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June 9, 2008—When Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates ousted the Air Force’s two top leaders last week, there was more to it than just the service’s reported slip-ups with handling of nuclear weapons, according to Pentagon insiders. The shake-up was a clear message to the Air Force to quit making a direct case for preferred systems and get more “Joint.” It also took from the service its top champions in ongoing roles and missions discussions, decapitating airpower advocacy in the Department of Defense.

Gates told reporters at a Pentagon press conference that the nuclear issue was his sole reason for accepting the sudden resignations of Secretary Michael Wynne and Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley, but friction between the Air Force and top Pentagon leaders was probably a more likely trigger. Gates—along with his deputy, Gordon England, and acquisition czar John Young—have long been hot under the collar as the Air Force has tried to convince Congress to fund more of the systems USAF believes are needed to deter aggression by rising world powers or to fight a major conventional war.

Gates has said numerous times that the Air Force should focus on winning the current war and not fall prey to “next war-itis.” Gates and his lieutenants have, with increasing frankness, told Congress to ignore the Air Force’s push for systems like the F-22, which they say are of limited value in an insurgency and compete with things like Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles needed for the ongoing fights in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pentagon leaders have also been unhappy with USAF’s push to buy more C-17s than are currently on the books.

Doubtless aware of the sub rosa analysis of his actions, Gates told an audience of airmen at Langley AFB, Va. Monday that  the nuclear investigation findings were “not the ‘last straw’ in his working relationships with Wynne and Moseley, who he praised for their service. He said there was definitely a need for “respectful airing of views” from subordinates and that “I’ve made it a point to listen to all sides” in various debates about resources and priorities.

However, doubters that Gates was slamming the door on further Air Force advocacy of systems not tailored to current operations need only look at his choices to replace the service’s top uniformed leadership. If “loose nukes” was really the issue, Gates might have chosen US Strategic Command head Gen. Kevin P. Chilton to be chief. Instead, Gates opted for US Transportation Command’s Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, who had already put in his papers and was to retire effective Jan. 1 of next year.

In his 35 years of service, Schwartz has spent 15 years in “Joint” jobs (mostly in Special Operations Command), including the last eight years of his career, during which he headed Alaskan Command, served as the Joint Staff’s ops director and director, and his current assignment as TRANSCOM boss. In that latter role, Schwartz has ignored the Air Force push to acquire up to 222 C-17s, maintaining instead that more than about 205 would be overkill.

The last time Schwartz held a job in which he advocated specifically for the Air Force was a decade ago, when he was USAF’s director of strategic planning.

Slated to replace Schwartz at TRANSCOM will be the current USAF vice chief, Gen. Duncan McNabb, who, as the Air Force’s rep on the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, would have led this summer’s inter-service debates about roles and missions, and what goes into the Pentagon’s POM-2010 five-year spending plan. Although the plan may well be discarded by the incoming Administration, it will at least be the basis for the Pentagon’s new civilian leadership’s first defense budget.

Succeeding McNabb in this crucial advocacy role will be Lt. Gen. William Fraser, assistant to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen. Fraser, who leap-frogs about a dozen sitting four-star generals for the job, is more suited to supervise a tightening-up of the Air Force’s nuclear enterprise than Schwartz. He’s had a career in strategic bomber operations and strategic intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; something Gates has repeatedly told the Air Force he wants given greater attention.

It will be a heady challenge for Fraser to both lead the charge for Air Force systems in the roles and missions debate and supervise an overhaul of the service’s nuclear operations.

And, Michael Donley, recommended to replace Wynne as Air Force Secretary, is likely to have marching orders to refocus the Air Force’s nuclear mission. With only six months or so in the job before the new Administration comes in, he won’t have time for much else.