Chiefs, Part 10: ‘The Invisible Chief’

In 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. As part of Air & Space Forces Magazine’s commemoration of the Air Force’s 75th anniversary, Sept. 18, 2022, we interviewed all of the living former Chiefs of Staff.

Gen. Michael  J. Dugan, CSAF No. 13  (July -September 1990) 

Gen. Michael J. Dugan liked the Air Force he inherited from Gen. Larry D. Welch in July 1990. He had no intention of reinventing it; rather, he wanted to polish it like a treasure, to make it even better. The U.S. Air Force in 1990 had the world’s greatest fighters and bombers, the most lethal nuclear arms, the most flexible and capable airlift. Its Airmen, both enlisted and officers, were the best trained, most ready, most effective in the trade.  They were the victors of the Cold War, a national treasure. 

By the summer of 1990, however, the Cold War was over. Poland was the first of the Eastern Bloc nations to shake off the bonds of communism in June 1989. When East Germany opened up the Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin Wall collapsed that November, the remaining communist states fell like dominos: Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria. The Warsaw Pact was no more; only the Soviet Union remained, impotent to stop the democratic surge.  

In Washington, leaders of the world’s lone superpower contemplated funding cuts and peace dividends. But peace was not yet on the horizon. Iraq, in the wake of a protracted eight-year war with Iran, was saddled with debt and addled by falling oil prices. Its leader, Saddam Hussein, sought debt relief from neighbors and, once rebuffed, found solace in long-dormant border disputes with Kuwait. If it couldn’t get terms from its bankers, it could exact revenge. On Aug. 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait.  

No one knew if Saddam would stop there. Iraq had 63 battle-tested ground divisions, and 27 of them already in Kuwait. If they pivoted to the south, into Saudi Arabia, the Saudis would be ill-equipped to stop them. And if that happened, Saddam Hussein would control more than half of the world’s oil supply.

The invasion of Kuwait “will not stand,” President George H.W. Bush declared. On Aug. 8, less than a week after the invasion, U.S. forces, including an airlift control element, F-15s from Langley Air Force Base, Va., and elements of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division were in Saudi Arabia, preparing for what came to be known as Operation Desert Shield. The United States was suddenly headed for war. 

Gen. Mike Dugan was just 32 days on the job as Air Force Chief of Staff when Saddam launched his invasion, and he would remain in office less than seven weeks more. Dugan’s tenure as Chief would go down as the shortest in Air Force history, rivaled only by three “Acting Chiefs,” none of whom filled the post for more than 41 days. Yet Dugan, an affable ambassador for air power would have an important and lasting effect on the conduct of a war that would make heroes of those who chose to cut his tenure short.  

Dugan’s first contribution to the war effort came on his first day in office after Air Force Secretary Don Rice swore Dugan in privately.  

Soon after, Dugan took a phone call from Gen. Robert D. Russ, commander of Tactical Air Command. The two knew each other well, their tours having overlapped at TAC not long before. Russ wanted to put something on the new Chief’s radar. “Chuck Horner had been the star commander at 9th Air Force and the Air Component Commander for [Gen. Norman] Schwarzkopf in the desert for three years,” Dugan said. “He was ripe for movement. Russ wanted me to know that he thought Horner ought to stay in place for a while longer.”  

Did Russ know trouble was coming to the CentCom AOR? Perhaps. But what he wanted to do was pre-empt any plans Dugan might have to move Horner quickly, as a new Chief might want to do. Dugan understood. 

“I reckoned that I was not yet ready to do a big shuffle of new faces in old spaces,” Dugan said. Leaving Horner in place for what might be an unprecedented fourth year might be unusual, but he agreed with Russ that it “would probably be a good thing.”  

Horner went on to lead the most successful air war in history just a few months later, a 37-day bombing campaign that effectively beat the fight out of the Iraqi army long before the 100-hour ground war finished Operation Desert Storm. “That worked out well,” Dugan says now. 

Dugan’s other contribution came soon after the invasion. As Air Force units began arriving in theater, Schwarzkopf put in a call to Dugan, but the Chief was traveling. In those days before cell phones, the call was routed to the Vice Chief in his absence, Gen. John Michael Loh. Schwarzkopf said he needed help. Horner was absorbed with receiving and bedding down Air Force units all across the desert. Meanwhile, Schwarzkopf needed to build an air operation to blunt further Iraqi incursions. He wanted “somebody to come up with an operational scheme that is big enough for the President to look at and complete enough for us to think about how large the forces ought to be on the air side.”  

Dugan didn’t want this assignment to get lost in the staff. He wanted it in the hands of Col. John Warden III, a controversial but visionary officer who was running the Checkmate planning division. Checkmate had been established by then-Chief of Staff David Jones some years before as “an analytical thinking organization that was not constrained by our current guidelines and would come up with novel ways to think about how to deal with whatever operational problems came up,” Dugan said. 

When Dugan told Loh not just to find someone to handle the task, but to give the job to Warden and Checkmate, it was a breach of organizational etiquette. Tasking a subordinate to deal with an operational requirement should have left that decision with that subordinate. “So that was a rude intervention on my part,” Dugan admits, “to pick out one particular office … and say, ‘Give this unique planning problem from Schwarzkopf to John Warden.’”  

But Dugan said it was important to get new and different thinking out there. The Air Force had released Global Reach, Global Power, a new vision for air power, in June 1990, just weeks before Dugan took office. That was more the approach the U.S. would need, Dugan reasoned, and Schwarzkopf seemed to agree.

Gen. Michael Dugan, Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force, speaks with military personnel while having breakfast at the 56th Tactical Air Command dining facility during Operation Desert Shield. Air Force photo via the National Archives.


The CENTCOM commander came under heavy criticism from retired Army officers, some of whom publicly questioned why he had given such an assignment to Air Force Headquarters, which would assuredly see things in air-centric terms, rather than a joint command that might be less parochial in its vision. But Schwarzkopf washed his hands of the matter, Dugan recalled. “He said, in effect, ‘I have written what I have written,’ just like Pontius Pilate. A CINC can give a problem to whoever the hell he wants. He could give it to RAND. He could find a consultant someplace. But he decided that somebody in the Air Force ought to be smart enough to help him with this.”  

That someone, Dugan believed, would be Warden. “I thought he was a thinker, and I thought that we needed some fresh, fresh thinking.”  

Ironically, Warden and Horner were not quite in tune with one another. “Chuck Horner was madder than hell,” Dugan recalled. Warden had a mixed reputation. He had written a treatise on air power called The Air Campaign, which asserted that air power could be either the primary or the supporting element of a strategy; Dugan was a fan, and as the deputy chief of staff for plans and operations a few years earlier, he had made sure that every member of the Air Staff got a copy.  

But Warden had also managed to lose the confidence of his boss during a stint as a wing commander, and he’d needed to be reassigned and rehabilitated at Headquarters, where he was assigned to Checkmate. Dugan and Schwarzkopf told Warden to keep Tactical Air Command informed about his work, but not to cede approval authority to anyone.  

What Warden delivered was not an implementable plan, Dugan said, but a concept that was “big enough that you could brief it to the President and the President could grasp it immediately and say, ‘This is big enough to solve my problem.’ And he did. And it did.”  

Warden briefed his concept to Horner on Aug. 20 in the Desert. Horner sent Warden back to Washington, but kept other members of the Checkmate team—including then-Lt. Col. David Deptula, now Dean of AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies—in Riyadh. Deptula had written “Global Reach, Global Power,” and contributed to Warden’s presentation.  

Dugan was riding high. He had no way of knowing his days were numbered, or that his frank views would somehow lead to his ouster. That all came to pass in mid-September, after Dugan flew to the Middle East with three news reporters: John Broder of the Los Angeles Times, Rick Atkinson of the Washington Post, and John North of Aviation Week.   

On Sunday, Sept. 16, 1990, the daily reporters’ stories led their papers. Atkinson’s story in the Washington Post declared: “U.S. TO RELY ON AIR STRIKES IF WAR ERUPTS.” Broder’s Los Angeles Times story was even more provocative: “U.S. War Plan in Iraq: ‘Decapitate’ Leadership.” 

According to Broder, Dugan declared that “air power is the only answer available to our country in this circumstance.”  

In the Post, Atkinson’s lead proved explosive:  

DHAHRAN, SAUDI ARABIA—The Joint Chiefs of Staff have concluded that U.S. military air power—including a massive bombing campaign against Baghdad that specifically targets Iraqi President Saddam Hussein—is the only effective option to force Iraqi forces from Kuwait if war erupts, according to the Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Michael J. Dugan. 

“The cutting edge would be in downtown Baghdad. This [bombing] would not be nibbling at the edges,” Dugan said in an interview. “If I want to hurt you, it would be at home, not out in the woods someplace.” 

Although U.S. ground and naval forces would play a substantive role in any military campaign, Iraq’s huge army and tank force means “air power is the only answer that’s available to our country” to avoid a bloody land war that would probably destroy Kuwait, Dugan said. That view, he added, is shared by the other Chiefs and the Commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region, Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf. 

“It was really pithy on the front page of the Washington Post,” Dugan said. And it instantly stirred the ire of senior officials. 

The article also said Dugan floated the notion of targeting Saddam Hussein and his family and told Airmen in theater that American public support would hold only until “the body bags come home. The Joint Chiefs of Staff don’t decide anything,” he explains now. “The Chairman meets with them every day and he uses them as a sounding board and if there’s a decision to be made, the Chairman makes it.”  

