Thursday, June 12, 2008

Reading Between the Lines

As a career Air Force officer, it is only natural that I would note and be drawn into discussions about the blockbuster firings last week of the Secretary of the Air Force and the AF Chief of Staff. It was as it has always been at the top tier of a profession that cannot tolerate errors. The final report had been delivered regarding the investigation of a couple of incidents involving nuclear weapons. SecDef Gates didn’t take long to call over to the Pentagon and inform the top dogs that they would be out of town by sunset. Either resign or get fired.

Heads Must Roll

I’ve had the weighty responsibility of owning my own nuclear weapon. I was a certified nuclear weapon “bomb commander” when I flew the F-4 in Europe. That meant I signed for and assumed responsibility for a nuclear weapon loaded aircraft, cocked and on alert to deliver twenty times the destructive power of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki weapons to the evil empire of the Soviet Union. All this on fifteen minutes notice. I signed for the bomb on a military hand receipt. That meant I “owned” it and ostensibly would be charged for it if I lost or damaged it.

Even though I owned it, I couldn’t visit my property alone. It was inside of an alert shelter, behind a bright red line painted on the floor. To cross that line I needed a partner, also certified. We were supposed to watch each other at all times to make sure we didn’t do something unauthorized or even crazy. To insure we complied, there was a security police man armed with an M-16 standing at the entry to the shelter. If he did not identify us and we attempted to enter, he was authorized to shoot us. No questions asked.

It was all governed by regulations with codes and signals and procedures and double-check safeguards. We were drilled and trained and tested. If we failed anywhere, even once, we were decertified and would have to go through all of the training and procedures from the beginning to re-certify. It wasn’t something that was done lightly. It was too critical.

That is why the fiasco in which a half-dozen nuclear armed missiles can be loaded aboard an airplane without anyone realizing what was happening is so amazing. Where were the security guards at the storage facility? Who authorized the movement? Who was in the convoy? Who signed them over to the load crew? Where were the guards of the loaded aircraft? Why didn’t the command post know of a weapon loaded aircraft? Who briefed the aircrew? Who did the pre-flight? Who launched them? The places where this indicated procedural failure are too many to count! This was systemic failure, not singular error.

And, that is why Moseley and Wynne are gone.

But, this is politics and things are not always what they seem. Is there more behind this change of administration? Is there an agenda or underlying motivation that might have painted this scenario blacker than it seems at this distant reading? You bet!

First glance when looking for “the rest of the story” leads to kickbacks and corruption possibilities. Beyond the very inflammatory nuclear weapon story there’s the background of a contract awarded for public relations support of the USAF aerial demonstration team, the Thunderbirds. It’s big business, $50 million dollars worth. And, there seems to be ample evidence that the Chief of Staff took an active role into steering the contract into the hands that he wanted it. Is that the real cause of the firings? Might be.

Yet, there wouldn’t be an extension to the SecAF as well in such a relationship. There must be more. What about bigger fish to fry? What about major force structure decisions? What about aircraft contracts? This is the arena in which $50M becomes bait for the big one.

SecDef Gates, who seems well oriented in many areas, believes strongly that the direction of the USAF should be toward UAV, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. The unconventional war in Afghanistan and Iraq is prime territory for the long range, long endurance, low-risk characteristics of the UAV. With limited dollars to fund acquisitions, Gates wants to focus on what is working in this war. Bottom line, cut manned aircraft procurement and buy more robots.

The problem is complex. Gates has a good argument. But, we’ve got twenty years of sunk costs into the F-22 which is just becoming operational as well as F-35 which is destined to replace the bulk of our Viper fleet. There is very little role for an air dominance fighter like the F-22 in this war. But what of the next? And the one after that? Moseley and Wynne argued vociferously for the long-range force structure plan. In other words, “don’t fight the last war,” prepare for the next. That could be the agenda. Get rid of the opposition and fill the seats with amenable suits. The selections for Chief of Staff and Vice-Chief seem to validate the estimate.

Fighter Mafia Replaced

Vice Chief from Bombers

Yep, we’ve got one guy from transports and special ops who doesn’t have a single Air Medal and another from strategic bombers who also has not a single combat credential.

Alas, the days of the warrior in high places seem in decline. And, Dos Gringos will have more chance to sing the lament of the potential Predator pilot:

Predator Eulogy

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