Washington Watch

May 1, 2012

Choosing a New Chief

It’s not just who you know.

Early this month, a four-star general will be announced as President Obama’s nominee to be the next Chief of Staff of the US Air Force, taking over from Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, who will conclude his four-year tour in August.

In an interview in his Pentagon office, Schwartz discussed the process by which a new USAF uniformed leader is chosen.

Schwartz said he doesn’t doubt “familiarity” plays some role in the selection process. A candidate may have worked with the sitting Secretary of Defense or other senior members of an Administration in a previous capacity, and they may be comfortable with that person. However, Schwartz insisted there’s more to it than that.

“No one in any of these positions, knowing how hard these jobs are, would allow that to be the sole criteria,” he said.

More than one candidate was forwarded to Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta by Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley early this year, and Panetta took two months to “digest” the information that came with those names, Schwartz said. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs also confers with the Secretary of Defense on candidates for the top-level US military council.

“I turn into a pumpkin on the 12th of August,” Schwartz said, and he hopes the nominee will be confirmed six to eight weeks ahead of that date. That will allow a change of command at the nominee’s current assignment and give him “an opportunity to think about what he wants to do and how he wants to get started.”

If the confirmation happens too close to the turnover, “it limits that opportunity” for the Chief-select to decide “what issues” he wants to work and his priorities for the first months of his tour.

Schwartz said he thinks it’s important the nominee have that planning window. “It hasn’t happened in every instance,” he noted. “Circumstances are what they are.”

In his own case, Schwartz had already put in his papers to retire, having completed what he thought would be his last tour, as head of US Transportation Command. One evening, soon after Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates fired Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley and Secretary Michael W. Wynne, Schwartz received a call at his home from a senior defense official. That phone call constituted Schwartz’ entire interview for the job of Chief of Staff.

Schwartz said “there is a process” for choosing the Chief but not necessarily “a single process.”

He acknowledged that the way Chiefs have been chosen, historically, has changed almost every time there’s been a turnover. What’s consistent, he said, are the qualities a potential Chief of Staff has to have.

“It starts, first, with what are the attributes that are required to be successful in the job,” Schwartz said. Those include “the likely quality of military advice; how well the candidate could assist the Secretary [of the Air Force] in doing the organize, train, and equip mission; his or her capacity to build bridges and reinforce partnerships with colleagues and partner air forces around the world; and … the reputation that individual has” among civilian leaders in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill and “in the uniformed community, including the [Joint Chiefs of Staff] and the combatant commanders.”

Different Skills Needed

The specific experience and expertise Panetta is looking for in a new Chief is almost certainly not what Gates was looking for when Schwartz himself got the job, Schwartz observed.

“What might have been considered for me … probably wouldn’t be the same for … my successor,” he said, “because circumstances have changed.”

The US has a new national military strategy; “the budget environment certainly has changed; we’re no longer in Iraq; [and] there’s the prospect of a drawdown in Afghanistan.” Beyond that, there are the “major undertakings” of the Air Force in the coming four years that will require knowledge and talents probably different than those Schwartz possesses.

There are some statutory requirements a candidate must meet. He can’t be older than 64 at the end of his term as Chief, and he has to have served in a senior Joint position, for example.

Any four-star general is considered a candidate, and there is no “self-nomination” involved, Schwartz said. Nor is there, realistically, any opting out.

If the President asks an officer to serve, “I know very few people, if any, who would, without very, very good cause, decline that request,” Schwartz said. “It is a privilege to do this.”

Suggestions for a new leader come in all the time from “the alumni,” Schwartz said—prior Chiefs and Secretaries of the service—and “you take that seriously.” But the serving Chief and Secretary have usually been in the job quite some time and know the players quite well—”their strengths and weaknesses.”

Schwartz said he does not know if the White House, Pentagon leadership, or other civilian entity runs the name of a potential candidate past the Senate Armed Services Committee—which must confirm the nominee—to gauge whether there will be any heated opposition.

Some confirmations are slam dunks, with hearings lasting just a single morning. Others take longer. Schwartz himself spent a few days talking with Senators in closed session about his involvement in classified matters on the Joint Staff before his formal confirmation hearing.

After a candidate has been chosen, Schwartz said USAF will help him prepare for confirmation, but will be “scrupulous” about avoiding any activity that presumes the nomination will be confirmed.

The candidate will get a questionnaire from the SASC to get ready. Some of the questions are traditional, Schwartz said—such as “will you give your candid military advice” even if it conflicts with White House policy. Others will be very topical.

Schwartz will write an after-action report on his tour and “share” it with the new Chief. He’ll also make suggestions about where the new Chief “needs to concentrate a bit” more attention than Schwartz did. Finally, he will make sure the new Chief knows “what promises [we have] made that still need to be fulfilled. That is something that is vitally important in a handoff, because the institution’s credibility is at stake.”

