The USAF's new Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwartz, is getting rave reviews for an address he delivered yesterday at the annual Air Force Association Conference in Washington, D.C.
Schwartz, who replaced the fired General Mike Moseley less than two months ago, pulled no punches in describing the challenges facing his service. And, he offered solutions for some of the Air Force's most pressing operational problems, including its shortage of pilots for unmanned aerial vehicles.
Beginning next year, General Schwartz announced, the USAF will assign at 100 recent graduates of pilot training to UAV squadrons. After a three or four-year tour, the pilots will return to manned aircraft.
Additionally, Schwartz revealed that the Air Force will launch a test program, aimed at creating a new breed of aviator, trained only to fly drones. If the effort is successful, the operators would fly UAVs for their entire career. Currently, UAV pilots fly other aircraft before serving in a drone unit, and return to manned platforms when that tour ends.
It's a bold move and quite frankly, one that was long overdue. As the other services have demonstrated, you don't need to be a full-fledged pilot to successfully fly drones. Creating a cadre of "career" drone operators will ease the strain on Air Force pilot ranks, while ensuring a cadre of trained professionals that will eventually lead UAV units.
While the proposed drone training program has far-reaching effects for the service, General Schwartz's speech will be best remembered for his tough words on the acquisition process, including former generals who have waded into the tanker controversy. As Air Force Times reports, Schwartz described their endorsement of competing aircraft as unprofessional:
“I’m speaking of the unfortunate deterioration of the relationship between the Air Force and industry that of late has manifested a hyperbole of insensitivity and a lack of proper communication,” he said.
“My personal view is that military professionals including those who have retired from active service have an obligation to refrain from taking sides in public debates on key acquisition programs.”
According to the paper, General Schwartz's critique was met with "awkward applause," from the audience, which included many ex-generals who now work for defense contractors.
The new Chief of Staff deserves credit for raising the issue, but we wonder: how far is he prepared to go in re-establishing the line between the Air Force and defense firms. As we learned during the "Thundervision" scandal, an active-duty Major General was actively lobbying for a company to provide audio-visual services for the USAF Thunderbirds. One of the firm's partners was a retired four-star who was instrumental in placing the two-button in his post at Nellis AFB. The major general received an administrative rebuke and retiredly quietly in July, pension and benefits intact.
Similarly, there have been plenty of cases of retired flag officers who go to work for defense contractors, and side-step rules on handling projects and programs that were part of their military duties.
Under current rules, defense leaders must be retired for at least a year before they can work on projects they handled for the military. But that requirement is easily circumvented; the defense firm hires the retired general and assigns him (or her) to another division within the company, then "loans" the former flag officer to the branch handling their old military program.
Are General Schwartz and the new Air Force Secretary, Michael Donley, prepared to take additional steps to prevent this shell game, or a repeat of "Thundervision." Schwartz did not offer details in his speech, and quite frankly, the AFA Conference was probably the wrong place to provide any degree of specificity--that's what policy letters and regulation changes are made for. By simply raising the issue, General Schwartz let everyone know that it's on his radar, and is apparently prepared to follow-up.
That's more than we can say for previous occupants of his office. But the proof will be in the acquisition pudding, when the tanker controversy surfaces again. At that point, competing firms will (again) pull out all the stops, engaging former generals to endorse their aircraft, and hiring USAF experts to work on their tanker programs. At that point--which may fall beyond General Schwartz's tenure--we'll see if the USAF is genuinely serious about enforcing ethical standards and conflict-of-interest rules.