Gen. Norton Schwartz, left, and Gen. Mark Welsh, III. Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric Dietrich/USN; Melanie Rodgers Cox/USAF
Photo Caption & Credits

Chiefly Speaking 

Aug. 29, 2022

Chiefs of their times; You get four years to make change. It’s not enough.  

Over the course of its 75-year history, 22 generals have served as Air Force Chief of Staff. Each Chief inherits the unfinished business of his forebears, and each shapes the future for those who follow. No officers do more to shape the force than these select few.  

In recognition of the Air Force’s 75th anniversary this month, we set out to interview as many of the living former Chiefs of Staff as possible, ultimately interviewing seven. This month we share the two most recent former Chiefs: No. 19 Gen. Norton A. Schwartz (2008-2012) and No. 20 Gen. Mark A.Welsh (2012-2016). Part 1 of this series appeared in the August 2022 issue, featuring Chiefs No. 14 Gen. Merrill A. McPeak (1990-1994); No. 15 Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman (1994-1997); No. 17 Gen. John P. Jumper (2001-2005); and No. 18 Gen. T. Michael Moseley (2005-2008). 

Part 2 of a 3-Part Series

All 22 Chiefs have certain common traits: All were pilots, who excelled both in the cockpit and in command, all were warriors, men, and every one of them was lucky. Talent is only one factor of many that puts you in the running for the Chief’s job. Timing, health, politics, friendships, and luck are also critical factors.  

One other factor is common for all. Whether a new Chief arrives with a long-formed to-do list or finds himself, with little warning, heading a $160-billion-plus operation with more than 800,000 military, civilian, and contractor staff, outside forces will have as much say in shaping his tenure as his own wants and desires. World events, miscues, accidents, acts of Congress, and acts of God all have a hand in shaping the history of their times. As every Chief is both the beneficiary and victim of these external factors and of the choices made by those before him, it is ultimately his choices—exactly how he plays the cards that he is dealt—that shapes his legacy as Chief and, more importantly, the future of the Air Force.

Gen. Norton Schwartz, CSAF No. 19 (2008-2012)  

The Accidental Chief

Gen. Norton Schwartz spent much of his career in the joint, special operations world, making him at times an outsider in his own Air Force. He met with Airmen from the 212th Rescue Squadron in Alaska during a tour of the JBER installation. Staff Sgt. Sheila deVera

One thing was sure about Gen. Norton A. “Norty” Schwartz: He was never going to be Chief of Staff. Softspoken and a self-confessed introvert, he had spent barely three of the prior 11 years in Air Force jobs in the summer of 2008. Air Force Chiefs are typically fighter pilots, but Schwartz had flown C-130 transports and spent much of his career in the special operations world. When, in the spring of 2008, Schwartz’s relief as commander at U.S. Transportation Command was named, Schwartz already filed the paperwork to retire.  

Then lightning struck.  

Thursday, June 5, 2008. All the Air Force four-star generals were gathered in Dayton, Ohio, for Corona—one of the few, elite gatherings of the service’s top generals each year. But on this particular morning, something was wrong in this room full of high-priced talent. The two principals, Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley and Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne, were late.  

“We were all there in the room in Dayton, and we are awaiting the Chief’s and the Secretary’s arrival,” Schwartz recalled. “They were late, which was unusual. And everybody’s BlackBerry started buzzing.”  

The first iPhone had hit the market in 2007, but the military was still deeply wedded to the BlackBerry, a dedicated mobile email machine with a built-in physical keyboard, a small screen, and superior security. Incoming messages awakened the BlackBerrys in every general’s pocket to Air Force Times and Defense News reports that Defense Secretary Robert Gates had fired both the military and civilian leaders of the Air Force, an unprecedented beheading of the service’s power structure.  

