There was an announcement today from U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) that deserves more attention than it's receiving.
In a brief press release, STRATCOM announced that its commander-in-chief, Air Force General Kevin Chilton will be retiring later this year. While the date for Chilton's departure has not been set, a successor has already been named: Air Force General Bob Kehler, commander of the service's space command, will replace Chilton at STRATCOM. There is a slight irony in that choice; in 2007, when Chilton moved from AFSPC to STRATCOM, his successor was General Kehler.
Of course, there's nothing particularly unusual about the retirement of a four-star general; such transitions occur on a regular basis. In a statement released by the command, General Chilton said its "time to close this chapter of my career, and say thanks to all who have supported Cathy and me over the past three decades--what a wonderful experience it has been." The type of comment you'd see in any CINC's retirement announcement.
Chilton leaves the Air Force after a stellar, 34-year military career that included stints as a fighter pilot, test pilot and NASA astronaut. General Chilton spent eleven years at the space agency and is a veteran of three shuttle flights. When his tour at NASA came to an end, Chilton could have easily requested retirement from the USAF and stayed on at the agency as civilian program manager or sought lucrative employment as an aerospace executive.
Instead, General Chilton returned to the operational Air Force, serving as a Wing Commander, Director of Programs for the Air Staff, Assistant Vice Chief of Staff and Commander of 8th Air Force, before being selected to lead AFSPC in 2006, and STRATCOM the following year. Those assignments (along with his time at NASA) made Chilton one of the military's real experts in such critical disciplines as space, cyber warfare and strategic weapons.
In his last assignment at STRATCOM, General Chilton fought a lonely (and frustrating) battle to modernize the nation's nuclear stockpile. In a series of high-profile media interviews, Chilton noted that the U.S. hasn't fielded a new generation of nuclear warheads in twenty years, and hasn't conducted a nuclear test since the early 1990s. As a result, Chilton said he was increasingly concerned about the reliability and viability of our nuclear deterrent.
And, he publicly disagreed with President Obama's plans to remove U.S. strategic forces from "hair trigger" alert, arguing that such plans actually threatened our security. As the Global Security Newswire reported in March of last year:
Chilton said it is misleading to use the term "hair-trigger" when describing the U.S. arsenal, which he said remains safe from accidental or unauthorized launch.
"It conjures a drawn weapon in the hands of somebody," said the general, speaking at a two-day conference on air warfare. "And their finger's on the trigger. And you're worried they might sneeze, because it is so sensitive.
"However, the "reality of our alert posture today," he said, is that "the weapon is in the holster."
Continuing the analogy, Chilton said the holster for nuclear weapons "has two combination locks on it," it "takes two people to open those locks," and "they can't do it without authenticated orders from the president of the United States."
General Chilton also chided the idea of further reductions in our nuclear posture, which Mr. Obama has described as "de-alerting":
Returning to the analogy of a holstered weapon, Chilton said a lower level of readiness for the nuclear stockpile would be like "taking the gun apart and mailing pieces of it to various parts of the country. And then when you're in crisis, deciding to reassemble it."
And we have to ask ourselves: Can we afford that time period for the delivery of the pieces to put it back together?" he continued. "Is that the posture we want to be in as we [review] policy, strategy, force structure and posturing of forces?"
Needless to say, those types of comments didn't win General Chilton any friends at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But he deserves plaudits for doing what flag officers are supposed to do: telling their civilian bosses what they need to hear, rather than what they want to hear.
Unfortunately, that dust-up (effectively) spelled the end of Chilton's career. As we predicted at the time, the general's willingness to speak "truth to power" eliminated any chance he might have had at becoming the next Air Force Chief of Staff, or even Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. So, after three decades in uniform, Kevin Chilton will hang it up later this year.
And that's the real shame of this matter. General Chilton is among the youngest of the current crop of four stars, and his expertise in space and cyber operations would prove invaluable as the Air Force--and the rest of DoD--prepare for future challenges.
His bold leadership will also be missed. When Chilton publicly criticized the notion of "de-alerting" our nuclear forces, the Air Force Chief of Staff, General Norton Schwartz, took a non-confrontational approach, telling reporters he "wasn't sure" how the President's goal might be implemented. Never mind that Air Force strategic bombers and ICBMs provide two legs of our strategic TRIAD, so General Schwartz clearly had a dog in the fight.
To be fair, General Chilton was at the end of his tour, so his days at STRATCOM were numbered. But it's distressing to think that an officer of Kevin Chilton's caliber apparently has no future at the highest levels of our military. Meanwhile, lesser lights like "Norty" Schwartz keep puttering along. You see, there are certain advantages in refusing to take bold stands, or supporting your fellow flag officers who are willing to put it on the line.
ADDENDUM: For the record, General Chilton has publicly endorsed the Obama Administration's new arms reduction treaty with Russia. Still, his support seems rather tepid; at a conference in Omaha earlier this month, he said the agreement is needed because it allows the U.S. to continue inspections of Russian nuclear facilities.
But that's damning the accord with faint praise. In reality, "national technical means" provide much of our monitoring of Moscow's strategic forces and nuclear production infrastructure. That surveillance will continue, even if the treaty is rejected by the Senate. And General Chilton has said little about the cuts mandated by the agreement, which will reduce deployed nuclear warheads from 2200, to 1550.