Chiefs, Part 2: A Quest for Stability, A Last Stand on Integrity

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 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 Chiefs from 1990 to the present.

Gen. Ronald Fogleman, CSAF No. 15 (1994-’97)

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 that 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. 

“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.