n its 75-year history, 22 Airmen have led the Air Force as Chief of Staff. Each came to the post shaped by the experiences—and sometimes scar tissue—developed over three decades of service. Each inherited an Air Force formed by the decisions of those who came before, who bequeathed to posterity the results of decisions and compromises made over the course of their time in office. Each left his own unique stamp on the institution.
Part 1 of a 2-Part Series
As part of Air Force Magazine’s commemoration of the Air Force’s 75th anniversary, Sept. 18, 2022, we set out to interview all of the living former Chiefs of Staff, ultimately interviewing seven of the eight former Chiefs from 1990 to the present. In this first in a two-part series, we share the stories of four of those 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).
This period begins the pinnacle of American air power, the planning and execution of 1991’s Operation Desert Storm, in which the fruits of a decade of modernization were put on display to devastating effect: This was the first time the world saw how stealth could evade enemy air defenses and how the dream of precision bombing that motivated the Bomber Mafia in the interwar period leading up to World War II was actualized five decades hence. Yet the years since did not result in the “revolution in military affairs” many envisioned in the wake of Desert Storm. Instead, a confluence of budgetary, military, and of course political decisions led to an Air Force that grew ever older, smaller, and less ready than when this period began.
From Gen. Carl Spaatz (CSAF No. 1, 1947-48), who was an Army Airman for all but two years of his 34-year military career and guided the Air Force through its first post-war drawdown, to Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. (CSAF No. 22, 2020-present) today, all the Chiefs have shared common traits: Every one of them was a pilot who excelled both in the cockpit and in command. Each was also a warrior. Each was a man. And every one of them was lucky. The Air Force is a meritocracy, not a machine. Talent is only one of the factors that goes into the selection process. Timing, health, politics, friendships, and luck are all critical factors.
No matter what heady plans one might bring to the office, it is the reality of the tasks and choices that land on his desk that truly defines a Chief’s tenure. Whether world events, the miscues of Airmen, or choices made by the Chief himself, these events determine where his attention must be focused and what he can accomplish on his watch. No Chief ever completes his own to-do list.
Every Chief is both the beneficiary and victim of the choices made by those before him. Combined with the external factors affecting him, these shape the hand each Chief is dealt. How he plays those cards shapes not just his legacy as Chief, but more importantly, the future of the Air Force.
Next month: Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, CSAF No. 19; Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, CSAF No. 20; and Gen. David L. Goldfein, CSAF No. 21.
Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, CSAF No. 14 (1990-’94)
Every Chief is unique, shaped by his time and the world as he rose through the ranks and the events and personalities defining the national security landscape when he takes office. To these circumstances each Chief adds his unique personality, style, and attributes.
When Gen. Merrill “Tony” McPeak arrived as Chief in October 1990, Iraq had only months before invaded and occupied Kuwait. The United States was assembling an enormous coalition against Iraq and the Air Force would soon demonstrate a new era of American air power: Stealth aircraft that could evade enemy detection; precision weapons that could strike with pinpoint accuracy; and dominance like no air force had ever demonstrated before.
Yet McPeak’s job was not to fight that war, but to organize, train, and equip the Air Force for what would follow. By the time he became Chief, the Cold War that had defined his entire adult life was over. Born in 1936 in the midst of the Great Depression, McPeak had reached adulthood in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The Soviet Union was suddenly no longer America’s archrival. In fact, the Soviet Union no longer existed.
“Desert Storm began a couple of months after my swearing in,” McPeak recalled in July. We’re on a video call and he’s in workout gear from his home in Oregon. A photo taken in the Oval Office in December 1990 of the Joint Chiefs meeting with President George H.W. Bush and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney rests on the credenza behind him. McPeak wears a beard, and sounds very much like he did as Chief, still ramrod straight, still intense, still able to laugh at and with himself. “You would think that I spent a lot of time worrying about how to support [Gen.] Chuck Horner out in the sandbox, and I did. But I was also talking to the Secretary [of the Air Force] from Day One about how we were going to reorganize the Air Force. … [Secretary] Don Rice and I had agreed before the end of January ’91 on how we wanted to reconfigure the Air Force.”
The Air Force had 535,233 Airmen on Active duty when McPeak came to Washington. It had 426,327 when he left four years later. The drawdown was a dramatic reworking of a force that had been locked in a strategic competition for more than four decades and was anticipating President Bush’s “New World Order,” a unipolar world in which the U.S. was the sole superpower remaining. McPeak thought the entire military was ready to be reset at a much smaller scale than what the nation had been used to.
“My idea was to simplify the structure of the Air Force,” McPeak recalls. “Complexity is the enemy of success in combat. You’ve got to keep it simple. And that starts with a simple organization.” As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army Gen. Colin Powell had already developed the “Base Force,” defining the scale of the coming drawdown. The aim was to avoid creating a hollow force that would retain structure devoid of capacity, but instead outline a force that could fight two wars on the scale of Operation Desert Storm simultaneously.
McPeak did away with Strategic Air Command, Tactical Air Command, and Military Airlift Command. Instead of three of these Major Commands, the Air Force would have two: Air Combat Command and Air Mobility Command. The change in acronyms was intended to help drive home the changes, which were driven by the notion that the distinction between tactical and strategic forces was anachronistic.
“I think how we organize to fight is the most important thing a leader can do,” McPeak says. “Then of course you’ve got to turn them loose to fight. And if they’re well trained, they’ll do well. But first, it’s how you organize to go to battle. That had been very important in my thinking for a long time, certainly before I became Chief. … And remember: the way you organize something is, first, you organize it, and then, second, you’re reorganizing.”
First moves aren’t always right, and McPeak is quick to own his mistakes (at least where he sees decisions as wrong). “I put the ICBM force into Combat Command—that was a mistake,” he says. He changed his mind, altering people’s lives in the process, and moved it to Space Command. Later, it would be moved again, combined with bombers into Air Force Global Strike Command. McPeak was passionate about getting organization right, and achieving a viable structure that made logical sense. “When, I took over the Air Force it had 200 things called ‘wings,’” he says. “When I left, we had 100 things called wings. They were real wings.”