“Everyone around the table understood that the institution was in jeopardy,” Schwartz said. Everyone also knew that one among them was almost certainly going to be the next Chief. While it was possible to bring someone back out of retirement—Army Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, who retired in 2000, was recalled to Active duty to become Army Chief of Staff in 2004—the sudden and double-barreled firing would increase the pressure to fill the job rapidly. All of the four-stars were potential candidates, and to Schwartz, the likeliest candidate seemed to Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, the former astronaut who now headed U.S. Strategic Command.  

Gates had other ideas. Chilton was another former fighter pilot, and Gates was looking to do more than change drivers. He wanted to send a lasting signal to a service he viewed as out of touch with the bloody mess that Iraq had become. U.S. military deaths in Iraq peaked in 2007 at more than 900, and while the death rate had slowed by mid-2008, at least one American was dying in Iraq each day. Gates believed Moseley and Wynne were too focused on some future conflict with China and not vested enough on the immediate problem at hand.  

He wanted the next Air Force Chief to represent a radical departure from its recent past. And Schwartz was everything the brash and plain-spoken Moseley was not: Quiet, self-effacing, steeped in joint-service thinking after six joint tours—and a transport pilot. If Gates wanted to get the Air Force to change its tune, here was a bandleader who sung a different sort of song.  

Mosely retired in July, and Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Duncan J. McNabb assumed the duties as Acting Chief for a month before Schwartz took his oath of office in July. Now Schwartz had to prove himself to the doubters, especially among his fellow Airmen.   

“In many ways, I was more respected in the United States Army than I was in the Air Force,” Schwartz said. “I had earned my spurs largely in the special ops community. … There were people in the Air Force who were not persuaded, you know, that Schwartz was worthy. Fair enough, but that didn’t matter. There was work to do to preserve the institution of our Air Force,” he said. “And the guidance, you know, from Secretary Gates was really pretty straightforward.”  

Gates’ brittle relationship with Moseley and Wynne was characterized most plainly by his characterization of leaders suffering “Next-War-itis” and obsessed with “exquisite” platforms that applied to enemies he didn’t see on the horizon. But firing a Chief and a Secretary over a disagreement in military advice and priority would have been unseemly. A series of Air Force failures relating to the safe and secure handline of nuclear weapons provided a ready excuse. In August 2007, an Air Force bomber crew flew from Minot Air Force Base, N.D., to Barksdale Air Force Base, La., unaware they were carrying six nuclear warheads.  Seven months later, the Pentagon admitted the Air Force had erroneously shipped a nuclear weapon fuse to Taiwan in 2006, learning about the mistake from Taiwanese authorities. 

Gates said that incident was the final straw. “It was the second incident that prompted me to believe that there were serious, systemic problems here,” he told reporters. 

Schwartz said his marching orders from Gates were clear: “Number one was fix nuke, obviously,” he said. In his first 30 days, Schwartz took action to impose accountability. “We let 13 people go during a three-day period,” he said. “In every case, I met with the individuals personally,” Schwartz said. To him, the major failure was not the fuse shipment, but the Bent Spear incident with the B-52.  

“Losing track of six nukes for 36 hours wasn’t just a mistake,” he said. “It was an egregious level of incompetence.” 

Next on Gates’ list was to move past what he saw as Moseley’s and Wynne’s intransigence regarding funding for the F-22 fighter and support for the Army’s struggles in Iraq. Number two was “Get in the fight.”  

“There was a perception that we were reluctantly participating in the conflicts in the Middle East,” Schwartz said. Gates wanted the Air Force to provide more intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) support to ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, which was crucial to disrupting insurgents’ ability to plant the deadly improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that were killing and maiming so many American soldiers.  

Prior to the Iraqi invasion, Army Chief of Staff Eric K. Shin­seki testified that it would take a force “on the order of several hundred thousand” troops to occupy and pacify Iraq after an invasion. The same week Shinseki testified, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz told Congress Shin­seki’s estimate was “wildly off the mark.” The fact was, the Army lacked the capacity to field such a large invasion force. Even with the contributions of a large allied force it would have been impossible to put that many troops on the ground there for any length of time—especially since the U.S. was simultaneously sustaining a second occupation in Afghanistan. 

