Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Speech

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.


Ed Rasimus said...

Spot on regarding Thundervision and tanker acquisition. Huge blunder regarding first-assignment out of pilot training into UAV duty.

That sort of action does two things very well: first it destroys morale and career motivation for a select group that should be the backbone of the fighting force. Second, it effectively negates the entire undergraduate pilot training experience. Sentencing someone who has just received the basic qualification for a highly demanding skill to then sit in a comfortable air conditioned facility managing a semi-automated drone for hours at a time does nothing to develop skills or provide a basis for future operational assignments.

Creating an independent career track for UAV operators is one very good choice. An interim measure would be an aggressive recruitment campaign for retired military aviators to fill the seats. The experience and judgment for the job are their and only the inability to subject the body to the high stress environment of tactical air operations has waned.

Putting young pilots in that job is a force killer.

davod said...

I agree, people don't get trained up to be a military pilot just to be flying a desk for four years.


PCSSEPA said...

Spot on Ed.

Jayhawker said...

GEN Schwartz was right on the money. I'd rather have the USAF doing UAV's than watch the Army and Marines continue to do them. And if the AF is going to do it, it needs to do it well, and that means a dedicated and professional track for flying, maintaining, and designing them. And a responsive program that adapts as needed to the mission.

The world is changing. Our nation needs the "zipper suited sun gods" to get with the program.

anon said...

couldn't figure out how to email you.

typographical errors:
1) usaf will assign at 100 recent

at --> all?

2) rebuke and retiredly quietly

retiredly --> retire?