LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. Defense Secretary Robert Gates launched the Air Force in a new direction Monday by announcing an unusual choice as the service's next uniformed chief and by declaring an immediate halt to personnel reductions that he said had put the Air Force under too much wartime strain.
Before flying here to explain his moves to airmen and their commanders, Gates recommended that President Bush nominate Gen. Norton Schwartz, a 35-year veteran with a background in Air Force special operations, as the new Air Force chief of staff, replacing Gen. Michael Moseley, who has been sacked.
In a sweeping shake up, Gates also formally sent former Air Force official Michael Donley's name to the White House to be the next secretary of the beleaguered service. Bush quickly announced he would nominate Donley, and designated him as acting secretary until he is confirmed by the Senate.
Gates said Donley and Schwartz were coming in at an important time in the history of the Air Force.
"General Schwartz's unique set of experiences and accomplishments make him the right officer at this time to lead the Air Force," Gates told an audience of several hundred servicemen and Air Force civilians.
Gates announced on Thursday that he was removing Moseley from the chief's job and Wynne as its top civilian to hold them accountable for failing to fully correct an erosion of nuclear-related performance standards, a concern linked to the cross country flight last August of a B-52 carrying armed nuclear weapons.
Gates said he felt compelled to sweep out the current Air Force leadership to halt a long-term drift in the service's focus. But he also made a point of praising the Air Force's contributions to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Your contributions have made a lifesaving difference to those fighting on the ground," Gates said.
He noted that the Air Force has been engaged in combat continuously for 17 years, beginning with the 1991 Gulf War and including years of flying combat missions in "no fly" zones over northern and southern Iraq.
"Your families have also borne this burden, and the Air Force has its own fallen heroes often struck down while serving on the ground alongside our soldiers and Marines," Gates said. "We know this, and we are working to ease the burden. For example, I intend immediately to stop further reductions in Air Force personnel."
In 2006 the Air Force began a multiyear reduction in its ranks, taking it from nearly 360,000 to an intended target of 316,000 by 2010. By halting further cuts, Gates would leave the Air Force with about 330,000 personnel, Air Force officials here said.
After delivering his remarks, Gates held a question-and-answer session with his audience. Before he began taking questions he asked members of the news media to leave the room "so that we can have a candid discussion inside the family."
Tony McPeak, the retired general who was Air Force chief of staff during the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, said in a telephone interview Monday that he welcomed the selections of Schwartz and Donley.
"It's not a mainstream kind of thing" to choose an officer with Schwartz's extensive background in special operations, McPeak said. But Schwartz also has a variety of other experience, including holding senior positions on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "It's good to have that" broader perspective on the Air Force, said McPeak.
In an effort to get at least part of the new team in place right away, Gates asked Bush to designate Donley as the acting secretary effective June 21 a move that would allow him to begin work without waiting for Senate confirmation.
Schwartz had been thought to be in line for retirement, and his replacement as head of the U.S. Transportation Command, Lt. Gen. William Fraser III, had been announced in April. But on Monday Gates recommended that Fraser be nominated as the next vice chief of the Air Force.
And he said Gen. Duncan McNabb, the current vice chief, should move to the Transportation Command job, succeeding Schwartz.
In remarks later aboard his plane en route from Langley to Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., Gates told reporters that he had a 55-minute session with the airmen at Langley. He told them that the importance of the Air Force's nuclear mission was likely to grow in the future, in part due to the threat of proliferating nuclear weapons technology but also because Russia is putting an increasing emphasis on modernizing its nuclear arsenal.
"Russia really is not investing very much in their conventional (non-nuclear) forces," Gates said. "It seems clear that the Russians are focused, as they look to the future, more on strengthening their nuclear capabilities." That contrasts with Russia's historical emphasis on a large conventional force, much of which eroded after the Cold War ended.
On Tuesday, Gates plans to make speeches at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., home of Air Force Space Command, which has responsibility for the service's nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile force, and at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., home of Air Mobility Command, whose tanker refueling aircraft are part of the nuclear bomber mission.
When he announced he was firing Wynne and Moseley, Gates expressed disappointment that shortcomings in the Air Force's handling of its nuclear mission had been allowed to persist.
He said at the time that his decision was based mainly on the damning conclusions of an internal report on the mistaken shipment to Taiwan of four Air Force fusing devices for ballistic missile nuclear warheads. And he linked the underlying causes of that slip-up to the North Dakota-to-Louisiana flight last August of the B-52 bomber that was mistakenly armed with six nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.
The report asserted that slippage in the Air Force's nuclear standards was a "problem that has been identified but not effectively addressed for over a decade."
Gates said the Taiwan mistake did not compromise U.S. nuclear weapons technology and did not pose a physical danger, but it "raised questions in the minds of the public as well as internationally."
Donley served as acting secretary of the Air Force for seven months in 1993 and was the service's top financial officer from 1989 to 1993. He is currently the Pentagon's director of administration and management, and has held a variety of strategy and policy positions in government, including a stint on the National Security Council from 1984 to 1989. He served in the Army from 1972 to 1975. He earned bachelors and masters degrees from the University of Southern California.
Schwartz has held several high-level assignments on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and has been commander of the U.S. Transportation Command since September 2005.
Schwartz, a pilot with more than 4,200 flying hours, served as Commander of the Special Operations Command-Pacific, as well as Alaskan Command, Alaskan North American Aerospace Defense Command Region, and the 11th Air Force. Prior to assuming his current position, Schwartz was Director, the Joint Staff, Washington, D.C.
He attended the Air Force Academy and the National War College, and he participated as a crew member in the 1975 airlift evacuation of Saigon. In 1991, he served as chief of staff of the Joint Special Operations Task Force for Northern Iraq in operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.