Schwartz had been caught up in this debate in 2003 as the J-3 or operations chief on the Joint Staff, because he testified the same week before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Asked how many troops it would take, he fell back on guidance and declined to speculate, despite knowing a range of estimates that had been discussed among the military leadership.  

But what looked like a heady decision at the time would later emerge during Schwartz’ nomination hearing to become Chief as a potential obstacle. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) questioned Schwartz: Had he been “sufficiently forthcoming?” Schwartz ultimately apologized, saying, “I did not answer your questions directly. And, by definition, that is not sufficiently forthcoming.” 

Of course, it was obvious by then that it was Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld whose judgment had been wildly off the mark. “You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you want or wish to have at a later time,” Rumsfeld said in answer to a soldier during an all-hands call in Iraq in 2004. By 2008, the Army was facing a recruiting and retention crisis and the Air Force and Navy had become the billpayers, forced to cut their forces, lend their manpower to drive logistics convoys in Iraq, and enable “blue-to-green” service transfer programs.  

Being the Army’s billpayer galled Moseley, whose blunt objections only increased Gates’ frustrations with Air Force leadership. To Gates, the Air Force was failing to see itself as part of the joint team and hewing instead to an individualist view that the Army was responsible for solving the Army’s problems. 

Schwartz, as his successor, had to answer for it.  

“This was the perception of the Secretary of Defense—think about that,” Schwartz said. “Fair or not, having been in the positions I had been in, watching the Air Force, outside in, I had some reason to understand why there were such perceptions. There was a view that the Air Force was going to play these conflicts according to its own rules, … that we were reluctant participants.”  

Was that fair? “Kids were dying,” Schwartz said. “In the Joint Staff, in combatant commands, certainly on the third floor [where the Defense Secretary’s Pentagon office is, it seemed] that it required far, far too much effort to get the Air Force to deliver capability.”  

If perception is reality, this was the perception of the people “that mattered.” To an incoming Chief, then, it was fact. 

Adm. Mike Mullen (right), then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, conducted an impromptu job interview on the phone two days before Schwartz learned he would be nominated to be the 19th Air force Chief of Staff. The two spoke with Medal of Honor Airmen Col. Leo K. Thorsness in March 2011. Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad McNeeley/USN

One example was medevac helicopters. In 2009, wounded troops were bleeding out after being wounded by IEDs, gunshots, or rocket-propelled grenades. To stanch the deaths, Gates mandated a “Golden Hour Protocol,” cutting in half the objective time required to provide assistance to troops with life-threatening injuries.  

“My question was, ‘Where are our rescue assets?” Schwartz recalls asking Airmen on his staff. The Airmen answered that this was an Army casualty evacuation mission, not for Air Force search-and-rescue operators.   

“That’s nonsense,” Schwartz recalls saying. “Kids are dying. Americans need evacuation. Our helicopters, our rescue people are qualified—better qualified than [Army] cas-evac, and we’re going to do that.”  

Then Schwartz went further because his best search-and-rescue operators were trainers, and he wanted them in the fight. “Against some headwinds, we decided to temporarily close the H-60 schoolhouse at Nellis [Air Force Base, Nev.,] and the very best of our H-60 weapons cadre were going to go to Afghanistan to support the Golden Hour. There was a little bit of a disturbance in the force field when we made that decision.” 

In retrospect, that disturbance was worth it, Schwartz said. “As it turned out, after their return, they were far better instructors in the Weapons School than they were before they departed.”  

That shouldn’t be surprising, he said, nor should it have been a challenge to deploy those talented Airmen. “That it required a Chief of Staff intervention to make that happen,” Schwartz said, “is so unfortunate.”   


Every Chief has his watchwords, or themes, and Schwartz was no different. For Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., Chief No. 22,  it’s “Accelerate Change … or Lose.” For Schwartz it was “All In.”  

Determined to be a team player in the joint world, even if doing so made him unpopular in some Air Force circles, those two words embodied his and Gates’ objective.  

