A June 7 New York Times editorial commended Defense Secretary Robert Gates for giving the ax to his Air Force secretary and chief of staff. According to the Times editors, Michael W. Wynn and General T. Michael Moseley were dismissed for "systemic problems in securing nuclear weapons and components, a primary Air Force responsibility." The Times called the move "absolutely necessary" and applauded Mr. Gates for "raising the bar at the Pentagon."
Gates had good reasons to fire his air service's top guns, but they went beyond the issues the Times discussed, and he may have raised the bar, but he hasn't raised it high enough yet.
His Air Force is an unmitigated cluster bomb.
The Air Force's most visible buffoonery has been its handling of nuclear weapons. Last year, a B-52 accidentally flew from North Dakota to Louisiana carrying nuclear armed cruise missiles. Then in March 2008 it was discovered that a year and a half earlier four nuclear warhead fuses were mistakenly shipped to Taiwan instead of helicopter batteries.
A Pentagon enquiry found a "pattern of poor performance" in the Air Force's handling of sensitive weapons, and concluded that the decline in standards had been identified but not effectively addressed for over a decade.
Here we've been worried that terrorists might get a nuclear weapon from a Muslim country. Let's hope Pakistan has better control of its nukes than we do.
What's the Word?
Forgetting where they laid the nukes isn’t the only mushroom cloud hovering over the Air Force's head. General Moseley has been under scrutiny for his role in a defense contract scandal involving the Air Force's Thunderbirds flight demonstration team. A $50 million contract was awarded to Strategic Message Solutions to "jazz up" the Thunderbirds' air show. SMS, a company that barely existed when it won the contract in late 2005, was headed by a recently retired four-star general and a wealthy civilian pilot who had become chummy with Air Force brass and the Thunderbirds. A two-year Department of Defense inspector general investigation concluded that, "the December 2005 award to SMS was tainted with improper influence, irregular procurement practices, and preferential treatment." The SMS bid was twice as high as a competing bid.
Air Force Major General Stephen Goldfein, now vice director of the Pentagon's Joint Staff, was a key culprit in the SMS shenanigans. Goldfein arranged for President Bush to record a testimonial for SMS in the White House Map Room that was included in the company's contract bid. The seven-member panel that selected the Thunderbird contract recipient caved when Goldfein told them, "I don't pick the winner, but if I did, I'd pick SMS." I think I would have caved too. In case you didn't know it, not every three-star general has the kind of clout it takes to get the president to do a commercial.
Yeah, a measly $50 million contract is chump change in the grand scheme of a defense budget that easily tops a half trillion dollars a year, but please keep in mind that SMS wasn't paid that kind of money to buy the Thunderbirds new airplanes, or even new airplane engines, or even to spray new paint on the airplanes. They were paid to "jazz up" the air show. I don't know how you'd manufacture $50 million worth of jazz, but you'd probably have to bring Miles Davis back from the dead just for starters.
What's the Price?
Michael Wynn isn't the first Bush administration Air Force Secretary to have the door hit him on the way out. In 2004 James G. Roche tasted shoe leather when he was found in violation of two military ethics rules related to a $30 billion air-to-air refueling program. Roche was lucky to only lose his job. Darleen Druyun, a former senior Air Force acquisitions official involved with the program, was sentenced to nine months in jail. The story behind the rent-a-tanker scandal is more convoluted than the official explanation of why we invaded Iraq. It's worth noting, though, that Druyun got busted for granting special favors to Boeing, which was one of the companies bidding on the tanker contract and with whom she was trying to get a job. The other company vying for the contract was Northrop Grumman, where Roche was once a senior executive.
Time passed. The $30 billion dope deal metastasized into a $40 billion dope deal that Boeing squealed bloody murder about when Northrop Grumman won it in February 2008. The forced resignations of Wynn and Moselely have given Boeing new hope that the Air Force will reconsider its tanker decision, so off we go again.
$1.4 Billion Twice?
The $40 billion tanker deal could further blossom into a $100 billion tanker deal, so we're talking serious money now, but we're still just talking about tankers, too. The real fraud, waste and abuse come into play when we start talking about combat aircraft.
Days before the winner of the tanker competition was announced in February, one of our B-2 Spirit stealth bombers managed to shoot itself down while taking off from Guam on a routine flight. "The Spirit of Kansas" was the first B-2 to crash in the platform's 15-year history.
By June, an Air Force investigation had determined that the crash was caused by "moisture in sensors." The Air Force also estimated the loss from the mishap at $1.4 billion. Heh. If B-2s only cost $1.4 billion apiece then a bottle of Coca Cola still costs a nickel. I'd be very surprised to learn that the lifetime cost of a B-2 is a penny less than $3 billion.
Secretary Gates has been critical of the Air Force for focusing on vaguely defined "future" threats and not paying enough attention to asymmetric adversaries like the ones we face in Iraq and Afghanistan. In apparent response to Gates's admonition, the Air Force has initiated a "black" program to develop the next generation stealth bomber, one that will feature a radar cross section one tenth the size of a mosquito and, presumably, moisture resistant sensors.
Leave it to the United States Air Force to pursue production of multi-billion dollar stealth bombers when our most pressing threats are pre-adolescent suicide bombers.
The Air Force also loves to argue that it needs more of its ridiculously expensive F-22 stealth fighters in order to maintain "the nation's global air dominance." This Air Force that claims to have global air dominance is the very same one that failed to defend its nation from an air raid that consisted of four commercial jets armed with box cutters.
Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes at Pen and Sword. Jeff's novel Bathtub Admirals (Kunati Books) is on sale now.