Air Force leadership works to regain trust

The new Chief of Staff must overcome a recent pattern of service mismanagement.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP
Looking for trust: Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz listens to a question at a Pentagon news conference Tuesday. His appointment follows a series of Air Force blunders and firings.

The Air Force is beginning a new chapter in an attempt to put its many troubles behind and to fundamentally change its culture regarding everything from nuclear safety to buying new aircraft.

As that process begins in earnest, the new Air Force leadership says it will demand a new level of accountability from officers involved in its recent problems.

In the coming weeks, senior leaders will complete a review that may result in the dismissal or punishment of officials involved in nuclear blunders that resulted in the unprecedented firings of the air service's top two officials earlier this summer. And it remains unclear if the jobs of senior officials within the service's acquisition departments will be safe after Defense Secretary Robert Gates took over the service's controversial bid to replace its fleet of aerial refuelers.

But as those past failures reverberate, the Air Force must be reinstilled with the ethos of "precision and reliability," says the man who will lead the service into this new phase.

"We will work together to reinvigorate the Air Force's institutions and show ourselves completely worthy of America's trust," said Gen. Norton Schwartz, the new Air Force Chief of Staff, during a brief Pentagon appearance Tuesday. "The imperative is now."

General Schwartz, accompanied by Michael Donley, the acting Secretary of the Air Force, must restore the service's credibility within the halls of the Pentagon, across the Air Force, and the American public, say experts in and outside the Defense Department.

Schwartz and Mr. Donley replaced Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley, who were abruptly fired by Secretary Gates in June, ostensibly over the failures of the service to properly safeguard nuclear weapons.

Unlike his predecessor, who was not known for a high profile within the service, Schwartz, said by one Air Force official to be a "practiced extrovert," plans to spend a lot of time visiting bases and talking with airmen.

"The airmen want to see, need to see and want to hear from the Chief of Staff," says one senior officer.

Donley, who has not been confirmed by the US Senate, will likely remain in an acting status until a new administration names a new secretary next year.

Schwartz, who was preparing to retire, has been hailed as an apt pick to get the Air Force back on track. One blogger, posting after Schwartz's nomination was announced last month, declared: "Our long national Air Force nightmare is over: Gates picks General Norty Schwartz as USAF Chief of Staff."

Schwartz may well guide the service in a new direction.

In picking him, Gates broke tradition in choosing an officer who is not from the so-called fighter mafia that has long defined Air Force culture.

Schwartz's background is in special operations and air mobility, another core function. That role has come into play recently as the Air Force has been flying relief supplies into Georgia to help its civilians while its army fights a full-scale war with Russia in the country's South Ossetia region.

Schwartz's background can help him soften the rhetoric used by his predecessors that had rankled politicians and Pentagon officials alike.

Many critics of the Air Force, both in and outside the service, believed it had become too focused on buying expensive, conventional air platforms such as the $143 million F-22 Raptor while it dismissed current requirements in unconventional battlefields such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

In confirmation testimony on Capitol Hill last month, for example, Schwartz signaled that he is willing to take another look at how many F-22s the service should buy.

John Jumper, who retired as Air Force Chief of Staff in 2005, says there may be disagreements about how to proceed with issues such as the F-22. But in the end, the Air Force must stay engaged in a positive way with the Pentagon leadership to ensure it is serving the nation and the defense leadership well.

"I think the Air Force has to get on with business and do it in the way that we've done in the past," he says. "I didn't always get along well with [former Defense Secretary] Don Rumsfeld, but I always communicated with him."

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