Leadership fired. Nuclear stewardship in question. Tanker replacement effort in limbo. Noxious charges of "next-war-itis" washing over the service. ... Surely, this is a bad time to be part of the US Air Force, right?
No, not right, says former Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne. Quite the contrary, actually.
Despite the negativity of political and media reports generated inside the Washington, D.C., beltway, the Air Force is, in fact, accomplishing great feats, making a difference in the Global War on Terror, and even winning converts on Capitol Hill, Wynne said in an extensive late July interview.
He spoke at length with Air Force Magazine five weeks after formally stepping down from the service’s top civilian post.
"The Air Force was being heard" in the halls of Congress, says Wynne of his final months in office. "Our arguments were resonating."
Then-Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne.
Just Point at It
Wynne served for some two-and-a-half years as the 21st Air Force civilian leader before Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates ousted him on June 5 in a leadership shake-up that also brought down the Chief of Staff, Gen. T. Michael Moseley.
Turning aside criticisms, Wynne emphasizes that the Air Force is "really good" at what it does. The service is "envied" by the other military branches and by the nation for the quality of its people, its bases, and how well it executes its mission, he observes.
Case in point: USAF’s ability to support ground forces in Afghanistan and Iraq with precision air strikes, something for which Wynne thinks the service still does not get enough credit. "The command element can point to a building and it will come down," he explains. "They can point to an intersection and it will blow up. We can almost dial destruction."
With strong emphasis from the Air Force Research Laboratory, Wynne says, the service has excelled at pushing the state of the art of critical technology areas such as advanced stealth and alternative energy sources. He adds that there has been "a phenomenal spread" of Air Force technology into the commercial sector.
"I’m pretty proud that we were really flowing out there in the edge of the envelope," Wynne says, noting that "there was nobody in [the Department of Energy] who was even thinking about alternative fuels" for the military when he first broached the topic with DOE officials.
Wynne points out that the Air Force continues to churn out scores of airmen with advanced degrees, many in science and engineering fields. When it comes to management, the Air Force has been innovative, incorporating "transparent" processes, handling data as an asset, and, under Air Force Smart Operations 21 initiatives, conserving resources, Wynne says.
Sure, the Air Force faces challenges. Wynne, for example, opposed the Pentagon’s joint basing plans and still thinks there are better alternatives. Plus, the Air Force desperately needs new tankers to replace its Eisenhower-era KC-135s, and is still hard-pressed for dollars to buy new aircraft across the board to replace its aging fleet, the oldest in its history.
Even on these fronts, though, the service has been making marked progress, Wynne says. He points out that the strong stance that he made together with Moseley for maintaining air dominance in the future and for recapitalization and modernization was making headway with key lawmakers.
Wynne and then-Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley answer questions from Congress in February.
Winning In Congress
Congress, in both its deliberations on the Fiscal 2009 service budget and the recently passed war supplemental, provided support for more C-17s, additional unmanned aerial vehicles such as the MQ-9 Reaper, quality of life enhancements for airmen, and better air-to-ground connectivity, Wynne says.
That is by no means all, says the former Secretary.
"I can tell you that we fought hard for an increase in bomber money" and Congress responded by boosting the service’s accounts, he explains, referring to the new long-range strike platform that the service wants to field in 2018. "We’re back on a good track on that, to make sure we can foster competition down the road."
In another major irritant to Gates, lawmakers even considered amending implementation of DOD’s so-called joint basing initiative during deliberations on the 2008 war supplemental. The change would have made moving forward contingent on the service Secretaries certifying that the new base set-ups would save DOD money and have no impact on morale. Although ultimately not adopted, the proposed measure showed that lawmakers were hearing the Air Force’s concerns.
Moreover, says Wynne, the Air Force "may still win the F-22 argument" on Capitol Hill.
The Office of the Secretary of Defense did not add money in Fiscal 2009 to fund the procurement of the materials and long-lead-time components necessary to pay for an additional lot of F-22 stealth fighters. It chose to leave the F-22 at the current 183-aircraft program of record.
However, Congress has thus far added money that could be applied to cover those advanced procurement activities and, as a result, keep the F-22 production line flowing smoothly into the next Administration, something that Wynne wants to see happen.
Wynne says successes on Capitol Hill such as these are likely to have contributed to the downfall of Moseley and himself at the hands of Gates. As Wynne puts it: "I always felt like one of the reasons we became a highly sensitive subject is we were winning in Congress."
Gates announced the firings on June 5. Wynne officially exited on June 20. Moseley’s retirement took effect on Aug. 1. Gen. Norton A. Schwartz became Chief of Staff on Aug. 12. Wynne’s putative successor, Michael B. Donley, has gone through hearings on his nomination but was not confirmed before Congress went on summer recess in early August.
Wynne and Moseley ostensibly were sacked for failure to address systemic shortcomings in the service’s stewardship of nuclear weapons. This charge was leveled after the occurrence of two incidents, one involving the unauthorized transfer of cruise missile nuclear warheads across the Midwest and one dealing with the mistaken shipment of ICBM components to Taiwan.
