Air Force Chief Bids Farewell, Predicts Tough Times Lie Ahead
By Sandra I. Erwin
If you thought the last four years were tough for the U.S. Air Force, wait till you see what’s in store for the next four.
Outgoing Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz retires Aug.10 after 40 years of service. He had planned on retiring in 2008 when former Defense Secretary Robert Gates persuaded him to take the job. At the time, the Air Force was an organization in turmoil, reeling from procurement scandals, nuclear weapon screw-ups and allegations that it was not playing team ball in supporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gates fired the Air Force's top military and civilian leaders and asked Schwartz to lead the cleanup effort.
Schwartz was relatively successful in putting out most of the fires. Notably, he engineered a major overhaul of nuclear weapons operations, managed to get the troubled refueling tanker program back on track and made the Air Force hugely valuable in ground wars as a provider of remotely controlled aerial surveillance and air-to-ground weapons. He oversaw a rapid buildup of a large fleet of unmanned aircraft.
The incoming chief, Gen. Mark A. Welsh III — expected soon to be confirmed by the Senate — inherits a service that would have been unrecognizable a couple of decades ago.
“This is a different Air Force than it was four years ago,” Schwartz told reporters July 24 during his final Pentagon news conference as chief of staff.
The challenges that were thrown at him, although difficult, might pale in comparison to what lies ahead for Welsh. Schwartz offered a laundry list of potential problem areas.
Mending Fences With Congress: Proposed personnel and equipment cuts for fiscal year 2013 did not go over well with lawmakers. Most of the reductions have been reversed by various committees, which claimed were blindsided by the recommendations. Raising the most ire were cuts in the Air National Guard, which lawmakers attributed to anti-Guard bias by the active-duty leadership. The 2013 budget markups have left the Air Force bruised, to say the least, Schwartz acknowledged. “We have learned from the experience of the ’13 budget and will adjust accordingly,” he said. Welsh now inherits a “trust problem,” as Congress is likely to question any future decisions more intensely than it would otherwise. “One of Mark’s chores will be to reassure lawmakers that we are one Air Force, that we rely on all three components [active, reserve, Guard],” said Schwartz.
Restoring Confidence in the F-22: The $67 billion F-22 Raptor program has seen its share of troubles that led Gates to end its production in 2009. But things got worse when reports surfaced that F-22 pilots were suffering from hypoxia that appeared to be caused by a faulty oxygen delivery system. The problem was reportedly the cause of a November 2010 F-22 Raptor crash in Alaska that killed Capt. Jeff Haney. After extensive reviews during which the fleet was grounded, the Air Force ordered major modifications in the F-22 and in pilot garments that are said to have fixed the problem, Schwartz said. The F-22, he said, is “considered safe to fly” but with restrictions. “The risk is being managed, but has not been eliminated.” His advice for Welsh: Test, test, and test.
Fixing Weapons Acquisitions: Schwartz was able to get the tanker program out of its early procurement firestorm, but danger still lies ahead, as budget cuts could imperil future production. Another troubled project, a new long-range bomber, is back to the drawing board, and Schwartz was able to secure research-and-development funds, but production still is years away. “Mark will have to field those systems — not an insignificant challenge,” he said. Welsh also will have to cope with shortages of engineering talent in the government and the defense industry, he noted. Thelatest procurement controversy, the acquisition of a light attack strike aircraftfor the Afghan air force, still is being sorted out following an industry protest and admissions by the Air Force that it mishandled the paperwork. “The lesson: In this business there can be no relaxing,” said Schwartz. Compounding the problem is the absence of a civilian acquisition executive. Former Air Force procurement chief David Van Buren departed in March and no replacement has been named yet. “The uniformed leadership has to play a larger role,” said Schwartz.