Organizational upheaval created turmoil. “Any organization that wants to stay at a high level of performance is in virtual reorganization all the time,” McPeak says. For example, there were two wings at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., south of Washington, D.C., and when asked why, McPeak was told it was too much for one colonel to manage. “I said, ’Well, let’s make it a one-star and put the whole wing under him and get rid of a headquarters and a staff car and a secretary.’ Man, if one person can’t run Andrews then what am I doing trying to run the whole Air Force?”
McPeak’s structural remaking of the force was, he recalls, about one-third drawdown and Base Force, “but two-thirds of it was closing superfluous wings.”
Cutting the force was an opportunity, if it meant the service could be more efficient. But getting the message across was difficult. McPeak saw the Base Force not as an objective floor below which the Air Force and other services would not go, but as a ceiling: the biggest it could possibly be when the cutting was finally done. That proved prescient. Service budgets that peaked before the end of President Reagan’s eight years in office continued to decline through most of the 1990s. At the same time, demand for Air Force operations remained constant. While the services returned to a massive homecoming celebration in Washington, D.C., in 1991, the Air Force found itself adapting to a new way of life, rotating forces and aircraft through the Middle East to enforce no-fly zones in the south and north of Iraq, protecting Iraqis from their own military.
None of that was clear when McPeak was still in charge. He was remaking the Air Force in his own image, and he was a different kind of Airman. He remains today a different sort of former Chief, still marching to the beat of his own drummer, still intimately familiar with the Air Force but from a greater level of remove than other former Chiefs. He is a Chief who sweated details others would ignore. He had the Air Force Band create a string quartet to play chamber music because he felt the Strolling Strings were outsized for his quarters at the Air House. He took part personally in the auditions.
An Airman is a member of an elite group. … To be an Airman, you have to meet high standards. You have to be a high school graduate to join us an enlisted man and a college graduate to become an officer, which automatically makes us exclusive. … We’re not a bell-shaped curve. And that’s good because our job is to defend this country. We want to defend it with people that are physically and mentally and emotionally capable of doing that. … Then we take those people and train them with the objective of making them excellent at what they do. The leading edge of that is a warrior class that is at the sharp end of the spear, face to face with the enemy. And when we put people in that position, we want to make sure that we’ve trained them to be very good. We want to win every fight that occurs in the atmosphere that surrounds this planet. We want to be excellent at air combat. And that means you’re an elite, and you want to walk proudly every day when you go to work.Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, CSAF No. 14
He introduced a new uniform. If there’s anything most Chiefs won’t do, it’s work on uniforms. Everyone has an opinion, and everyone is an expert. The uniform McPeak introduced was derided both for being cut for McPeak’s wiry physique and for looking too much like a commercial airline pilot’s uniform. Yet while the decorations on that uniform would change, the basic suit remains the same.
“No guts, no glory,” he says of Chiefs who shy away from uniform controversy. “If you don’t want to take on big challenges, then you shouldn’t be in the Chief’s office. [The uniform] didn’t take up much of my time. It was easy. And by the way, that uniform is being worn today. That’s my uniform, except it’s been glitzed up. … My idea that simplicity is what works in combat? Well, it also works in uniforms. The blue suit with three Arnold patch buttons on the front is …. the uniform I helped to redesign.”
Others knocked McPeak as symbolizing the “fighter mafia” and favoring combat aviators. A former Thunderbird, McPeak had flown more than 200 sorties in Vietnam and 199 as a Thunderbird, surviving the team’s first-ever crash in front of a public audience when the wings of his F-100 sheared off on a maneuver in Del Rio, Texas, in October 1967. Pulling his jet heavenward at 6.5 Gs, he heard a loud bang as the wings came off, releasing fuel that turned into a fireball. That he survived the accident is a testament as much to skill as luck.
McPeak questions the fairness of the fighter mafia label. “I made Billy Boles a four star and sent him to run Training and Education Command. Not only was he not a fighter pilot, he wasn’t any kind of pilot. He wasn’t a navigator. He had a slick uniform right here where here you put your wings. First guy ever sent to Air Education and Training Command who was nonrated. I sent up to the Air Force Academy Paul Stein. First Air Force Academy Superintendent who was not a rated officer, not a pilot. I brought in a guy to be Vice Chief who was a space guy, he wasn’t a pilot. But he was a warrior. Billy Boles was a warrior. Paul Stein—go find me a warrior better than Paul Stein. I wasn’t so much interested in who’s a fighter pilot as I was in who’s a warrior. Turns out a lot of fighter pilots are in that category. Thank goodness!”
McPeak was no dictator when it came to selling his vision of the force. “I spent about one-third of my time in front of audiences, working on consensus,” he recalls. “No organization that I know of goes anywhere based on what Mussolini tells them to do. We all operate on consensus. And that’s true in the military. I never thought I could just come in and turn on the light switch and expect everybody to have all the lamps in the building go on. So I worked hard to build consensus, [but] I was only about 51 percent successful. Change is hard to do. It’s hard to lead.”
The reason it was so hard, he says, is that he wanted to do more than incremental change. “Look, you know how to create the best dictionary in the world?” he asks, pausing for effect. “Start with the existing best dictionary and then fix one mistake, one word. That’s what some people have as an idea of leadership. But that wasn’t my idea. I wanted to start building a new dictionary. That’s pretty ambitious.”
That would not work if every Chief wanted to do that, he acknowledges. “We can’t have an Air Force that every four years gets turned on its head and shaken hard. But every once in a while, it’s not a bad idea.”
McPeak blew up thousands of pages of regulations, calling in his functional Chiefs and asking them to boil down those regulations to four or five pages, double-spaced. He recalls it took multiple iterations to boil these down to their essence. “The idea was we should have instructions that say what is important to us. And if 100 things are important, it’s like saying nothing’s important.”
By going to the functional Chiefs—“the head cop, the head chaplain, the surgeon general”—McPeak sought to build consensus around a singular idea: “What is it that we’re in business to do here? What is the Air Force all about? With the central idea being that it’s about excellence,” he says. That vision is too often lost, he said, in other pursuits. “I hear way too much today about diversity. It is not the mission of the Air Force to solve society’s diversity problems. I’m not against diversity, but I am for winning in aerial combat. That comes first.”