Gen. Colin Powell, the Chairman, was furious. Perhaps perceiving the lead as a challenge to his authority, “The Chairman took great umbrage.”  

Powell himself was just back from a Middle East trip, he wrote in his memoir, “An American Journey.” He reached Dugan at 6 a.m. that Sunday, finding him at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., where he was preparing to speak to a graduating class of new F-16 pilots. “He had read the Washington Post,” Dugan said. “And he was not in a listening mode.”  

Powell was worried that air power was being oversold, he wrote, and he added that he had already “warned” Dugan about press comments twice before. Dugan, for his part, has no recollection of such warnings. In Powell’s telling, “In a single interview, Dugan had made the Iraqis look pushover, suggested American commanders were taking their cue from Israel, suggested political assassination … and said … the American people would not support any other administration strategy.” National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft would go on TV that day to make clear Dugan didn’t speak for the administration and wasn’t in the chain of command.

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney’s executive assistant called Dugan later that day. The Chief should be in Cheney’s office at 8 a.m. the next morning. “I said, ‘OK.’ I knew what that was about.”  

When Dugan reported, Cheney was prepared; “he had been tuned by Colin Powell’s response and reaction,” Dugan said. “He went through a list of nine … accusations of poor performance on my behalf, all related to the trip and the news articles,” Dugan said. 

He might have argued some of the points, but that wasn’t going to get anywhere. “He came in with a with an agenda, he was going to achieve what he had chosen,” Dugan said. “And the question was whether it was going to be graceful on both of our parts or not.” 

The face-off boiled down to this: Cheney “reckoned that I should resign.”  

Dugan had to think quickly. Refusing might be possible, but it would almost assuredly go badly. “I was a presidential appointee. The President is the only one who can fire you,” he said. But fighting the request would make it all much bigger than Dugan as an individual, it would cost the service, though how was impossible to say. “I thought about the C-17, and what would become the F-22,” he said. He imagined the service being punished for his comments. 

Still, “I reckoned I wasn’t going to resign,” Dugan said. “But if it was going to make [Cheney’s] life easier,” he added, “I would ask for early retirement.”  

Dugan requested to retire effective Jan. 1, a move that the Baltimore Sun would report at the time that would be worth some $17,650 annually because of a large pending pay raise. Despite objections from some members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, President Bush approved the request.  

At a news conference on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 1990, following a public announcement about Dugan’s removal, Cheney visited the Pentagon briefing room to take questions from reporters. “The statements attributed to General Dugan in two newspapers this weekend, and as confirmed by him to me, did not in my mind, reveal an adequate understanding of the situation and what is expected of him as Chief of Staff of the Air Force and as a member of the Joint Chiefs,” Cheney said. He said he discussed the matter with the President and others and that the decision was his. 

Reporters questioned Cheney on what it was that Dugan had apparently done wrong. Had anything attributed to Dugan been untrue? Hadn’t others made similar statements about potential strategies? The Secretary merely repeated that some topics are off-limits. “We never talk about future operations, such as the selection of specific targets for potential airstrikes. We never talk about the targeting of specific individuals who are officials of other governments. Taking such action might be a violation of the standing presidential executive order. … In a situation involving potential conflict, I think it’s contrary to sound practice to reveal classified information about the size and disposition of U.S. forces. And as a general matter of policy, I don’t think we want to be demeaning the contributions of other services. General Dugan’s statements in my opinion were not consistent with this policy.”  

Dugan now learned what it was like to become an invisible man. In an instant, he had gone from being a superhero to a pariah, from someone people would rush to in the Pentagon hallways to persona non grata.  

The real twist was that he didn’t disappear; Dugan kept returning to work, day after day. When Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur was fired by President Harry S. Truman, the popular general packed his bags and went home. Dugan, however, remained, commuting to the Pentagon daily for the next three months. “I stayed on duty until January,” he said. “I didn’t do anything useful, but I stayed on duty.”  

Checking in at 0900 and remaining until 1700, Dugan took on an unwanted cast.  

 “I was a leper,” Dugan said. “I was forgotten, but not gone.”  

For six weeks his former Vice Chief, Mike Loh, was Acting Chief and after that his one-time squadron mate, Gen. Merrill A. “Tony” McPeak arrived in Washington to be the 14th Chief of Staff, after closing out his work at Pacific Air Forces. Neither spent much, if any, time with Dugan. 

Dugan did not let the humiliation ruin his life, however. He had other things to live for: Six children, four of whom went on to serve in the military, three in the Air Force and one in the Marine Corps. Eight grandchildren. And he had more to contribute in the workplace, as well. He joined the Board of Directors of the Air Force Association and later the Aerospace Education Foundation. In 1993, he became the president of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, a large non-profit, and he remained in that role until 2005, and continues his involvement as its president emeritus to this day.  

“There was more to my life,” Dugan said, “than being Chief.”