As Chief, Moseley had objected to using Airmen to drive convoy duty. Where previously, “the Air Force wouldn’t support resupply of ground forces because that was Army business,” Schwartz said, under his leadership, “well, we played our part.”  

Gradually, the Air Force began to “change that negative perception.” 

Within Air Force circles, however, Schwartz was criticized for being Gates’ henchman, carrying out his bidding. The military services have a way of attacking their own leadership when it changes direction, a reaction some liken to the antibodies in the human bloodstream that fight infections. In Scwhartz’ time as Chief, the antibodies attacked him. Today, they are on public display attacking Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David H. Berger, whose efforts to radically redesign the Marine Corps—to retire its tanks, reduce its helicopters, and reshape its infantry to be more relevant in today’s Pacific theater—have met with stiff resistance from earlier generations of Marine leaders.  

In April, two years after Berger released his Force Design 2030 plan to makeover the Corps, two dozen retired generals pushed back, an unprecedented rebellion of former Marine leaders that reportedly included every living former commandant. 

Schwartz was spared such extreme treatment, but was still viewed as too willing to compromise the Air Force to make peace with the Secretary, especially when it came to the F-22 Raptor, the air superiority fighter the Air Force needed to replace its F-15C/Ds. Schwartz, however, said it was the Air Force, not DOD leadership, that failed to prove its case.   

“In my mind, the Air Force did not justify the F-22 sufficiently,” he recalled. “It’s important to understand that Gates was writing letters to the families of the fallen every day. So the ‘Next-War-itis’ [comment] was not so much ideological, as it was this visceral reality, that we had a lot at stake right then. And you know, had the Air Force played it a little differently, in my view, and been a little more loyal … it might have turned out differently.” 

Loyalty gets complex at the highest levels of military service. A leader’s loyalty is to the Constitution and the United States, not to an individual office holder. But military leaders must also navigate the reality that their job is to execute the strategy and directions of civilian leaders. When Schwartz was the J-3 and had dodged the question about how many troops would be needed to keep the peace in a post-invasion Iraq, his choice to not be fully forthcoming had placed loyalty to the administration—over his own obligation to answer questions openly and honestly. As Chief, he would have to wrestle with similar issues more than once.   

When the Pentagon sought to shut down the F-22, Air Force leaders sought to take their case directly to Congress, a violation of protocol since the military works for the executive branch. Schwartz said Gates took that personally. In Gates’ autobiography, “Duty: Memoirs of A Secretary at War,” however, he glosses over his responsibility for killing the F-22. “Over 25 years, the F-22 suffered almost as many cuts from as many hands as Julius Caesar,” Gates wrote.  

Yet it was Gates who dealt the fatal blow, ending the program at 187 aircraft.  

Schwartz and Michael B. Donley, who succeeded Wynne as Secretary, tried to find a middle ground. They advanced a plan that would have kept the production line running until the Air Force had 243 F-22s.  

“We did a very good piece of analysis that suggested that the right number was 243,” Schwartz said. “And we went to Secretary Gates and his folks and made the argument that if he was going to terminate the program, he should terminate it at 243. … It may be wishful thinking or it may be Pollyanna,  but my view is that had the Air Force enjoyed a slightly better reputation on the third floor at the time, 243 would have survived.” 

Gates ended production at 187, however, and by the Spring of 2009, Schwartz and Donley were ready to move on. In an Op-Ed in the Washington Post in April 2009, as the fiscal 2010 budget was being rolled out, they unfurled the white flag, concluding that the $13 billion bill to keep building more F-22s could not be justified “as defense budgets are becoming constrained.”   

“Airman is a colloquialism for the Air Force  family.  It reflects the diversity of this family—military members, family members, civilian employees of the institution.  … I married up in life. There are very few ways in which I am [Suzy Schwartz’] equal. … Once she decided to devote herself to Air Force families she was all in, whether it was exceptional family members or air conditioners at Hurlburt—and who would have known that they were underpowered except for Suzy, wandering by and introducing herself, and asking questions? That’s the kind of detective she was.”

