among Air Force leaders were highlighted in a recent report by Admiral Kirkland Donald, who was appointed to evaluate the service's nuclear operations and security procedures. Donald, a Navy officer, found an erosion of performance standards, a lack of oversight, and an Air Force-wide decline in nuclear expertise.
That decline became embarrassingly public over the past year, when a B-52 bomber mistakenly carried six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles on a cross-country flight. More recently, officials at Hill AFB, Utah discovered that fuses for an ICBM were accidentally shipped to Taiwan two years ago.
The USAF's inability to fix its nuclear problems was the official reason for the leadership change mandated by Dr. Gates. But, as we noted in an earlier post, the Air Force's accountability problems date back more than 20 years. Critics believe that the service's leadership--dominated by career fighter pilots--had become arrogant and unresponsive, with little accountability for senior officers and civilian officials.
Gates' remarks at Langley suggest that the USAF culture is about to change. But no one knows how far the SecDef will take his purge of Air Force leadership. When the departure of Moseley and Wynne were announced last week, Gates suggested that more flag officers--and civilians--would follow.
So far, there have been no additional resignations or dismissals, although there are rumors about a wave of pending retirements, brought about by the Donald report and the forced resignations of Wynne and Moseley. The number of senior officers and civilians who might retire as part of the leadership change remains unknown.
Along with his push for accountability, Dr. Gates also promised relief for airmen, who have been deploying in support of Middle East operations for the past 18 years. During his speech at Langley, the defense secretary announced an end to proposed cutbacks of Air Force personnel. The service had planned to trim 40,000 members from its ranks, part of a draw down that began in 2005.
According to Gates, the reduction will now end at the current force level--330,000. He did not explain his reasoning behind the move, or how the Air Force will pay for more personnel and planned aircraft acquisitions. The USAF draw down was aimed, in part, at paying for new aircraft, scheduled to enter the inventory over the next decade.
For the most part, the defense secretary's speech received polite, even positive reactions. An intelligence officer in the audience told the Daily Press that he was impressed with Gates' demand for accountability, but more pleased with the personnel announcement.
Ending the draw down will give commanders more personnel to meet deployment requirements. But many of the Air Force specialists needed in Iraq and Afghanistan--such as combat controllers, pararescue specialists, and explosive ordnance disposal technicians--are in short supply, and subject to frequent overseas tours. It's not clear how much relief the Gates plan will offer to those airmen.
Along with Monday's appearance at Langley, the defense secretary is also scheduled to visit Peterson AFB, Colorado and Scott AFB, Illinois later this week.
Before leaving Washington, Dr. Gates announced that General Norton Schwartz will be President Bush's nominee to fill the Chief of Staff vacancy. General Schwartz is a veteran of airlift and special operations units--the first non-fighter pilot nominated for the Chief of Staff position since 1982.
Wynne's expected replacement as Air Force Secretary is Michael Donley, who has held high-level defense positions in three administrations. Donley's nomination was announced Friday, shortly after Mr. Wynne stepped down.