When McPeak took office he had a four-by-six card in his desk on which he had written five simple, declarative sentences, five things he wanted to accomplish in that office. “Every day I was inundated by other things that other people wanted me to do,” he said. “People would come in and say, “Hey, boss, I’ve got a horrible problem. You’ve got to help me. I’d listen to them and say, go fix it. Come back and tell me how you fixed it. Then I’d open that top drawer and look at the little card to tell me about the things I wanted to do. …. Never got them done, by the way. Never accomplished those five things.”
What were they? McPeak won’t say. “Because I failed,” he says. “I’m not in the confession mode here, and you’re not my priest. I’m not willing to admit the depth and breadth of my failure.” But was it failure to be ambitious, to strive for things that remained out of reach? For an 85-year-old former Chief, the frustration is not that, but the reality of the constraints of time, which, like the constraints of gravity, limit most people to live life inside the lines. McPeak spent his life trying to break free of those constraints.
“You only have four years,” he continues. “To do the things that I had in mind would have required eight or maybe 10 years. Therefore I was too ambitious. You have to decide what mistakes you want to make in life. You don’t ever get it right. So the mistake I want to make is to be too much of X and too little of Y. … My five things were things I couldn’t get done in four years. And, so part of my problem as Chief was I tried to get them done in four years.
Gen. Ronald Fogleman, CSAF No. 15 (1994-’97)
A Quest for Stability, A Last Stand on Integrity
When Gen. Ron Fogleman became Chief of staff in 1994, the Post-Cold War drawdown was well underway, and the military was embroiled in social issues. The Navy’s Tailhook scandal had fueled a rethink of women’s roles in the military, and in aviation in particular. President Bill Clinton, the first Baby Boomer to become president, was also the first since Franklin Delano Roosevelt not to have served in the military, and had campaigned to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the military.
Fogleman was not the first choice; having already been told he was not going to get the job in May of 1994, he was contemplating retirement when, in August, McPeak called to tell him he would be the next Chief. He had barely two months to prepare.
“The Air Force had been through all this turbulence—restructure, drawdown, all kinds of events had occurred that were causing angst within the Air Force,” Fogleman said. “At the same time, we had been given sort of a Northern Star, this thing called Global Reach, Global Power… which gave the blueprint for what the Air Force was going to look like.” Fogleman asked his fellow four-stars what the Air Force needed, and answered his own question: Stability.
That may have been his focus, but it wasn’t to be his legacy. Every Chief sees his areas of interest collide with the reality of the present day. Seven months after Fogleman took office, a B-52 Stratofortress crashed at Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., during a practice flight for an air show the next day. The crash, which was caught on video and ended in a fiery collision with the runway, killing all four Airmen aboard, was blamed on the pilot’s recklessness and on a culture of permissiveness that had failed to challenge the pilot’s documented pattern of behavior.
Then came the bombing of Khobar Towers, in which 19 Airmen died, and the controversial case of Kelly Flinn, the Air Force’s first female B-52 pilot, whose case set off media and congressional fireworks about double standards for men and women in uniform. Flinn had engaged in an affair with the husband of an enlisted Airman and ignored warnings to end the matter. Eventually, she was charged with the crime of adultery, a matter few in the public realized was a crime under military law. Flinn claimed she was the victim of a double standard; the Air Force argued the opposite. When details of the investigation spilled out in the media, the case drew congressional interest.
All this played out at just about the same time as another famous adultery case: President Clinton’s affair with White House Intern Monica Lewinsky. Flinn, who was about the same age as Lewinsky, was cast as a victim in the media, but as the perpetrator in the case brought against her. When Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall floated the idea of granting her an honorable discharge, Fogleman said if she did so she would have to start looking for a new Chief. Her behavior, he would say later, didn’t merit that honor. It was, he told an interviewer in 1997, the only time he made such a move, but it foreshadowed Fogleman’s ultimate decision to retire early, rather than live out his full four-year tour.
“It’s a tour, not a sentence,” he would say more than once. He was free to go when he chose, and he remained true to that promise.
The Flinn and B-52 cases, among others, convinced Fogleman that what the Air Force needed more than stability was more basic: It needed to hew to its own values.
“It became obvious to me that while the Air Force was going through some things, it might have lost sight of its real values,” Fogleman said. “And so I began to try and send the message of what it was we did—deter, and if deterrence fails, we fight and win America’s wars. That’s why we’re here. We’re not a social organization. We’re not an employment agency. We’re here to fight and win America’s wars. So if you sign up with the Air Force, that’s what you expect. And, oh by the way, we have some values and some standards, which have got to be universally known—everybody’s got to know what they are—and they’ve got to be uniformly applied, so that whatever applies to an enlisted troop applies to an officer.”
Fogleman, who had taught history at the U.S. Air Force Academy, launched onto the lecture circuit. He set out to speak with all of them, making stops in Nebraska, the Pacific, and in Europe. Adopting the Academy’s Core Values—Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do—he shared his view of what Airman should stands for. “I’m very proud of that,” he said. “It’s the only thing I know of in the United States Air Force that was adopted basically 25 years ago and which is still there today. And that’s the way it ought to be: You need some stability in a force.”
But the 1990s did not deliver stability. Small-scale contingencies followed one after the other. Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. No-fly-zone enforcement over Iraq continued nonstop. Budgets declined as the nation sought its post-Cold War “peace dividend.” Culture wars took root. Each of the services fought for relevance to match its capabilities to a changing world order, but instead of unity, there was infighting.
Within the Air Force, Airman is a term that should be devoid of rank. It’s somebody in the profession of arms whose major contribution is to understand the application of air power in the deterrence of war, and if deterrence fails, the application of air power to fight and win America’s wars.Gen. Ronald Fogleman, CSAF No. 15
“The 1990s was a period from my perspective, where the United States of America missed an opportunity,” Fogleman says. “We had a chance to demobilize. After every major war we had demobilized—even after the Second World War. The Cold War required us to have generally larger standing forces than we’d ever had before. But at the end of the Cold War, we had a chance to demobilize and invest in smart things. Getting ready for the future.”
