Defense Media Network

Interview with Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force

Gen. Norton A. Schwartz is chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force. As chief, he serves as the senior uniformed Air Force officer responsible for the organization, training, and equipping of 680,000 active-duty, Guard, Reserve, and civilian forces serving in the United States and overseas. As a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the general and other service chiefs function as military advisers to the secretary of defense, National Security Council, and the president.

Schwartz graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1973. He is an alumnus of the National War College, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a 1994 fellow of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Seminar XXI. He has commanded Special Operations Command-Pacific, Alaskan Command, the Alaskan North American Aerospace Defense Command Region, and the 11th Air Force. Prior to assuming his current position, Schwartz was commander, U.S. Transportation Command, and served as the single manager for global air, land, and sea transportation for the Department of Defense.

Schwartz is a command pilot with more than 4,400 flying hours in a variety of aircraft. He participated as a crew member in the 1975 airlift evacuation of Saigon, and in 1991 served as Chief of Staff of the Joint Special Operations Task Force for northern Iraq in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He recently took the time to answer questions from Defense senior writer Rober F. Dorr on the Air Force’s changes today and the way ahead. 


Robert F. Dorr: With regard to the Washington, D.C., budget environment, tell us about functioning in the nation’s capital when no one can even predict when, or whether, Congress will enact a budget. How do you make plans in this climate of uncertainties?

Gen. Norton A. Schwartz: The Budget Control Act [of 2011] establishes certain ceilings, so we do at least have that. We also know generally what our targets are. So despite all of the challenges, we will continue to work through the budget process. We have a great Defense Department team working this, and that starts at the top. [Defense] Secretary [Leon] Panetta and [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Gen. [Martin E.] Dempsey have been working with the entire senior leadership of the department, including the service chiefs, the service secretaries, the combatant commanders, and the under secretaries of defense, to identify more than $450 billion in savings over 10 years. Secretary Panetta has made clear that this process must be strategy driven, and that it must be a team effort. So as a team, we’re looking out to 2020 to determine how to ensure we have the joint force our nation requires.

It is interesting to note that those who came into the service shortly before or immediately after 9/11, who are now field-grade officers or mid-grade noncommissioned officers, have never experienced a defense budget downturn. Those of us who have been in a little longer have seen two or three of these during our professional careers, and we know that this is not a time for despair.

We will work through this downturn just as our predecessors did on more than one occasion. And if we have the right principle in mind – that whatever size we end up, we will ensure we are a superb Air Force – we will be OK. We won’t be able to be in as many places at once. We probably won’t be able to handle multiple contingencies at the same time, as we perhaps could when we had more depth, but we will not compromise on readiness and will certainly remain the well-respected Air Force that this nation deserves.


The nation’s air arm today has about the number of people it had when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Is the Air Force capable of full-spectrum operations today?

While I will concede there is some relationship between number of personnel and capability, I wouldn’t say it is the only indicator. I think there is no doubt that, despite our relatively lower end-strength at present, when compared to 1991, for example, we’re still the best Air Force on the planet and still capable of operations across the full spectrum of conflict. Our nation requires full-spectrum air and space power, and its ability to travel great distances with unmatched speed and versatility. The Air Force has demonstrated this capability many times in the first decade of the new century – in counterinsurgency operations in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as in response to natural disasters in Haiti, Chile, Indonesia, and Pakistan.

In fact, look at March 2011. We in the Air Force called that month “March Madness” to describe our concurrent responses to two crisis situations, when airmen were responsible for evacuating thousands of American citizens and delivering U.S. relief supplies to Japan, even as they flew combat sorties in Libya. This simultaneous effort ranged more than 6,500 miles in distance, and spanned the full operational spectrum from humanitarian relief to combat airpower. This was all done while still operating in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other locations all around the world. So our Air Force today is clearly capable of full-spectrum operations. What we must do now is ensure our force structure remains at a high state of readiness and at least equally versatile, even if some of our capacity to concurrently operate in multiple parts of the world is diminished due to fiscal constraints.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

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    Ulick mcEvaddy

    General. Enjoy a fine period of retirement. You have done a great job. I might not always have agreed with you ut I respect your service. You are a great warrior. Thank you.