Schwartz felt there was no alternative at that point. “F-22 had consumed enough oxygen,” Schwartz said. “The question that every leadership team has to wrestle with is, ‘What are the existential issues for the United States Air Force?’ And our judgment was that, in the long view, the bomber successor was more important.” 

Giving up on the F-22 was crucial to ensure Gates did not “double down on the F-22 decision” and also cut off funding for the future bomber. Today, as the B-21 nears first flight sometime in 2023, Schwartz believes his and Donley’s decision was the right one. Better to develop the bomber than to have won the battle for more F-22s at the cost, potentially, of a bomber replacement program.   

The RPA Revolution  

Another one of Gates’ frustrations with the Air Force had been over remotely piloted aircraft. Gates wanted more MQ-1 Predators in the fight.  

“When I got back to Washington, we had eight 24/7 orbits of MQ-1,” Schwartz said, referring to the Air Force’s ability to maintain continuous overhead presence with Predator unmanned systems. “That was clearly insufficient, and there was frustration that the Air Force wasn’t more aggressive in fielding additional capability. … When we left, there were 58 orbits of MQ-1 and MQ-9 capability, and some other stuff, and in addition to that, the utility of remote aviation became embedded in the culture.” 

Schwartz said institutionalizing RPAs meant ensuring that remote-control pilots earned wings so they could not be seen as “lesser beings” when lined up against other rated officers.  

“That was another disturbance in the force field,” recalled Schwartz. “The reality was, I could not persuade the skeptics because of my pedigree.” Instead, it was his three-star head of operations, plans, and requirements who helped make that happen. “It took Phil Breedlove, who had the correct pedigree, to basically tell the skeptics to pack sand.”  

Today, Schwartz said, it is hard to imagine that the next airlifter won’t be optionally manned. “The cargo business is going to go remote,”he added. Passengers will take longer, but cargo is going that way, as is at least some portion of attack aviation, he said. “It is clearly the right path to be on to have a mix that is less costly and where you can afford some attrition.”  

Schwartz and Donley also sought to change Air Force leadership in terms of the diversity of backgrounds of Air Force leaders. The choices a Chief makes about general officer assignments and three- and four-star appointments may be their most enduring legacy. Who is chosen—and who is not—leaves a lasting mark.  

“Mike Donley’s and my effort to diversify the leadership, both in terms of expertise, of ethnic background, in terms of gender—that was an important undertaking,” Schwartz said. “And it wasn’t done for political reasons. This was the right goddamned thing to do.” Quoting CSAF No. 12, he added, “Larry Welch told me when I first got in the chair that if you don’t spend 25 percent of your time on flag officer management, you’re not doing your job,” Schwartz recalled. “Well I don’t know that I spent 25 percent, but I did spend considerable time on that. The country needs good people to do this stuff, people who are competent, who can withstand the pressure, who model the right behaviors. You try to put people on a trajectory where, if lightning strikes, they’ll be there and they will be prepared.”                                                                                                                     

Gen. Mark A. Welsh, CSAF No. 20 (2012-2016) 

Surviving the Budget Control Act Debacle 

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III found inspiration in his Airmen. “You don’t get more innovative just because you get older and get smarter,” he said. “You get more innovative, because you listen to more people.” Sharing a bite, as with Airmen at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in 2013, was one way to listen. Scott Ash/USAF

Gen. Mark A. Welsh never dreamed of becoming Chief of Staff, never saw himself as a visionary. “I’m not really good at looking deep into the future with a clearer understanding of what we should be and how to get from A to B,” he says, underselling his intellect. “I can figure out what is important for us to be. And I’m pretty good at moving people toward that.” But a visionary? That’s someone else. “I would characterize myself more as a realist, more of a rubber meets the road guy than a deep thinker.”  

The rubber hit the road in August 2012. The Budget Control Act of 2011 was now in full force, and its unintended consequences were becoming clear. The measure was the result of a compromise: Republicans agreed to raise the debt ceiling so long as Democrats agreed to cut spending. But the measure was intended to drive further compromise. The BCA imposed annual statutory limits on both defense and nondefense discretionary spending; it established a committee to work on a future deficit reduction agreement; and it imposed annual, automatic spending cuts if no deficit reduction agreement was reached.  

