Chiefs, Part 5: ‘Buzz Was Right’

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. T. Michael Moseley, CSAF 18 (2005-’08)        

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.’” 

Not Gates. 

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.’

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?”

“Oh, yeah.”  

“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.”