Instead, Fogleman said, the nation got caught up in pursuing a strategy built on a perceived need to fight two major regional contingencies at the same time. “We literally wasted tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars maintaining an army force structure that, when 9/11 came, was the wrong Army—and then they had to rebuild it anyway,” he said.
That decision to “glom on to these two major regional contingencies” as a force-sizing construct was the central error of the era, Fogleman said. “We had never been able to do that. During the Second World War … we made a decision to fight in Europe and then go to the Pacific. … Folks had lost sight of that. And so instead they decided to try and keep this large standing military force in peacetime and just wasted hundreds of billions of dollars doing that.”
Fogleman had wanted to think harder about the future, to invest in the kinds of technologies that had been used to such devastating effect in ousting Iraq’s occupying army from Kuwait in Operation Desert Storm. But the leading strategy makers at the time had an Army bent, and that colored the strategy they developed, undervaluing air power. They saw small wars and peacekeeping as central missions in the 1990s, and reasoned that the United States could afford to delay weapons modernization by skipping a generation of technology. Fogleman saw that as folly.
“Anybody who had watched what was going on could see that after the first Gulf War, the Chinese went to work studying what we had done,” Fogleman said. “And they began, back in the 1990s, trying to build the capability to negate our combat capability—or emulate it.”
Fogleman’s predecessor, Gen. Merrill “Tony” McPeak, had likewise viewed this as an error, but he says it was not surprising. “Victory is a poor teacher,” McPeak said. “And we were victorious. Defeat isn’t even a good teacher, because the tendency is to do tomorrow what you did today.” Changing course, making a dynamic and bold commitment to break with the past and move in new directions, was the harder course to take, but it required greater imagination and determination. “There are too many rice bowls that have to be broken, too much furniture has been bought,” McPeak said. He offered an example: “You can’t tell the Marines that they’re never going to use vertical takeoff in combat, that you cannot logistically support operations off the beach—you can’t get the bombs there or the fuel there, so they’re not going to operate off the beach.” But the decision to build as much commonality as possible into the F-35 while offering Air Force, Navy, and Marine variants required compromises in performance, capacity, and range that affected all of those planes, not just some.
The Marine version “sized the profile of the F-35,” McPeak said. “And while the F-35 looks like it’s going to be a pretty good airplane, it is never going to be as good as it could have been if it was not sized by the big fan.”
Similarly, the two-MRC [major regional contingencies]strategy cost more to sustain and left less money to invest in next-generation technology. In an interview with Richard Kohn conducted in December 1997 and published in the Spring 2001 edition of Aerospace Power Journal, Fogleman recalled being visited by a two-star Army general representing the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John Shalikashvili. The officer sat on the couch in Fogleman’s office and said, “I have a message from the Chairman.” The message, he explained to Fogleman, was that the Chairman wanted the Quadrennial Defense Review to “maintain as close to the status quo as we can.” In fact, he went on, “the Chairman says we don’t need any Billy Mitchells during this process.”
Fogleman was stunned. But that was just the beginning. He had a modernization program in place, but as the QDR unfolded, it became clear it would be a budget-driven review, rather than strategy driven. The F-22 had been fully funded to that point, but now as the Department sought to find $60 billion in cuts, it began to draw attention. Fogleman saw it as the most revolutionary program the Pentagon was pursuing, combining stealth, super cruise, and integrated avionics: “a quantum jump” in capability that would be critical “in such situations as the Taiwan Strait crisis … we need that airplane.”
Fogleman fought for it, but did not sense his advice was valued by Defense Secretary Cohen, a former senator, who had succeeded William Perry in early 1997. By then, he was growing increasingly frustrated in his role. But the last straw was not about airplanes, but about people and accountability. It went back to the values message he had been delivering throughout his tour as Chief. On June 25, 1996, a truck bomb exploded at an Air Force housing complex called Khobar Towers. The explosion killed 19 Airmen and wounded close to 500 others. It was one in a string of such attacks that dated back to 1983 when a Marine barracks in Beirut exploded, killing 241 Marines, Sailors, and Soldiers.
The Americans at Khobar Towers were responsible for Operation Southern Watch, the southern no-fly zone over Iraq. The facility was known to be a target and threats had already been received when the attack took place. To Fogleman, it was clear America was at war. But in the aftermath of the attack, he became convinced that the Intelligence Community had failed the Airmen at Khobar Towers—that they had the warnings but failed to understand the risk. When some time later Brig Gen. Terryl J. Schwalier, the commander at Khobar, was selected for promotion to major general, the issue became a political matter.
“I had a commander who had done everything in his power, and he was in the field in wartime conditions and was struck by an enemy,” Fogleman said. “You either support the commander or you make a scapegoat out of him. And I was not about to make a scapegoat.”
Defense Secretary William Cohen disagreed. “So then it became clear that my military advice was not valued,” Fogleman said. “If the people above you don’t value that advice, then it’s time to get out of the way and allow somebody else to come in and provide military advice for your service. From my perspective, it was in the best interest of the Air Force that I depart and that they get somebody else.”
In his brief public statement, Fogleman wrote: “My values and sense of loyalty to our Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and especially our Airmen led me to the conclusion that I may be out of step with the times and some of the thinking of the establishment. This puts me in an awkward position. If I were to continue to serve as Chief of Staff of the Air Force and speak out, I could be seen as a divisive force and not a team player. I do not want the Air Force to suffer for my judgment and convictions.”
Looking back now, he acknowledges that had he stayed in place another year, some of what he’d done “would have become institutionalized. Instead, they were allowed to die.” The Battle Labs he established did not survive—six labs designed to create new capability rapidly in specific areas. “Does that sound like something we have today, something they had to reinvent? Yes.” Likewise, he established information operations squadrons. Those too did not survive, but were later recreated.
“That last year is when you can institutionalize things,” he said. “And so in that context, I failed the force by leaving early.” Fogleman retired early, he says. He did not resign. He was not protesting anything. But he felt it important that he announce his retirement before Cohen made his final determination on Schwalier, perhaps because it might change his mind, but in any event so that the retirement would not be seen as a response to that decision. The story played out in the media as a protest regardless. Fogleman has been trying to set the record straight ever since.
Gen. John P. Jumper, CSAF No. 17 (2001-’05)
‘I tried to always make things better.’
Gen. John P. Jumper was holding his first staff meeting in the Air Force Operations Center in the Pentagon’s basement when the first plane hit. It was Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, 2001, and whatever plans he may have had as he began his tenure as Chief, the next four years were going to play out very differently than he could have imagined. The intel briefing was paused and the screens were switched to CNN, which had live video of the burning Pentagon on the screen. That was when the second plane struck the World Trade Center.
“That was the point of max confusion, of course,” Jumper recalls. “We took off from our command center to go up and warn our people away from the E-ring,” the outer offices of the Pentagon. In the Secretary of the Air Force’s office, Jumper found Secretary Jim Roche “sitting on his phone and sort of physically tucked him away from his phone back toward the middle of the building.” Then the third plane struck, exploding into the West side of the Pentagon.
Jumper was an experienced four-star. He had commanded U.S. Air Forces Europe during the Kosovo War in 1999 and had run Air Combat Command for 18 months after that. He hadn’t expected to be the Chief, an assignment he attributes as much to luck and timing as to talent, but he had a ready list of ideas he’d been “harboring” and was ready to start right in on them when 9/11 reworked his agenda in a flash.
The first order of business was America’s response, and it began with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “The cooperation was remarkable,” he recalled. When we started the planning … there was no infrastructure to really go after. … We were developing targets, figuring out the logistics. We knew we had to have ground bases over there [but] we had no good history of ground basing in that area. We had a lot of coordination to do. And so I went to Vern Clark, who was the Chief of Naval Operations, and I said, ‘Vern, in order to get this done, we’re going to need aircraft carriers.’ And he put everything that he could generate out there, ready to go and fly sorties.”
The Navy would launch the first aerial strikes on Afghanistan in October 2001, learning in the process to fly six- to eight-hour sorties, longer than the typical Navy deck cycle, and leveraging Air Force tankers to make the journey. It took time to seize ground and open bases in Afghanistan and the vicinity and to bring in Air Force F-15s, F-16s, and A-10s. Bombers were launching out of Guam.
“Because Afghanistan is landlocked, and we didn’t have a history of basing, it took some development time to get that done,” Jumper said. “The bomber force reacted well, I think: We had the processes and procedures for that kind of deployment worked out, basing and all that, from our time in Kosovo.” Air Force C-17s went to work as tactical airlifters, flying in and out of makeshift airfields. “I think we rose to the occasion,” he said, noting that there are lessons to be applied today, as the Air Force experiments with Agile Combat Employment, that were tested and proven in the months after 9/11.
But Jumper said the Air Force could have been quicker to see the value of its unmanned platforms. “The biggest thing we could have made better use of, more rapidly, is armed UAVs,” he said. “We didn’t have them in great numbers at the time, and the ones we had were extremely effective from a strategic point of view.”
Jumper knew something about UAVs. He’d employed them in Kosovo, seen their potential. But he’d also seen their shortcomings. “This was what we, at that time, called the dialogue of the deaf,” he said. “The Intelligence Community, who owned the Predators and were looking at streaming video through sort of a soda straw, [were] trying to communicate in this very dysfunctional relay system to the A-10 pilot in the cockpit about where the target was.”
To target a tank behind a building, for example, they would say, “It’s right behind the red roof building.” But as Jumper explained, that made little sense to the A-10 pilot who was looking out over 50 miles of red-roofed buildings. “So then they say, ‘Well, it’s beside the small stream that goes by the red roof building.’ I called it the dialogue of the deaf because nobody was understanding, because there was no common frame of reference.”
The heart and soul of the Airman embraces the warrior spirit of America, bringing to bear kinetic firepower on the enemy, and all the things that go into that as part of a warrior culture. … And I think we have to take care to make sure that is emphasized in today’s world.Gen. John Jumper, CSAF No. 17
Predators had been built to be an ISR asset, to collect, analyze, and report. Jumper and Mike Short, the Air Component Commander operating out of Italy, shared their frustration. “It became evident that if nothing else, we needed to put a laser designator on the Predator,” Jumper said. Within weeks, the Air Force’s 645th Aeronautical Systems Group, better known as Big Safari, “made that happen magically in a couple of weeks,” Jumper recalled, but “by the time we got it over there and ready to use, the conflict was over.”
The idea, however, remained. Jumper’s next assignment was to head Air Combat Command. When he got there, he discovered, much to his surprise, that ACC’s acquisition and requirements teams had removed the laser designators. “It wasn’t part of the program. And there was no money in the program to do that. “I sort of blew my top about that, and we got ourselves on the road. But it occurred to me that as long as we’re doing that, why don’t we put something on there that can do something about these targets when we find them?”
Jumper had been a weapons officer in his younger days, and he knew something about armaments. The Hellfire missile wasn’t an Air Force weapon—it was developed by the Army—but it seemed the perfect fit. “It would be the most lethal and light enough to put on something like a Predator—or at least I thought it could be, but we had to check it out.”
The Air Force got over the technical hurdles in a couple of months, Jumper said. “But the bureaucratic system decided that this Predator with a Hellfire missile would have to be designated a cruise missile under the missile control regime, and it would require us opening up negotiations with the Russians again. Well, I thought that was ridiculous, and [then-Air Force Chief of Staff] Mike Ryan helped.”
The battles weren’t over. The intel community was worried that their intel asset would now become a weapon instead. “The biggest thing about the Predator is that we brought it into the inventory.” Jumper reached back a little further into his history. In 1996, when he became deputy chief of staff for operations (the A-3) under Gen. Ron Fogleman, the Chief at the time, Jumper was sent to evaluate three systems, Dark Star, Global Hawk, and Predator. “General Fogleman knew we needed the Predator. He was trying to decide on the other two,” Jumper said. “On the Predator side, it was obvious that this was something that would help us find targets precisely and be able to stare at targets over a long period of time, to make the job of those carrying the weapons more certain when they arrived that they were hitting exactly the right thing, exactly the right spot.”