Gates said he acted after receiving a deep investigative report from Adm. Kirkland H. Donald—the Navy’s top nuclear weapons and propulsion officer—on the Taiwan incident. Gates cited the classified report’s purported harsh findings. (Other than a timeline, Gates has failed to release a sanitized version to the public.) Wynne, however, says he believes that there was much more to his dismissal.
"I believe that I had a very big difference of philosophy with my boss, and that he chose this moment to relieve me."
Wynne says he doesn’t know why Gates chose to push out Moseley as well, other than the general was locked in a true partnership with Wynne, and Gates may well have wanted to make a clean break with the past.
Wynne points out that he and Gates differed over issues ranging from how many F-22s to acquire to the wisdom of the joint basing initiative that came out of the recent Base Realignment and Closure process.
F-22 force structure emerged as one of the most contentious topics between the Air Force and OSD during Wynne’s tenure. OSD’s leadership has argued that the F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter will have essentially the same capability as the F-22, and so more Raptors aren’t needed. Wynne vehemently contests the claim.
He argues that it is too early to halt F-22 production and rely on the F-35 as the sole fifth-generation fighter in production, mainly because "I’m afraid the F-35 will fail a test," he says. Instead, Wynne said, he favors keeping F-22 production going until the middle of next decade, and then conducting a flyoff between the F-22 and the F-35 around 2014. With such a contest, the world could see, once and for all, how well the F-35 compares to the F-22. Thereafter, a fact-based decision can be made whether to keep building F-22s or not, he says. "The nation can afford F-22s," he says.
The F-22 is really symbolic of the broader issue that drove apart Gates and Wynne: whether the US should focus most of its energies and effort on today’s fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan even at the expense of tomorrow’s combat prowess.
An F-22 hurtles through the sky at an air show. Struggles over the F-22 and other programs contributed to the downfall of Wynne and Moseley.
Wynne maintains that the nation "should sustain its air dominance into the future and should not erode a strategic margin." Allowing the nation’s edge to go dull could place the United States in the undesirable position of having to fight wars not of its choice, he says.
Pentagon officials, with Gates cheering them on, were pressing the Air Force to commit more of its investment effort and resources to the current wars, especially in the realm of overhead intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance capability, where Gates allegedly believes that the Air Force wasn’t doing enough.
"There were a lot of people who thought that the Air Force was simply distracted by the look to the future," Wynne says. Gates, in fact, coined the phrase "next-war-itis" to disparagingly refer to an obsession with the future at the cost of the present.
Wynne, for his part, says the Air Force was doing all it could to support the current fight, including surging UAVs to the combat theater and training new unmanned aircraft operators as quickly as possible, In fact, he says, his concern was and remains that OSD may be leaning too heavily toward the current fight at the expense of tomorrow.
That, he says, is "where we parted in strategic philosophy." He noted, "I worry that that, if taken to the limit, would result in America losing its strategic margin relative to the bad guys," a condition that could eventually cascade into military weakness that could threaten the nation’s survival, Wynne says.
Looking ahead, Wynne thinks the service’s new leaders—Schwartz and Donley—need to continue pressing for an additional $20 billion on average annually for recapitalization and modernization, push for more F-22s, resist the joint basing plan, advocate USAF leadership in the cyber realm, and continue research in alternative fuels and sources of energy.
The leadership, Wynne said, should also voice how imperative it is to maintain a "strategic margin" over potential adversaries and ensure that the nation is capable of fighting wars of its choice.
In the case of joint basing, Wynne says he favored agreements at the local levels with the base tenants rather than outright transfers of total obligation authority for Air Force assets such as Hickam AFB, Hawaii, and Andersen AFB, Guam, to the Navy, as is planned.
"The Air Force has a very different concept of operations," he says. Placing Air Force bases under another service’s control could impact airmen’s ability to execute the mission at those installations, he says. "I’d probably get fired again over my objection to the way the joint basing is happening."
Improvements to USAF’s nuclear stewardship—which the Air Force has acknowledged are in need—will require the military and government as a whole to pay more attention to the issue. Wynne emphatically includes the Department of Energy in that "on-the-hook" list. As far as the Air Force’s stewardship is concerned, Wynne says, the key is to "take every opportunity" to train as you fight. "That’s the best way" to improve.
Wynne argues that the Air Force’s future hinges on the quality of its airmen, and the service, accordingly, needs to keep promoting its airmen and enriching their educations.
It is an irony, says Wynne, that the departure of Moseley and himself produced an unintended benefit. Possibly to soothe Air Force anger and uncertainty, Gates quickly halted a planned drawdown of active duty end strength to 316,000, choosing to let it settle in at around 330,000—close to what it is today. That was a goal of Wynne’s, so in essence, the Air Force won that battle, too.
As Wynne sees it, the nation’s airmen will continue to function as the nation’s "strategic shield" and its swift sword, holding targets at risk around the world. The nation has come to expect nothing less. "They better be ready to execute on that," Wynne notes.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag