Behind Defense Secretary Gates's Air Force Shake-Up

The departures of Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Chief of Staff Gen T. Michael Moseley come as little surprise in the corridors of the Pentagon. A showdown between the Air Force and Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been brewing for a year or more.

The proximate trigger of Gates' decision to ask for these resignations was a report on the circumstances that led up a B-52 carrying six nuclear-tipped missiles under its wings on a flight down the length of the United States last summer—without the bomber's crew even realizing the missiles had warheads. (Fortunately, the warheads weren't live, so there was no danger of a nuclear explosion, even if the B-52 had crashed.) The post-mortem—following an inquiry handled by a Navy admiral—remains unpublished. But it is widely said to be "scathing" (as one civilian official, who requested anonymity discussing sensitive matters, put it) about the sloppiness of the procedures which gave rise to the incident—as well as the unruffled response from the Air Force in the face of the screw-up. The attitude seemed to be that the incident, while regrettable, reflected merely low-level failures to follow established procedures for handling nuclear weapons. (In the subsequent uproar, officials discovered more or less by chance that four Air Force ballistic missile fuses which arm the nuclear warheads had been mistakenly shipped to Taiwan in 2006—and not retrieved for 17 months.)

Gates took a more systemic view: if the Air Force is sloppy about nuclear weapons, what isn't it sloppy about ? The evident failure of Wynne and his top aides to take the incident as seriously as he did was the last straw. (Wynne issued a statement, saying "recent events convince methat it is now time for a new leader to take the stick and for me to move on.") The same sort of failure prompted Gates' decision to fire Army Secretary Francis Harvey in March last year, in the wake of the Washington Post's revelations about poor living conditions for recuperating wounded at Walter Reed military hospital in the capital. Gates did not expect Harvey to have had personal knowledge of conditions there—though he did think a more inquisitive Army Secretary would have made it his business to know. Once conditions were revealed, Gates expected Harvey to make the job of fixing the facilities a 24-hour-a-day priority. In Gates' view, Harvey didn't. So Harvey headed for the exits.

The nuclear incident was the culmination of a year or more of growing tensions between Gates and the Air Force command—and, to some degree, with all branches of the service. The root of the matter: Gates and the military disagree about how best to prepare for the challenges ahead. The Defense secretary sees Iraq and Afghanistan as portents of the kind of conflicts the U.S. is most likely to be involved in over the next generation—"asymmetrical", messy, manpower-intensive. By contrast, he has come to believe, the services are infected with what he calls "next-war-it is"—preparing to fight some future state vs. state conflict of a more traditional nature, and spending billions of dollars to buy the ultra-high-tech equipment to fight that future conflict.

There is more than a grain of truth to his concern. Each branch has its favored programs. The Army is spending billions on its Future Combat Systems—a vast network of vehicles and missiles--while fiercely resisting the purchase of sufficient mine-resistant vehicles for its soldiers in Iraq (resistant, that is, until Gates intervened). The Navy is still pursuing the dream of a "stealthy" combat vessel. The Marines—having more or less rescued one fantasy, the half-helicopter/half-aircraft Osprey—are pursuing another: the Amphibious Assault Vehicle, a sort of giant amored cigarette boat which, the service hopes, could one day pull off another dazzling landing like D-Day or Inchon.

But the Air Force is arguably the most committed to this high-tech, major-war vision. Its priority projects are the F-22 and F-35 next-generation combat aircraft; there is a bomber-of-the-future already under secret development. When Gates decided that the number of F-22s would have to be cut, the Air Force fairly brazenly let Congress know that their target buy would remain the same. Meanwhile, the Air Force's insistence that only trained pilots can fly the remotely-piloted drones—UAVs, unmanned aerial sytems—over Iraq and Afghanistan has slowed the deployment of some of the bigger drones. Getting more UAVs in theater, Gates said recently, has "been like pulling teeth."

Within the Pentagon these tensions are coming to a head now because Gates is in the middle of preparing the next defense budget. DOD has to plan so far ahead that Gates is now working on the numbers for 2010. It will, in effect, be his first budget; the 2009 budget that Gates defended on Capitol Hill earlier this year was Donald Rumsfeld's handiwork. The new budget marks Gates's effort to begin reshaping the services' big-ticket priorities.

For a man whose arrival at the Pentagon was thought to presage a rest after the rambunctious reign of Rumsfeld, Gates has been brutal with the top military leadership. Wynne and Moseley are the latest in the line that Gates has helped into retirement; they follow the chairman of the joint chiefs, Gen. Peter Pace; the deputy chairman Adm. Edmund Gianbastiani; the mouthy Adm. William Fallon, boss of Central Command. Few doubt that Secretary Gates now has the military's full attention.