The threat of automatic cuts had been seen in 2011 as so onerous that no one would ever let things get that far. But by 2012, it was becoming clear that a deal was not in the offing. Automatic cuts were about to wreak havoc on Air Force spending.  

Welsh became Chief with seven weeks to go in fiscal 2012, a year in which the Air Force budget had declined by $4 billion to $162.8 billion. For the next fiscal year, spending would plunge more than 11 percent to $144.3 billion, its lowest total since 2007. Actually, it was even worse. More than 20 percent of that total passed directly through the Air Force to fund other agencies.  

“We were cutting $20 billion a year out of our budget—or trying to figure out how to do that and get it through Congress—and the Air National Guard had just very publicly started a public argument with the United States Air Force about lack of support for the Guard,” Welsh said.  

The Air Force kept running into walls in Congress. Finding cuts was hard enough internally. Finding cuts that could be sold to Congress was harder still. Welsh didn’t want to sacrifice modernization. That had to be a priority. He needed big chunks of money.  

In 2013, Air Combat Command proposed paying a chunk of the bill by retiring National Guard A-10 Warthogs. Getting rid of all those A-10s could save $4 billion in a hurry. But the Warthog was beloved by Soldiers and Marines, who found joy and triumph in the BRRRRTBRRRRT of its nose-mounted cannon, and it was a favorite of the lawmakers whose districts were home to the Guard’s A-10s, including Arizona’s influential Sen. John McCain.  

Welsh understood the reasoning. Only about 20 percent of the Air Force’s close air support (CAS) missions in Iraq and Afghanistan were being flown by A-10s, and as useful as its 30 mm gun can be,  “its only got about 15 seconds of trigger pull with the gun,” Welsh said. “After that, they’re dropping the same precision guided bombs in the same place everybody else is dropping them.”  

The A-10s could carry more weapons than the F-16, but there were fewer of them, and they couldn’t get places quite as fast. “So really, if you’re in a firefight at night somewhere, do you want a B-1 with 36 precision guided munitions or do you want an A-10 with a GAU? They’re all great at what they do, but the A-10 does only one thing.” The other planes were more versatile.  

“All the modeling and simulation that we’d done showed that this would be the least impact of any airplane fleet that you could divest, and it was the only way to divest an entire fleet—back shops, the engines, the whole supply chain—which is where you get the big savings,” Welsh said. “There was logic to it. It’s just that it wasn’t going to happen.”  

Welsh found himself getting beaten up for a plan that he’d never supported, but it didn’t matter. Once a decision was made it was his job to make the case. And the alternative that resulted was hardly his idea either.  

Welsh felt beaten and battered in congressional testimony, particularly over Air Force plans to retire the A-10. He testified in 2014 with then Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, one of three secretaries during his four-year term as Chief. Scott Ash/USAF

“Senator McCain really got irate about this,” Welsh added. What ended up happening instead is we got told to keep the A-10 and keep beddng down the F 35, but we were still cutting people.” That created a crush. “We needed the people in the A-10 squadrons to transition to F-35 squadrons, but when that didn’t happen, we had to cut manning in every squadron in the Air Force to 80 percent, just to have enough manpower to stand up the new F-35 units.”  

It didn’t matter. Congress wasn’t buying it. The Air Force appeared tone-deaf to a nation focused on the plight of Soldiers and Marines slugging it out in a ground fight.  

In the Spring of 2013, as Welsh was visiting Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, ahead of a budget hearing the next day, one of the senator’s aides interrupted to share a news alert on his phone. Levin tried to wave him off, but the aide persisted, handing him the phone. Levin looked down at the device through his reading glasses, then peered over the rims at the general before him.  

“You should read this,” he said. Welsh learned that a lieutenant colonel, the chief of the Air Force’s  sexual assault prevention and response branch, had been arrested the night before in Arlington, Va. The charge was sexual assault.   

