Behind Gates' Decision to Fire Up the Air Force

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

Last week, when Defense Secretary Robert Gates requested and received the resignations of Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley, Gates’ office cited as a reason a Pentagon investigation of lax standards in Air Force oversight of nuclear weapons. One incident involved a USAF bomber with cruise missiles over-flying a wide swath of the United States — and the crew didn’t know the weapons had real nuclear warheads.

That sounds bad, and bad it is.

Resignation at Wynne and Moseley’s level of national service, especially under these conditions, is a euphemism for “fired.”

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

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

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

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

But the loose nukes first. Though the Cold War’s threat of nuclear immolation has receded (thank goodness) and the nuclear mission has declined in importance, nuclear weapons still serve as a deterrent. Russia and China have nukes; Iran is getting them. We hope North Korea’s murderous dictatorship knows its use of a nuke on South Korea or Japan (the likely targets) would lead to its destruction — and a U.S. strike on the deep caves protecting Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear facilities might well include nuclear weapons.

Rules governing the storage, preparation and use of nuclear weapons, for obvious reasons, remain strict. The USAF’s old Strategic Air Command (SAC) — the Cold War’s long-range bomber and missile organization — prided itself on rigorous enforcement of “nuclear weapons surety” requirements, as well as tough institutional investigation and correction of mishaps. SAC’s successor, Strategic Command, has the same rules, but Gates’ relief of Wynne and Moseley is a message that says the entire Air Force, from newly enlisted airmen to service secretary, will make certain they are enforced. The checklists will be checked 10 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 and Marines) short shrift — and in the Global War on Terror, airlift is critical. The USAF budgets billions for the advanced F-22 fighter, despite complaints within 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 handle traditional bomb and close air support (CAS, supporting ground forces) missions. The Air Force wants UAV operators to be pilots. The Army has found young soldiers familiar with video games can fly UAVs.

The UAVs are a sensor and weapons system that conflicts with current organizational structures. They fly but don’t need highly trained pilots onboard. Strategic recon UAVs clearly fit into traditional USAF-type missions, but putting missile and bomb-armed UAVs under the command of Army and Marine division and brigade commanders puts a powerful, available and relatively cheap weapon in the hands of the immediate users. Instead of fighting over traditional turf, 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.