On Point: Behind Gates' Decision to Fire Up the Air Force

by Austin Bay
June 10, 2008

The classic World War II-era poster reminded talkative dock workers that"loose lips sink ships." Well, loose nukes present an even more imposingproblem, one with continent-cracking possibilities.

Last week, when Defense Secretary Robert Gates requested and received theresignations of Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and U.S. Air Force Chief ofStaff Gen. Michael Moseley, Gates' office cited as a reason a Pentagoninvestigation of lax standards in Air Force oversight of nuclear weapons. Oneincident involved a USAF bomber with cruise missiles over-flying a wide swath ofthe United States -- and the crew didn't know the weapons had real nuclearwarheads.

That sounds bad, and bad it is.

Resignation at Wynne and Moseley's level of national service, especiallyunder these conditions, is a euphemism for "fired."

A SecDef can relieve his subordinates for almost any reason, and mistakesinvolving nuclear weapons, especially if the SecDef believes they involvecommand issues, are certainly justified.

Gates' decision to appoint Gen. Norton A. Schwartz as chief of staff ofthe U.S. Air Force, however, indicates Gates used a nuke to win a battle in thePentagon's turf war among the war-fighting services -- a complex, often opaqueand long-lived problem that makes war-winning more difficult and costly.

Schwartz is an airlifter with lots of special operations experience. Ascommander of Transportation Command, Schwartz comes from the Air Force's C-sideof the house (C as in cargo and transport, e.g., C-17 and C-130 planes). Foryears, the Air Force has been led by generals from the F side (fighter, likeF-15) or B side (bomber, like B-52).

A scan of Schwartz's bio indicates he has a lot of experience with theAC-130 gunship, which along with the A-10 Thunderbolt II (close air supportaircraft) and the B-52 are arguably the favorite manned aircraft of Americaninfantrymen. (A B-52 with smart bombs is very precise artillery. The AC-130 isflying artillery.)

But the loose nukes first. Though the Cold War's threat of nuclearimmolation has receded (thank goodness) and the nuclear mission has declined inimportance, nuclear weapons still serve as a deterrent. Russia and China havenukes; Iran is getting them. We hope North Korea's murderous dictatorship knowsits use of a nuke on South Korea or Japan (the likely targets) would lead to itsdestruction -- and a U.S. strike on the deep caves protecting Pyongyang'smissile and nuclear facilities might well include nuclear weapons.

Rules governing the storage, preparation and use of nuclear weapons, forobvious reasons, remain strict. The USAF's old Strategic Air Command (SAC) --the Cold War's long-range bomber and missile organization -- prided itself onrigorous enforcement of "nuclear weapons surety" requirements, as well as toughinstitutional investigation and correction of mishaps. SAC's successor,Strategic Command, has the same rules, but Gates' relief of Wynne and Moseley isa message that says the entire Air Force, from newly enlisted airmen to servicesecretary, will make certain they are enforced. The checklists will be checked10 times, then 10 more.

As for the turf wars, the Army has always complained that the USAF"fighter mafia" gives airlift missions (which often involve lifting the Army andMarines) short shrift -- and in the Global War on Terror, airlift is critical.The USAF budgets billions for the advanced F-22 fighter, despite complaintswithin the Department of Defense that War on Terror missions are underfunded.

The biggest turf war, however, is over Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)like the Predator and an emerging fleet of "strike" UAVs that can handletraditional bomb and close air support (CAS, supporting ground forces) missions.The Air Force wants UAV operators to be pilots. The Army has found youngsoldiers familiar with video games can fly UAVs.

The UAVs are a sensor and weapons system that conflicts with currentorganizational structures. They fly but don't need highly trained pilotsonboard. Strategic recon UAVs clearly fit into traditional USAF-type missions,but putting missile and bomb-armed UAVs under the command of Army and Marinedivision and brigade commanders puts a powerful, available and relatively cheapweapon in the hands of the immediate users. Instead of fighting over traditionalturf, the Pentagon needs to adjust its turf.

Schwartz has first-rate experience in joint multi-service operations.

Gates is sending the message that this is how America wins its wars.

Read Austin Bay's Latest Book

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


On Point Archives:

On Point Archives: Current 2023  2022  2021  2020  2019  2018  2017  2016  2015  2014  2013  2012  2011  2010  2009  2008  2007  2006  2005  2004  2003  2002  2001



Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close