The problem, he recalled, was that the ground station controls were built as if for a remote pilot. “It was based on the premise that you had to pretend you were at a station flying the Predator like a pilot with stick, rudder, pedals—I mean, like a pilot—that flying the airplane was more important than taking the picture. … In fact, we should have built this thing around the cameras.” Had it been up to Jumper, he’d have changed the entire thing right then. But the rules didn’t allow that. “We couldn’t change anything for two years.”
In time, Jumper would help organize a Predator 9-1-1 project to speed up the process of getting the weapon into the inventory, with spare parts and operating procedures. “I remember hosting a group from the Pentagon about rapidly putting the Hellfire missile on the Predator,” he said. “And the message to me was clear, that this is going to take tens of millions of dollars and is going to take not months, but years. And I just simply refused to accept that answer. Because I knew that big Safari had had a different answer. So therein lies some of the friction. Big Safari—if we don’t embrace that as an Air Force, even today, if we don’t embrace that kind of rapid prototyping and fielding today,” the Air Force will fail.
That lesson stayed with Jumper throughout his tenure. “I had a little sign on my desk when I was Chief that said: ‘Never accept no from somebody not empowered to say yes.’ There are way too many people that have the power of the veto, or think they do. We need to be able to challenge and ask the second and third question. … We have to be always ready to challenge the system, and not confuse a responsible challenge to authority with insubordination. We’ve got to be able to cross that line. It’s always a delicate line. But it’s just a responsible leadership point of view.”
“It took a while to get to the things like the Air Expeditionary Force idea … which needed to be matured,” he said. “And of course, carrying forward with the whole idea of the remotely piloted vehicles—Predator—and how best to integrate that into the force more completely.”
Another project Jumper had been involved in long before becoming Chief was the development of the Air Expeditionary Force, the Air Force’s 1990s-era deployment model. The Air Force didn’t deploy in the same way as, say, an Army division or brigade, because air power is typically shaped and sized to the mission at hand. The AEF was a system for addressing that, enabling the Air Force to identify ready forces and assemble mission packages on a rotational basis. That meant that units could work through readiness cycles.
“The original concept was actually four months of a deployment,” Jumper said. “But it was designed to be rapidly deployable. You had nine buckets of capability, fairly similar capability, and depending on the contingency, you could draw capabilities that weren’t in the bucket forward to be able to join that AEF to get the right kind of capability over there. That was based on the assumption that you could pull Airmen that were trained exactly the same way to exactly the same standards by the same checklists and various weapons systems. And and they could join a unit, if they had to, to augment that capability.”
But under Jumper’s watch, in the wake of 9/11, the rotations broke down. “It was designed to use tactical equipment, tactically deploy, for a tactical amount of time—not to become a rotational practice for a 10-year war. It was never designed to do that.”
In Kosovo, USAFE opened 18 bases for tankers and other operations, and the AEF was employed. “We went over there, got it done, packed up, and went home,” Jumper said. “We loaded up Aviano, put special ops in certain places, put tankers all over the place. It worked just fine. But when we transition into this 10 years of constant combat, then another policy has to be developed to deal with the necessities of experienced commanders staying in place longer, knowing the problems more deeply, and being able to do more than come in and just generate combat power for short periods of time. … [That requires] a more permanent rotational policy.” He notes that the short deployment cycles anticipated for Agile Combat Employment (ACE) by today’s Air Force also has short deployment cycles. Like the original AEF, the focus is on agility. “If ACE transitions into longer engagements like we had in the Middle East, then that process is going to be challenged as well.”
Jumper was the last Air Force Chief to work alongside an Airman as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His tenure and that of Gen. Dick Myers as Chairman were almost perfectly aligned. That might have been an advantage for Jumper in the early 2000s, before the occupation of Iraq went sour and the occupation of Afghanistan grew old. Jumper’s success as Chief was built on a cooperative approach; his successor, Gen. T. Michael Moseley, was more aggressive, and perhaps aggrieved, in his dealings with his fellow Chiefs. His bluntness ultimately cost him his job.
Over the past two decades, the Air Force shrank in size and prowess. Readiness slipped. Political leaders reasoned America had so great an edge in air power after the first Gulf War that the nation could afford to throttle back. “We heard terms like “we’re overmatched with air power, with air superiority—that means we have too much of it,” Jumper said. “We were told we didn’t need as much training, we could have tiered readiness. We were essentially too good. … [Now] we have eroded away our technological advantage, and our training, and our readiness, to the point that it has begun to affect morale. I think the Chief would agree with that, and I think they’re working as hard as they can to resurrect that, but that’s what happened along the way.
“So how do we re-instill that [confidence]? We have to start internally first, we have to make sure that our force sees themselves as the world’s greatest Air Force, one that is ready to go fight, that is proficient. They have to feel themselves that they’re flying 20 hours a month, that they feel like they’re the dominant power and nobody’s going to be trained any better than I am, in my specialty, no matter what my specialty is. And that I can go anyplace, I can do anything, I can do what I’m going to be asked to do, and nothing—no contingency that arises—is going to surprise me, because I have a training program that … gets me familiar with the part of the world I’m most likely to go to, gets me out there so I can see it and touch it and feel it. I’m flying off and I am proficient: I’m good. I know how to set up a base. I have the right people who know how to run a deployed operation. I have the right security forces that can protect that base, inside and outside the fence.
That’s the Air Force I had.”
Gen. T. Michael Moseley, CSAF 18 (2005-’08)
‘Buzz was right.’
The one thing everyone knows about Gen. T. Michael “Buzz” Moseley is that he was fired from the job. Being relieved short of completing his four-year tour as Chief was not on the radar when Moseley moved up from Vice Chief to become Chief of Staff in September 2005.
Moseley had been the vice Chief for two full years. His prior experience included commanding U.S. Central Command Air Forces for nearly two years before that and before that two years as the Chief Air Force legislative liaison. Few were better versed on the issues facing the service at the time. But Moseley was no politician. Shaved-headed and stiff-necked, he remains as bluntly plainspoken now, 14 years after leaving office as he was when the bombshell struck in July 2008.
