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An Air Force in Free Fall


Recently, at Maxwell Air Force Base, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates admonished his Air Force audience to adapt better to the changed circumstances of war in the 21st century. Six weeks later, he fired its two most senior leaders, the Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne and Chief of Staff T. Michael Moseley. Then on June 18, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) told the Air Force its selection process for a new air refueling tanker aircraft was so deeply flawed it should start the process all over again – for the third time.

Ostensibly, these events were about technology: using more unmanned aerial drones (how most press interpreted the speech at Maxwell), mishandling nuclear weapon components (the stated reasons for firing Secretary Wynne and General Moseley), and what air refueling tanker better meets the Air Force’s hardware needs. However, to see the underlying issues as technological is to misunderstand the crossroads the Air Force has come to.

The epitome of the Air Force’s self-image is the F-22 fighter. At $355 million for each of the 184 purchased, it is history’s most expensive fighter aircraft, but it is yet to fly its first sortie in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it likely never will. As an air-to-air fighter, it is irrelevant to those conflicts. It may even be a gigantic flop against the non-existent major conventional air force it is designed to fight: too few are affordable to deal with such a foe; it is an aerodynamic performer that on close inspection is a huge disappointment; and it relies on a radar-based “beyond visual range” air-to-air combat hypothesis that has failed time and time again to deliver meaningfully effective results in real air combat.

However, the shadow over the Air Force is darker than arguments over its technology. Despite the F-22’s irrelevance to real world wars, the Air Force’s leadership dedicated virtually the entire institution to advocating more of them than the Pentagon was willing to buy. Unauthorized Air Force lobbying for more F-22s had become so commonplace on Capitol Hill and in oblique (and not-so-oblique) comments to the press that it was clear the Air Force saw the Pentagon’s (and the President’s) budget as just the starting point for grabbing more dollars.

The Air Force engaged in equally extracurricular, behind-the-back cheerleading for C-17 cargo aircraft. Despite its non-optimal range, payload and size for either intercontinental or intra-theater transport, the Air Force blatantly winked, nodded and cheered as Congress bought C-17s above and beyond what Secretary Gates had approved.

Despite being the least involved American military service in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force has been seeking the biggest of all unauthorized supplements to its already historically huge annual budget. Shortly before he was fired, Moseley submitted a list of “unfunded requirements” (better known as his “wish list”) to complement the $143.7 billion budget he was authorized to support by the Pentagon. At $18.7 billion, the Air Force’s “wish list” was more than twice the size of the Navy’s ($7 billion), and it was more than four times the size of the war-engaged Army’s ($3.9 billion).

Each of the military services deem themselves free of any pretense of restraint by budgets approved by the president and secretary of defense, but the Air Force has put itself in a category all its own for its unbridled lust for extracurricular money.

Nowhere has the Air Force’s sense of self-entitlement been more obvious than in the unending scandals surrounding the acquisition of new air refueling tankers. Its 2001 plan to “lease-purchase” Boeing 767 airliners as tankers at costs well above the price of just purchasing them came to a demise only after Sen. John McCain. R-Ariz., and the Justice Department found an Air Force official colluding with a Boeing corporate manager (both were subsequently jailed). With that grimy background and the world watching, one would have expected the Air Force acquisition process to be on its best behavior when it re-started its tanker acquisition. It did so – properly at first – with a solicitation for competing bids from Boeing and Northrop-Grumman-Airbus. Despite voluminous assurances from the top of the Air Force – and the Pentagon – that the competition was fought and won fair and square, the GAO’s June 18 report was extraordinarily strongly worded, ruling that the Air Force contract award process was in fact heavily biased, this time in favor of Northrop-Grumman.

These are not technical, or even technological, flaws. They are instead failures of intellect and – much more importantly – ethics. Secretary Gates has done the right thing by calling the Air Force leadership into account. However, it is very unclear how far he is willing to go to explain his firings and to fix what that is really wrong. This is especially apparent in his decision to permit the Air Force to try again on the tanker contract – supervised only by the same top Pentagon officials who – supposedly – supervised the process last year. Instead, the time has come to make a constructive example of the Air Force and to take the tanker contract award decision out of its hands entirely. Instead, give it to a special panel, appointed by the Secretary of Defense, consisting of military – not just Air Force – and civilian people who have committed not to accept any future relationship with Boeing, Northrop-Grumman-EADS, or their major suppliers. That new dawn is long overdue.

Looking at the individuals Secretary Gates has nominated to lead the Air Force now, they come from backgrounds that offer some hypothetical hope. Gen. Norton Schwartz will, if confirmed by the Senate, be the service’s first-ever chief of staff to come from something other than the service’s fighter or bomber bureaucracies. He does, however, come from the Transport Command, where under-the-table lobbying for those C-17s has been rife. The new secretary of the Air Force, Michael Donley, has an accounting background, but as the Air Force comptroller, he did not clean out the Augean stables of the service’s financial non-accountability, which continues to this day.

In his speech at Maxwell Air Force Base, Secretary Gates described the abiding ethic of American military reformer and strategist Col. John R. Boyd, whose legacy includes the F-15 and F-16 fighters and, more importantly, a new way of thinking about human conflict. Among many things, Boyd taught that the moral choices one makes are what really determines who wins and who loses. As Gates put it – accurately – Boyd said you can choose “to be” somebody – to become a member of the club but also to make crippling moral compromises. Or, you can choose “to do,” that is to sacrifice personal and bureaucratic interests in favor of actions that address the real needs of the nation and the Air Force, even – nay, especially – when almost no one else sees it that way.

Gates summarized Boyd in saying, “In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you have to make a decision: to be or to do.”

The Air Force came – reluctantly but ultimately completely – to embrace the aircraft Boyd gave it, but the service ignored his broader teaching. Now, the Air Force is reaping the consequences. It remains very unclear if the Air Force now has the leadership that Col. Boyd and his work epitomized, or whether it will just be a matter of time before the service’s new leadership presides over yet another embarrassment that comes from its long term focus on being, not doing.

It is not time that will tell; time is too short, to act is the thing.

WINSLOW T. WHEELER spent 31 years working on Capitol Hill with senators from both political parties and the Government Accountability Office, specializing in national security affairs. Currently, he directs the Straus Military Reform Project of the Center for Defense Information in Washington and is author of The Wastrels of Defense.







Winslow T. Wheeler is the Director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight.  He spent 31 years working for the Government Accountability Office and both Republican and Democratic Senators on national security issues.

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