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April 9, 2012Soon, probably early in May, President Obama will announce the four-star general who is his nominee to be the next Air Force Chief of Staff, taking over from Gen. Norton Schwartz, who will conclude his four-year tour in August as the 19th Chief in the service's history.

In an interview in his Pentagon office last week, Schwartz said he doesn't doubt "familiarity" plays some role in the selection process. A candidate may have worked with the sitting Defense Secretary or other senior members of an Administration in a previous capacity, and they may be comfortable with him. However, Schwartz insisted there's more to it than that.

"No one in any of these positions, knowing how hard these jobs are, would allow that to be the sole criteria," he said.

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley early this year forwarded the names of more than one candidate to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Panetta took two months to "digest" the information that came with those names, said Schwartz. He did acknowledge that Panetta has made a choice. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—in this case Army Gen. Martin Dempsey—also confers with the Defense Secretary on candidates for the top-level US military council.

Schwartz declined to discuss how Panetta's recommendation is progressing at the White House—the nomination is ultimately Obama's to make—but he does expect the nomination to become public in late April or early May.

"I turn into a pumpkin on the 12th of August," said Schwartz, and he'd like the nominee to be confirmed six to eight weeks ahead of that date. That will allow a change of command at the nominee's current assignment and give the new Chief-select "an opportunity to think about what he wants to do and how he wants to get started," said Schwartz.

If the confirmation happens too close to the turnover, "it limits that opportunity" for the Chief-select to decide "what issues" he wants to work and his priorities for the first months of his tour, said Schwartz.

He said he thinks it's important that the next Chief have that planning window. "It hasn't happened in every instance," he noted. "Circumstances are what they are."

In his own case, Schwartz had already put in his papers to retire, having completed a tour at US Transportation Command. One evening, soon after then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired then-Chief Gen. Michael Moseley and then-Secretary Michael Wynne, Schwartz received a call at his home from a senior defense official. That phone call constituted Schwartz's entire interview for the job of Chief of Staff.

Schwartz said "there is a process" for choosing the Chief but not necessarily "a single process." He acknowledged that the way Chiefs have been chosen, historically, has changed almost every time there's been a turnover. What's consistent, he said, are the qualities that a potential Chief of Staff has to possess.

"It starts, first, with what are the attributes that are required to be successful in the job," said Schwartz.

Those include "the likely quality of military advice; how well the candidate could assist the [Air Force] Secretary in doing the organize, train, and equip mission; his or her capacity to build bridges and reinforce partnerships with colleagues and partner air forces around the world, and . . . the reputation that individual has," among civilian leaders in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, and "in the uniformed community, including the [Joint Chiefs of Staff] and the combatant commanders."

The specific experience and expertise Panetta is looking for in a new Chief is almost certainly not what Robert Gates was looking for when Schwartz himself got the job, remarked Schwartz.

"What might have been considered for me . . . probably wouldn't be the same for . . . my successor," he said, "because circumstances have changed."

The United States has a new national military strategy, "the budget environment certainly has changed; we're no longer in Iraq, there's the prospect of a drawdown in Afghanistan," explained Schwartz. Beyond that, there are the "major undertakings" of the Air Force in the coming four years that will require knowledge and talents probably different than those that Schwartz possesses.

There are some statutory requirements that a candidate must meet. He can't be older than 64 at the end of his potential term as Chief, and he has to have served in a senior joint position, for example.

Any four-star general is considered a candidate, and there is no "self-nomination" involved, said Schwartz. Nor is there, realistically, any opting out.

If the President asks an officer to serve, "I know very few people, if any, who would, without very good cause, decline that request," said Schwartz. "It is a privilege to do this."

Suggestions for a new leader come in all the time from "the alumni," said Schwartz—prior Air Force Chiefs and Secretaries—and "you take those seriously." But the serving Chief and Secretary have usually been in the job a while "and know the players quite well—their strengths and weaknesses," he noted.

Schwartz said he does not know if the White House, Pentagon leadership, or other civilian entity runs the name of a potential candidate past the Senate Armed Services Committee—which must confirm the nominee—to gauge whether there will be any heated opposition.

Some confirmations are slam-dunks, with hearings that last just a single morning. Others take longer. Schwartz himself spent a few days talking with Senators in closed session about his involvement in classified matters on the Joint Staff before his confirmation hearing.

Now that a candidate has been chosen, Schwartz said the Air Force will help him prepare for confirmation, but will "scrupulously" avoid any activity that presumes the nomination will be confirmed.

The candidate will get a questionnaire from the SASC to get ready. Some of the questions are traditional, said Schwartz. One example, he said: "Will you give honest military advice" even if it conflicts with White House policy? Others questions will be very topical, he said.

Schwartz will write an after-action report on his tour and "share" it with the new Chief.

He'll also make suggestions about areas "where he needs to concentrate a bit" more attention than Schwartz did.

Finally, Schwartz said he will make sure the new Chief knows "what promises we have made that still need to be fulfilled. That is something that is vitally important in a handoff because the institution's credibility is at stake."