Moseley was enroute to a Corona meeting—a gathering of Air Force four-stars—in Dayton, Ohio, when word came that he and Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne were both being relieved, a stunning dual beheading executed by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates whose frustration with the Air Force had become a public feud in recent months.
Gates had considered the Air Force “one of my biggest headaches” for some time. But in a speech at the Heritage Foundation on May 13, 2008, he unloaded his concerns publicly: “There is a good deal of debate and discussion—within the military, the Congress, and elsewhere—about whether we are putting too much emphasis on current demands—in particular, Iraq—and whether this emphasis is creating too much risk in other areas, such as preparing for potential future conflicts; being able to handle a contingency elsewhere in the world; and overstressing the ground forces, in particular the Army,” Gates said.
“Much of what we are talking about is a matter of balancing risk: today’s demands versus tomorrow’s contingencies; irregular and asymmetric threats versus conventional threats,” Gates went on. “As the world’s remaining superpower, we have to be able to dissuade, deter, and, if necessary, respond to challenges across the spectrum. Nonetheless, I have noticed too much of a tendency toward what might be called ‘Next-War-itis’: the propensity of much of the defense establishment to be in favor of what might be needed in a future conflict.”
Gates had taken over as Secretary in 2006 from Donald H. Rumsfeld, as the War in Iraq descended into its messiest phase. Two-and-a-half years prior, President George W. Bush had flown onto the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and delivered a televised speech in front of a giant banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished.” By the 2006 mid-term elections, that image had come to haunt the administration. Far from being over, things had only gone downhill from that moment on. By 2006, it was clear the Army was ill-sized or equipped for the mission in Iraq, recruiting was suffering, and the Army was lowering its standards for incoming troops. The Iraq War had become precisely the kind of quagmire the administration had wanted to avoid, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who had become a media sensation in the wake of 9/11, had fallen out of favor.
The weekend before the election, the Military Times newspapers wrote that, regardless of the outcome, the time had come for Rumsfeld to go. “His strategy has failed and his ability to lead is compromised,” the editorial said. By Wednesday morning, victorious Democrats were in full agreement. “The Army Times has spoken,” said Nancy Pelosi, who would soon be the next Speaker of the House.
That afternoon, Bush announced, with Rumsfeld standing awkwardly on his right and Gates on left, that change was coming to the Pentagon.
That Gates would shake things up was a foregone conclusion. But that his focus would be the Air Force, rather than the Army, was not quite so clear. But Air Force leaders were not solely focused on the Iraq problem. They saw trouble on the horizon—and in their own aging force.
By 2006, the weapons that had so impressed the world in 1991’s Operation Desert Storm had aged 15 years. Except for 100 or so Predator unmanned aircraft, the force was otherwise much the same, though smaller, and without some capabilities that had been sacrificed over the intervening years. The force was also getting tired; the service had been flying nonstop patrols over Iraq for 15 years and had supported combat operations in Somalia (1992-’93), Haiti (1994), Bosnia (1995), and Kosovo (1998-’99), prior to going to war in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003).
The job description of the Chief of Staff is spelled out clearly in Title 10, U.S. Code: The Chief leads the Air Staff, with responsibility for “recruiting, organizing, supplying, equipping, … training, servicing, mobilizing, demobilizing, administering, and maintaining of the Air Force.” The Chief administers today’s force, but his real work is in ensuring that tomorrow’s force is up to the job. Each Chief is heir to the decisions of those who came before him, and each Chief leaves a legacy to those who will follow.
Moseley was worried about the future. In January 2007, China successfully conducted an anti-satellite missile test, destroying a defunct satellite and producing thousands of space debris fragments that continues to orbit the Earth even now. Air Force leaders saw the strike as a wakeup call, a clear indication not only that China was ascendant China in the East, but that it was honing the ability to threaten a key U.S. advantage: air and space dominance.
At the center of the Air Force’s modernization plans was the F-22 Raptor, the stealthy fifth-generation air-dominance fighter. This was the key weapon the Air Force wanted for the future. But it was also Exhibit A in Gates’ case against “Next War-itis.” The stealth fighter was unparalleled in the world and a generation ahead of any rival. But it was also an “exquisite” technological marvel, intended for a war that Gates didn’t think was ever going to happen.
“I kept saying, ‘We can’t defer this. We have to fund the [F-22],’” Moseley said in a May video interview. “That’s when I got accused of Next-war-itis. And I wrapped myself in that. I said, ‘Man, I want that framed on the wall.’ Because that’s an A-plus for me doing my job: organize, train, and equip. If someone thinks I’ve got Next-war-itis, hallelujah! I do! Because that’s my job. A combatant commander fights today’s fight. I’m fighting tomorrow’s fight.”
That future fight would challenge the nation with technology and weapons far more complex than anything the insurgents could muster in Iraq or Afghanistan, and Moseley saw his requirements as obvious: “We need the best air -superiority fighter. We need the best utility fighter. We need the best penetrating bomber. We need a reliable tanker. We need a combat search-and-rescue helicopter that can go some distance. And every combatant commander said, ‘Thank you.’ The Army Chief, the Navy CNO, the Marine Commandant, they all said, ‘I get it.’”
Prior to Gates’ arrival, Moseley and Wynne had already secured both Rumsfeld’s and the President’s support for modernizing. “The President had even agreed to give us the money,” Moseley said. Bush, who was flying F-102s in the Air National Guard when Moseley was in fighter training, liked to point out when meeting with his national security team that the two of them were the only fighter pilots in the room.
But now Rumsfeld was gone, and Bush was trying to rescue a presidency damaged by the Iraq War. Gates was running the Pentagon. The wind had shifted.
“I remember one time in a discussion with President Bush,” Moseley said. “He said, ‘Moseley, you said you think we’re going to fight the Chinese or the Russians?’ I said, ‘Mr. President, I’m praying not. … I think the probability is very low. But I think there is a 100 percent chance we’re going to fight their aircraft and their SAMs and their early-warning radars.’ And he goes, ‘I agree with you.’ So I said, ‘Therefore, you need an Air Force and a Navy that is beyond question the most technically capable, skilled, and modern because that’s where you can persuade, dissuade, and deter.”
