Former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne is taking a few shots on his way out. Mr. Wynne, who was forced out by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in early June, held a wide-ranging discussion with reporters and editors from Military Times earlier this week. During their conversation, Wynne blasted his former boss, and the apparent reasons for his firing.
According to Mr. Wynne, his dismissal was more the result of long-standing disagreements with Gates, rather than problems with the Air Force nuclear weapons program—the publicly-stated reason for his departure:
Gates “and I had some long-standing disputes about the funding for F-22,” Wynne said. “We had a dispute as to whether or not you should spend your time worrying about the strategic effects of the future, or you should spend your time on the war as it sits. … So I think [me] going out and viewing a little bit about what’s the future was construed as the secretary of the Air Force is distracted from [his] duties.”
The former secretary was also critical of how he was removed from office:
“If the secretary didn’t want somebody on his staff, the secretary should pick the time and the place and tell him to leave,” he said. “I’m just amazed at the circumstances. Why didn’t [he] just call me in and say, ‘Time to go’?”
Wynne learned of his dismissal while at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, during a meeting with senior USAF leaders, including the Chief of Staff, General Michael Moseley, who was also fired. Moseley was recalled to Washington during the middle of the semi-annual “Corona” conference, while Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England was dispatched to deliver the bad news. Sources also claim that England announced a halt to Corona meetings until Mr. Gates approves their resumption.
In his conversation with Military Times, Wynne accepted responsibility for last year’s accidental transfer of six nuclear weapons from Minot AFB, North Dakota, to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. But he said it was “curious” that another incident, involving the mistaken shipment of nuclear missile fuses to Taiwan, was “ascribed to his watch.” The transfer actually occurred before Wynne became Air Force Secretary, but was discovered in March of this year.
Wynne also suggested that a highly critical report on Air Force nuclear practices was the result of “cultural differences” between his service and the U.S. Navy. The report was authored by Admiral Kirkwood Donald, Chief of the Office of Naval Propulsion.
Mr. Wynne told the Times that Admiral Donald “looked at us from a Navy perspective. They see things differently than we do.” But Wynne was far from finished. During the same interview, he took a shot at Boeing, saying the defense giant “sensed defeat early on” in the Air Force tanker competition, and began building what he described as a “Pearl Harbor file,” which could later be used to force a reopening of the bidding process.
“Here’s one of those cases where Boeing had probably assessed their prospects were dimming. I would say that they systematically began to build a case, and I’m not sure they shared everything they could have shared with the Air Force along the way,” said Wynne.
To Wynne, it seemed Boeing was preparing a Plan B in case it lost the contract, in part by withholding information on some costs that caused the Air Force to make its own estimates.
“There’s a feeling in the Air Force that maybe we were as transparent as we could be, and maybe Boeing wasn’t as transparent as it could be,” Wynne said. “We do not feel they were as transparent as they could have been.”
As Air Force Secretary, Wynne played a leading role in last February’s decision to award the tanker contract to a team from Northrop-Grumman/EADS, which offered a design based on the Airbus A330 airframe. Boeing’s entry was based on its 767 jetliner. A protest by Boeing was eventually upheld by the Government Accountability Office, which found major flaws in the Air Force acquisition process.
On Wednesday—the same day that Mr. Wynne spoke with Military Times—the Pentagon announced that the tanker contract would be re-opened for bids. Mr. Gates also revealed that the Defense Department’s acquisition chief, John Young, would manage the latest round in the tanker competition, stripping that responsibility from the Air Force.
There is little doubt that Mike Wynne had a simmering feud with his boss, the SecDef. And, there’s probably an element of truth in Wynne’s claims that his dismissal was the result of several factors, not just the nuclear issue. But it’s also clear that the interview was aimed at patching Mr. Wynne’s tattered reputation, and settling scores with Pentagon rivals.
In reality, the legacy of Michael Wynne is mixed. He deserves credit for tacking the USAF’s recapitalization problems, and fighting hard for new aircraft. Mr. Wynne should also be commended for his leadership in researching the use of synthetic fuels in Air Force combat and support aircraft. If those programs are carried to fruition (and they should be), Wynne’s efforts will be regarded as visionary.
But those achievements must be squared against obvious failures. Wynne inherited a service beset by accountability issues that extended far beyond the nuclear program. There have been a series of scandals involving high-ranking personnel in recent years; many occurred before his watch, but Mr. Wynne did nothing to halt the ethical slide. That fact was not lost on Mr. Gates, or his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld.
Wynne also proved inept at reading clear signals from his boss. When Gates requested an increase in UAV orbits over Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force Secretary and his generals dragged their feet. Instead of making the case that some drone flights are unnecessary (and a waste of resources), the Air Force tried to compare training problems in UAV units with the “collapse” of Hitler’s Luftwaffe in World War II. It was an analogy lost on Pentagon leaders, not to mention the American people.
Indeed, Mr. Wynne shared a common weakness with other, recent secretaries of the Air Force. Almost to a man (or woman) they seemed content to rest of past airpower successes, almost oblivious to a changing military environment. We can only hope that Wynne’s successor, Michael Donely, and the next Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwartz, borrow a page from General “Hap” Arnold, the legendary leader of the Army Air Corps during World War II.
As a young officer, Arnold helped ensure the future of American airpower by educating the public on its potential. Arnold and men like Ira Eaker were masters of public relations, staging highly-publicized events that highlighted the capabilities of the air arm. Compare that with the tepid, corporate media relations policy of today’s Air Force, and you’ll see one more reason the service is in trouble.
For a man who had a successful career developing (and marketing) weapons systems to the Pentagon, Mr. Wynne was woefully inept at "selling" the USAF in the halls of power, and demonstrating its relevance in a global war on terror. And sadly, that may become his ultimate legacy as Secretary of the Air Force.