A New Leader for a New Air Force

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General Norton Schwartz

In the 35 years following its 1947 creation, bomber pilots—think of the cigar-chomping Curtis LeMay—largely ran the U.S. Air Force. That changed starting in 1982, when an unbroken chain of nine fighter-pilots-turned-four-star-generals took charge. Which is why Monday's announcement that Defense Secretary Robert Gates was tapping General Norton Schwartz, currently running the Pentagon's globe-girdling transportation network on land, air and sea, to be the beleaguered service's 19th chief of staff, meant more than your average military promotion.

For the first time in history, the Air Force is about to be commanded by a C-130 cargo plane pilot—albeit one with extensive special operations and multi-service war-fighting experience; among the cargo planes and helicopters Schwartz has piloted is the deadly AC-130 gunship with its 105mm howitzer protruding from its belly. Still, some Air Force officers were quick to grumble, though privately, over the prospect of having a "C-130 driver" in charge". But others, like former chief of staff Merrill McPeak, think that is shortsighted. "Norty is a good guy, though obviously not cut out of the mold as a fighter pilot," says McPeak, himself a one-time lead solo pilot with the Air Force's Thunderbird fighter-jet flying team. "The important thing is to have a feeling about airpower and its capabilities, not to come from any particular piece of it."

Schwartz's feelings about the Air Force's mission, however, could represent a real shift from those of the service's traditionalists—which is precisely what Gates was looking for. Schwartz didn't hesitate to pounce into a professional debate last year in which he deliberately distanced himself from pure Air Force "airpower advocates" who persistently argue that their skills are under-appreciated. In the pages of Air Force Magazine he challenged the assertion that ground troops too often are eager to fight and therefore deny the Air Force the chance to prevail solely from the sky. "Does anyone believe that the United States Army or the United States Marine Corps actually encourages such a notion today in Iraq or Afghanistan?" Schwartz wrote in the magazine, published by the pro-service Air Force Association. Then he delivered a stinging blow, referencing perhaps the darkest day in the Air Force's recent history, when trigger-happy fighter pilots in broad daylight killed 26 U.S. troops and their allies flying on a routine mission after mistaking the choppers as Iraqi. "We as an Air Force have had our own painful experience with eagerness for contact," he said. "Some have suggested, for example, the shoot down of two UH-60 helos in Northern Iraq in 1994 as a case in point."

Gates nominated Schwartz following his decision last week to oust General T. Michael Moseley and his civilian boss, Secretary Michael Wynne, for their service's sloppy handing of nuclear weapons and their components. (Gates also nominated top Pentagon bureaucrat Michael Donley to succeed Wynne). Both appointments require Senate approval, and Schwartz's nomination apparently came just in time. His biography on the Transportation Command website— which lists his first big military mission "as a crewmember in the 1975 airlift evacuation of Saigon," a sign of humility rarely witnessed among fighter pilots—had the words "Retiring effective Jan. 1, 2009" at noon Monday, but that line was gone by day's end.

Schwartz's ascension comes at a critical time for the Air Force. Beyond loose nukes, it has been dealing with fallout from its decision to award a $35 billion next-generation aerial tanker contract to a firm partly owned by a European consortium instead of the Boeing Co. That choice has generated howls from Capitol Hill, and the Government Accountability Office will rule on the propriety of that award later this month. Gates has been upset over the Air Force's failure to provide more unmanned drones to funnel additional intelligence to the U.S. troops now fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead, the Air Force has been arguing that it needs to buy more F-22 fighters beyond the 180 already ordered—even as Gates has made clear 180 is sufficient and charged the service with a case of "next-war-itis."

Widely viewed as an astute manager, Schwartz is just the kind of officer to make such changes. In his role as chief of the U.S. Transportation Command, he has been in the middle of dealing with the skyrocketing cost of oil. One way, he suggested, might be to return to a way of flying largely abandoned before the birth of both the Pentagon and the Air Force—balloons, blimps and dirigibles. "Lighter-than-air technology," Schwartz told a Philadelphia audience May 27, "has the promise of lifting large quantities with much less reliance on hydrocarbons." If that sounds unconventional to you, imagine how it sounds to former Air Force generals, many of whom are turning over in their cockpits at the prospect of one of their own not flying highest atop the service.