The Air Force executed a mission area analysis that took more than a year, preparing modernization roadmaps for each mission area: strategic lift, tankers, space, air superiority, suppression. The analysis covered every major defense system. “And out of all that, we defined the budget deficit for the force that we needed,” Moseley said, “and we took that to every combatant commander and got his OK, and I personally briefed it to the Navy CNO, the Marine Commandant, and the Army Chief, and I said, ‘Look, you don’t have to agree with me, just please don’t get in my way.’”
When he presented it to Rumsfeld and the President, he had a friendly audience. “Secretary Rumsfeld’s handshake with me was that we would modernize and re-cap the Air Force,” Moseley said. They would use multi-year deals to buy out their C-130J and F-22A requirements, then focus, in order, on the new tanker, the combat search and rescue helicopter, the F-35, and new survivable maneuvering systems for all four families of satellite systems. And they would acquire a new bomber that would reach initial operational capability by 2018.
“Rumsfeld said, ‘Press.’ The President said, ‘How much more do you need?’ I said, ‘$20 billion more a year.’ He goes, ‘Deal.’
An Airman is unique because you operate in a dimension that takes you away from the physical boundaries that define the other services. An Army or a Navy or Marine Corps is different: They have aviation elements, but their core, the sense of their being, is not that. The sense of our being is that—from the beginning. The first time you break ground in an airplane—in my case I started flying when I was 14—you realize this is a different environment. You are not limited by your ability to traverse terrain or the surface of the sea. This is something different, that gives you advantage: You can see around, you can see over. You can operate in a dimension that gives you speed and access.Gen. T. Michael Moseley, CSAF No. 18
Rumsfeld had no hesitation. According to Moseley, he said, “We’ve put you in this position, haven’t we?” And Moseley answered, “Yes, sir, the department has, because we kick the can on things, we study things, we jack around with them. We’re flying airplanes right now in combat that were never designed to fly this long. And we’re asking our kiddos to go do this, and yes, they make it look easy. People think it’s easy. It’s not.”
The problem in Iraq wasn’t the Air Force, but the Army. It didn’t have enough forces to man the mission, its vehicles were too light to withstand increasingly sophisticated improvised explosive devices, body armor wasn’t good enough, recruiting was in the dumps, and the public was turning against the war. America had invaded Iraq with the Army it had, to paraphrase an infamous Rumsfeld comment, not the Army it needed, and to keep that fight going it had to sacrifice the very forces it would need to stave off China and Russia in the future.
“We were hemorrhaging money,” Moseley said. “I get it. But if it’s going to cost $48 billion to buy MRAPs [Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles], then write a $48 billion check. You don’t take the seed corn for the next 20 years to do it. Because it’s not going to end well.”
Discussions in the tank, where the Joint Chiefs met, focused almost exclusively on the Army’s challenges: “Almost every problem we dealt with in the tank was an Army problem: Recruiting, retention, the size of the Army, the force deployment rotations of units.”
The need for more overhead intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance flights. Gates wanted the Air Force to do more. Moseley, who was the first Wing commander to use the Predator at the 57th Wing in 1996-97, understood the issue firsthand. Moseley told Gates the Air Force was all in, but that the Army actually had more ISR to answer its needs than the Air Force did.
“Look, we’re giving you everything we’ve got,” Moseley recalls telling Gates. “We can close down the Weapons School, we can throttle down the schoolhouse, and we’ll do it. But you’ve also got a few hundred of these things [Army Shadow UAVs] that are living in the Army, that are in garrison, and the Army won’t deploy them.”
The Army’s Shadows were organic assets to its battalions, and the Army didn’t have a model for pulling them out and deploying the operators as detachments. “I said, ‘Give us the airplanes and give us the sensor operators. … This is a no-brainer. We’ll shut everything down and give it to you,” Moseley said. Gates’ response, as Moseley recalls it: “It’s more complicated than that.”
Moseley found himself disagreeing with the Army over other issues, as well. When the Army wanted Airmen to help drive convoys moving fuel, food, ammunition and other supplies to forward units, Mosely asked Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. why the Army could not manage this on its own.
“George, does every Army company commander have a driver?” Moseley asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Casey said.
“And the drivers are trained in small arms and self-protection?”
“So why don’t you guys deploy your own drivers? The company commander can drive his own jeep.”
It was no use. Airmen started doing Army convoy duty in 2004 and thousands continued to do so for several years afterward.
Gates had begun his career as an intelligence officer in the Air Force, including a year at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo. But Gates soon joined the CIA, and growing up as an analyst there had not endeared him to the Air Force. In the early 1990s, while with the CIA, he had tried to get the Air Force to join in developing unmanned aircraft but was rebuffed, Gates wrote in his book.
“I think he was just frustrated. The surge was about that time and none of the Joint Chiefs were in favor of that. I think there was just a lot of anxiety.” As Wynne said in a 2008 interview with Air Force Magazine, Gates “didn’t beat up the Army, which had almost a thousand Shadows. He beat up the Air Force, which had about 100 Predators.”
Gates couldn’t have dismissed Wynne and Moseley over the UAV dispute, and the F-22 debate—which amounted to a U-turn in terms of administration policy—did not amount to a fireable offense either. What did work as suitable cover, and to end, once and for all, the discussion about building more F-22s, was the sloppy performance of a B-52 bomber crew in Minot, N.D. On Aug. 29, 2007, a B-52H Stratofortress lifted off from Minot and flew to Barksdale Air Force Base, La. On board were six AGM-129 ACM cruise missiles, each one carrying a W80-1 variable yield nuclear warhead. No one realized the error for a day and a half, so the nuclear weapons had effectively gone missing—what the Air Force calls a Bent Spear incident.
A series of investigations followed. A number of officers were disciplined. And the following June, Moseley and Wynne were asked to resign. The Air Force had indeed become lax about nuclear weapons handling and procedures. But no one in the know ever believed the dismissals were about the nukes. Moseley and Wynne had fought hard for the funding and programs they believed in, and they had warned, loudly and often, of the consequences if those investments were put off any further, predicting that aircraft would age, become unsafe, and that training and readiness would decline. The record shows that’s exactly what happened.
Says Moseley today: “Buzz was right.”