“So Senator Levin looks up over those glasses, and says, ‘Enjoy your hearing tomorrow.’ Ha—not a good day for us,” Welsh noted.  

He can laugh about it now. At the time, it was just another painful smack, one in a series of embarrassments that kept the Air Force institutionally on the defensive.  The officer was later acquitted, but the incident and others made it seem the Air Force had a bigger problem with sexual assault than the rest of the military or society in general. That wasn’t a true representation of the facts, Welsh explained. But what that kind of publicity did was deflating.  

“The impact those things were having on Airmen in general was significant.” Welsh said. “All they heard was bad news about the Air Force. They were frustrated by budget cuts and sequestration from the Budget Control Act, training dollars were going down, they were deploying constantly. They were frustrated. And my biggest concern as Chief was that we can lose everything else, but if we lose Airmen, there’s no Air Force.” 

Welsh saw his job then as rallying the force, reminding Airmen “of who they are, and what they do, and how well they do it, and why they do it—why it matters,” Welsh went on. “I spent a lot of time on the road talking to Airmen, all over the world, just trying to let them know that we did care, that people were paying attention, that we wanted to make them better at their mission, and that we weren’t going to let everything disintegrate and leave them hanging.” 

Every Chief’s career path is different. In Welsh’s case, he’d had very little time on the Air Staff where he would have had more exposure to the politics and knife fighting of the budget process. “I’d never been close to that interaction and activity, and that was a shortfall of mine,” he said. “You know, if I’d been the Vice Chief of Staff before, it would have been a much easier transition.”  

(It is not surprising then to recall that Welsh’s successor, Gen. David L. Goldfein, suffered no such challenge; he fleeted up from the Vice Chief’s job in 2016, with the benefit of a month of prep-time in which he was cut loose to focus on his new role, rather than the duties of the Vice.) 

It dawned on Welsh too late that the real fight needed to be about his Airmen. It wasn’t just that they needed to be reassured. It was that he needed more of them. And while he and Secretary Deborah Lee James were ultimately able to draw that red line, it was late in his tenure. If there’s one thing he would do differently, he said, it would be to fight for people sooner.  

“There is this assumption that there’s all kinds of efficiencies” to be had in any budget, that there is always fat to be cut, Welsh said. “Well, not really. There isn’t nearly as much as you think. When you go to look at where you can take big chunks of money out of the Air Force budget, its infrastructure, it’s modernization, or its people. The biggest chunk of money is people. So it’s the easiest way to save. But every time you give up an Airman you give up mission capability in some way, shape, or form.” 

To try to identify what could be sacrificed from the budget and what could not, Welsh knew he needed the buy-in from his four-star major command generals, the Air Staff, and the combatant commanders. “You’ve got to have those conversations across the senior leadership of the Air Force,” he said. “It can’t just be the Air Staff having this debate.”  

One of the things Welsh is most proud of is how he attacked this problem by building a visual model of the budget, “a wall of money,” he said. Then he “brought all the four-stars in to do our first programming meetings off of that visual.”  

On the wall were color-coded magnetic strips. “Just one-inch-wide magnetic strips, every inch was a million dollars,” Welsh said. They spent two days staring at that wall, “one of the things I learned the most from as the Chief of Staff.”  

The color-coded magnets created a visual understanding of the challenges—the colors of money, the programs, the available resources.“It goes floor to ceiling and across the whole wall,” Welsh said. Everything included in the budget was above a line in the middle. Everything desired but not yet in the budget was below. In order to move something from below the line to the top, something else had to be subtracted.  

This made clear the choices the Air Force faced, choices that were not about what programs were needed or desirable, but about which ones the Air Force needed most. The trade-offs could thus be made across major commands, not just in the usual stovepipes.  

“We all sat there for two days and talked about it,” Welsh recalled. “And John Hyten who was Air Force Space Command at the time, said, ‘Just go to my column and take those two off.’ And it was like a hush in the room. I mean, he actually gave something up. And that broke the dam.”  

