In Washington, where everyone loves a good guessing game, few observers speculated about anyone other than Gen. Mark A. Welsh III when, in recent months, the talk turned to the next U.S. Air Force chief of staff.
Welsh’s inside-track selection as America’s top airman has been a “done deal” for so long that no one in the nation’s capital was surprised by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s May 10 announcement that President Barack Obama is nominating Welsh to succeed Gen. Norton Schwartz, the nation’s air boss since August 2008.
“I’m tremendously honored and deeply humbled,” said Welsh, who is the current commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe (USAFE). His appointment will require the advice and consent of the Senate.
Welsh, whose callsign is “Boomer,” is an Air Force Academy graduate (class of 1976) and a former commandant at the academy (from 1999 to 2001). He has 3,400 flight hours in his logbook, mostly in the F-16 Fighting Falcon and A-10 Thunderbolt II. He flew combat missions in Operation Desert Storm (1991) and performed military liaison duties for Panetta (from 2008 to 2010) when Panetta was head of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Welsh will become the Air Force’s service chief and its voice on the Joint Chiefs of Staff at a time when Congress is angry over the administration’s fiscal year 2013 defense budget proposal and especially over the proposal’s cuts to the Air National Guard.
Prompted by Republican objections to the proposal, the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee on the day of the Welsh announcement passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would require the Air Force to maintain 2012 funding levels for the Guard. At issue is the proposal to reduce and transfer about 200 C-130 Hercules tactical airlifters, retire 102 A-10s, and cancel acquisition of 38 C-27J Spartans, which are also tactical airlift planes. Republicans in the House and several state governors including Texas’ Rick Perry – a former C-130 pilot – reject not only the administration proposal but also a compromise that came close to being sealed in recent weeks.
Change of Plan?
Some observers wonder if the administration will use the Welsh appointment to back away from its announced budget plan and agree to keep the C-130s, A-10s and C-27Js in place. At least one Capitol Hill staffer has implied that, unless there is a retreat from the budget proposal, hard-liners in the Senate could hold up the Welsh appointment. None of this has anything to do with the personality of the general, who is regarded as low-key and affable, and is well liked.
Schwartz acknowledged that Welsh will come to the job “at a different time” than Schwartz’s own ascendancy in August 2008, when then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates fired Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne and Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael “Buzz” Moseley. The nominal reason for the firing was a series of mistakes in the handling of nuclear materials. The Air Force had inadvertently flown AGM-129 advanced cruise missiles with live atomic warheads aboard a B-52 Stratofortress bomber and mistakenly shipped to Taiwan nuclear missile components that were labeled as helicopter parts.
Many in Washington thought there was another reason for the pink slips: Gates was displeased with Wynne and Moseley for their activist roles as advocates for the F-22 Raptor superfighter. Because Schwartz is a C-130 pilot with experience in the special operations world, the change was seen as an end to decades of dominance by fighter pilots in top air leadership slots. Although Welsh is a fighter pilot, he is also viewed as a generalist with broad management and acquisitions experience.
“Gen. Welsh’s proven performance, deep experience and leadership ability make him the ideal candidate to be the next chief of staff,” said Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley, who is expected to remain in his post. “Pending his confirmation, I look forward to working with Mark to continue building on the outstanding accomplishments achieved by Gen. Schwartz.”