Chiefs, Part 6: ‘The Accidental 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. Norton Schwartz, CSAF No. 19 (2008-2012)  

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

Then lightning struck.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The RPA Revolution  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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