Once Hyten got things started, others followed. Hyten, Welsh noted, was nobody’s fool, because that bought him good will from others as the horse trading continued. But his initiative, his willingness to take a chance by offering something up in the open was crucial to progressing through the job at hand.  

“The big point was, this is our budget, all of us,” Welsh said. “And to optimize it, if we want to put something on the board, something’s got to come off. And if it’s not going to be one of your own things, you’ve got to justify why they are all more important than everybody else’s stuff. That was the discussion we had and it was a really honest discussion. We did it for every year I was there.” 

Like other Chiefs, Welsh found it took too long to learn the job well, that progress came too slowly, and that time went too fast. Four years sounds like a long time, but it isn’t long enough to institutionalize change in an organization so large.  

Airmen, whether they’re uniformed, or their civilians are members of the profession of arms, committed to the delivery of air power on behalf of the nation. … They’re phenomenal. They really are, each in their own way. They’re all different. There’s different styles, different personalities, different approaches, different skill sets, different shortfalls, man, all this have those. But when you measure it all up, and you kind of rack and stack people, they’re awesome.”

“I do think four years as Chief of Staff is not enough,” Welsh said. Should it be five? Eight? Welsh thought for a moment, then answered decisively: “Six.” The extra time could be subject to re-confirmation by Congress, perhaps, or a renomination by the administration. But more time makes more sense, he said, even if the job itself is exhausting. “Physically, four years is enough,” Welsh said. “I was, I was pretty much dying after four years. But the reason I think it is enough is you don’t really get a chance to implement things that stay implemented. … You work so hard to put some things in place that you think are really meaningful for the Air Force” and they whither when the next Chief focuses someplace else. “They don’t intentionally get rid of the other stuff, maybe they just quit focusing on it—and then there is a certain stasis on the Air Staff, which everybody will go back to.” 

Some call it the frozen middle. Welsh cites “the iron majors and lieutenant colonels and civilians—GS 13s and 14s—who are so incredibly capable and dedicated” to the rules and regulations, the systems and processes. “They understand it, they know how to make it work. And so they’re almost too loyal to it.”  

When the change agents depart, the system reverts to its prior function. “It’s very easy just to go back to the process you know and love,” Welsh said. Two more years as Chief might help prevent that.  

In the Tank, where the Joint Chiefs of Staff hash out matters of policy and strategy, Welsh said his interservice partners were honest and direct with each other and generally cooperative and reasonable. He always felt he was heard, even if he didn’t get his way, including during visits to the White House, where he recalls President Barack Obama giving each of the Chiefs or participants around the table a chance to express their views.  

Yet in the wider national discussion, the value of Air and Space Power seems little understood, either taken for granted or not recognized for its true and full value.  

“The reality is that air power is the most valuable integrating and attacking force on the battlefield. It just is, there’s no argument against that,” Welsh said. “You don’t get to the fight without air power. You don’t get the ISR you need to prepare for the fight without air power and space power. They work together, even if they’re different forces now, they still work together. And when required, air power can be the decisive force on the battlefield.”  

Of course, he adds, there are things air power cannot do, like occupy some piece of territory, or set up and support a mayor in a small village. But these capabilities are not mutually exclusive.  

“The idea that nobody’s been attacked from the air since the Korean War …. that’s an astonishing fact,” Welsh said. “It’s because air power and air supremacy provides freedom to attack and freedom to maneuver. It gives you the ability to be the greatest Army, the greatest Marine Corps on the planet.” Without it, those other advantages erode quickly. Investing in air power is therefore an investment in the Total Force. “If you are fighting against the U.S. Air Force, supported by Naval aviation and Marine Corps aviation, you’d have a problem,” Welsh said, because “it is and can be a dominant force.”  

The question the nation must answer is whether that is something it still values. “Can we provide air superiority everywhere these days with the amount of force structure we have? Of course not,” Welsh considered. “But where we choose to have it, we can have it.”