Gen. Mark Welsh, the newly appointed chief of staff of the Air Force, must realize that his greatest challenge is not sequestration but the USAF’s poor reputation and relationship with Congress. Fixing this is a priority if the USAF wants to successfully navigate the turbulent waters of Washington politics.
The roots of the Air Force’s problems with Congress originated when Gen. Welsh’s predecessor, Gen. Norton Schwartz, became chief of staff after then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced that he was firing Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne and Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley in June of 2008. Officially, this was due to several high profile incidents where the USAF’s safeguards for protecting and transporting nuclear weapons had broken down.
Whispers within the Pentagon, however, argue that Wynne and Moseley lost their jobs because they had become too close with some members of Congress and kept lobbying for more F-22 Raptors against Gates’ wishes, who favored more counterinsurgent-support platforms such as the MC-12W Liberty and the C-27 Spartan. Schwartz’s marching orders were clear: Stay away from Congress. No lobbying for platforms or funding not approved by the Secretary of Defense.
Consequently, during Gen. Schwartz’s tenure, a noticeably less-personable relationship developed with Congress. Most agree, at least up until this last year, that Schwartz’s performance as chief of staff was solid and he wisely avoided any major confrontations with the Pentagon. Nonetheless, in his haste to avoid the ire of the Secretary, he moved the Air Force too far in the wrong direction. It is true that the USAF stopped lobbying for resources behind the Secretary’s back, but they also stopped, for the most part, developing relationships within Congress at all.
As a result, when recent scandals broke out at Dover Air Force Base, over the mishandling of remains of fallen troops; at Lackland Air Force Base, over sexual abuse charges by training instructors; at the Air Force Academy, over cheating and sexual abuse charges; and the ongoing safety concerns of the F-22 fleet, the Air Force found they had few friends within Congress to support them. Additionally, anger within Congress continued to grow as the USAF was slow in briefing them on any of these developments, and, when it did, it provided incomplete documentation and reporting.
The USAF also broke the cardinal rule of congressional politics: Do not propose job cuts during an election year. Yet this is precisely what happened when they recommended major cuts to Guard and Reserve units without first addressing local and federal lawmakers’ concerns. They also advocated moving active duty units to other locations, severely reducing the necessity of several bases. These examples only served to highlight the disconnect between the Air Force and Congress. In our current climate of fiscal constraints, the USAF cannot afford to maintain its strikingly out-of-touch relationship with Congress; after all, Congress holds the purse strings.
After a decade of ground-intensive wars, the USAF is poised to regain its lost strategic significance. However, if the USAF wants to successfully capitalize on the moment, it needs to find the right balance in engaging with Congress. The USAF, or any service, should not be in the business of lobbying for resources not supported by the Secretary of Defense. Nor should any service be afraid to make strategic proposals or hard choices that Congress may disapprove of. However, these abilities must be carefully measured with efforts to brief, include, and listen to the concerns of lawmakers on the Hill. For years now, the USAF’s relationship with Congress has bounced from one extreme to the other. Gen. Welsh’s challenge is to regain the USAF’s lost political support. This will not be easy, but the first step in fixing a problem is recognizing there is one.
Moriarty is a visiting scholar at the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies in the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University