Manage Cultural Adjustment to Unmanned Aviation: It is conceivable that, one day in the not too distant future, the majority of Air Force pilots will be in cubicles remotely controlling aircraft with no humans in cockpits. Exactly when that will happen is hard to predict, said Schwartz. But he suggested Welsh has his work cut out for him helping the pilot community transition to this new way of doing business. Even after current wars end, drone fever is not likely to subside.
In a 2010 speech that was intended to cheer up the troops, Schwartz suggested that the Air Force should by no means feel “threatened” by shifts in the way the United States fights wars. The Air Force, he said, “Remains an essential element [of U.S. national security] and will find itself in an increasingly significant role in the 21st Century, although we perhaps are not currently cast in the marquee roles that we fulfilled in previous decades.”
Welsh takes over an Air Force whose primary roles in war have been transportation, aerial refueling and operation of unmanned surveillance aircraft that are flown remotely from U.S.-based facilities.
Prepare for the Future: Schwartz signed an agreement with the chief of the U.S. Navy to jointly develop a new concept of operations, called “air-sea battle” for how both services would potentially fight a high-tech adversary in the coming decades. Air-sea battle got off to a bad start, as it was interpreted as a war plan to fight China, and contractors immediately seized on it as a marketing tool for new weapon systems. Welsh has not publicly commented on his plans for air-sea battle. “My hunch is that he will continue the partnership” with the Navy, said Schwartz. If the project is kept alive, he said, it would benefit both the Air Force and Navy leadership to avoid falling into temptation of turning it into a weapons wish list. “We wanted this to be disciplined and make sure this undertaking maintains focus and does not become a wholesale effort to underwrite programs.”
Cope With Shrinking Budgets: The Air Force has seen its overall budget squeezed by 12 percent since 2009. Of concern is rampant growth of its “operations and maintenance” account. O&M spending now consumes $44 billion of the Air Force’s $154 billion budget. By comparison, the budget for weapons procurement is $18 billion, and $17 billion for research and development of new technology. Like the other branches of the military, the Air Force has had a tough time containing O&M expenses in part because of the high cost of repairing and maintaining a diversity of aging aircraft fleets. Unless Welsh manages to convince lawmakers to allow the Air Force to retire old aircraft, this problem only will get worse. The Air Force wanted to jettison nearly 230 fighter, mobility, and surveillance aircraft in fiscal year 2013, with a goal of retiring 286 aircraft over the next five years. The savings, if Congress had not gotten in the way, would have added up to $8.7 billion.
Do Business With a Smaller Force: Since its heyday in the 1950s, the Air Force has seen its inventories slashed and many of its prized weapons systems terminated. From 1950 to 2009,the Air Force saw its arsenal dwindle from 26,000 to about 6,500 aircraft and missiles.
Repair Relationships With Defense Industry: It is no secret that Schwartz has ruffled feathers. In a not-so-subtle jab at the defense industry in the wake of the tanker contract award to The Boeing Co., Schwartz in 2010 called for greater “unity” and “sense of common cause” as the military braces for a world of complex challenges and reduced budgets. He also compared contractors to scorpions. “The gravity of this situation reminds me of the old allegory of the scorpion and the frog that meet on the bank of a stream,” Schwartz said in a keynote speech at the Air Force Association annual convention. He recounted the story of the scorpion who asks the frog to carry him on its back across the stream. The frog asks for assurances that he won’t get stung. Scorpion says it would not be in his interest to sting the frog because he himself would also drown. The frog proceeds to cross but, midstream, the scorpion stabs the frog. The frog asks, “Why did you do that?” The scorpion replies, “I couldn’t help it; it’s in my nature.” Schwartz insisted that he was not taking shots at anyone in particular.
Schwartz also rankled weapon manufacturers when he suggested thatpaying companies to keep design teams employed is not financially realistic. Such a level of government intervention in the private sector, he said a year ago, “isn't the American way of doing things.” There are “certain parts of the industrial base that the nation needs," Schwartz said. “But we’re not going to pay for something without any return on investment.”