F-22 Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma

The Air Force is still stumped as to why F-22 pilots occasionally experience symptoms akin to hypoxia, despite exhaustive scrutiny of the aircraft by some of the best minds in aerospace, but service leaders insist the Raptor is safe to fly and have vowed to solve the mystery eventually. In the meantime, they have taken steps to monitor closely the physiology of F-22 pilots in the cockpit and put new gear on the fighter that will add more levels of safety.

The problem caused the Air Force to ground the F-22 fleet for months last year, and there was widespread speculation it caused a fatal F-22 crash in Alaska in 2010. However, Air Force leaders and a special task force said they are satisfied the oxygen problem did not cause that crash. In fact, no accidents, crashes, or fatalities have been chalked up to the oxygen problem, disturbing as it may be.

Briefing the press at the Pentagon in March after seven months’ worth of investigation, retired Gen. Gregory S. Martin, leader of an Air Force Scientific Advisory Board task force on the F-22’s oxygen system problems, admitted, “We do not have, this day, the root cause in hand” of problems that seemingly caused symptoms of hypoxia in about two dozen Raptor pilots since 2008. Martin said 14 test flights were flown with a specially instrumented F-22, but on none of them did the problem manifest itself. The working hypotheses explored were that the aircraft’s oxygen-generation system wasn’t making enough oxygen, or that contaminants were somehow getting into pilot air, Martin said.

The Navy is having similar problems with the F/A-18, which uses a similar oxygen system, in “numbers [that] are fairly significant,” Martin said, and that service was involved with the task force as well.

Since allowing the F-22s back into the air last September, “we’ve flown over 10,000 sorties,” Maj. Gen. Charles W. Lyon, director of operations for Air Combat Command, said at the briefing.

“That’s a lot of sorties in a short amount of time,” he said, and oxygen issues have affected “0.1 percent” of those missions, meaning “we’ve had a 99.9 percent effective flying rate,” Lyon said.

He said there are no safety-driven altitude restrictions on the F-22. However, Martin noted the F-22’s service ceiling, though classified, is well above that of any previous USAF fighter.

“This airplane flies routinely above 50,000 feet,” he said. Raptor pilots wear a partial pressure suit, and cabin pressure is maintained at about 8,000 feet—higher as the aircraft climbs—to prevent explosive decompression.

However, while there have been some hypoxia-like incidents at high altitudes, Martin said some have happened at 25,000 feet or below, under conditions “where you would not expect them.” Some “pretty good tests” continue to be run, but “right now, … we don’t have the answer,” he said.

Someday We’ll Know

“With respect to an oxygen failure system, there have been no crashes and no loss of life due to the loss of oxygen to the pilot,” Martin said. In the Alaska crash, the SAB task force conferred with the Accident Investigation Board, and agreed with its conclusion that “it was not the lack of oxygen” that caused the F-22 to hit the ground. The AIB found that while the pilot in the Alaska crash, Capt. Jeffrey Haney, was indeed having some problems with his oxygen system, his attention became “channelized” while dealing with several issues at once and he lost awareness of the aircraft’s attitude during the night mission. It was the task saturation that the AIB blamed for Haney hitting the ground at high speed.

Lyon said F-22 pilots now wear oximeters to determine the amount of oxygen they are receiving. If anything disagrees with pilots’ personal baseline averages, they will be ordered to quit their mission and land immediately, at which time they’ll be met on the ground by a medical team to assess the situation and ascertain its cause, Lyon said.

Moreover, filters have been installed to catch any particulates that may contaminate a pilot’s oxygen supply. These filters can capture and help characterize particulates at parts per billion—a magnitude higher than ordinary government safety requirements of parts per million—but so far, “we haven’t found anything of a significant level yet that’s come through this,” Martin said.

There were episodes suggesting a link between hypoxic events and maneuvers involving high-G forces, Martin said, but it was inconsistent, and some events took place during straight-and-level flight, so “I would say you don’t have a correlation” to high-G maneuvers.

Some things demand immediate attention. The task force noted that USAF’s expertise in aerospace physiology has atrophied in recent years. Modeling and simulation capabilities weren’t up to the job of figuring out the problem, and the F-22 doesn’t have an “automatically activated supply of breathable air.” The fighter’s onboard oxygen-generating system, moreover, was designed to be maintenance-free, with no periodic inspections, and there’s no automatic recovery system in the aircraft if the pilot becomes incapacitated due to lack of oxygen.

Thus, the panel made 14 recommendations, which included various changes to the oxygen system, ranging from more user-friendly handles to additional sensors, monitors, data-gathering systems, and warning systems for the pilot.

The task force suggested the Air Force install an automatic ground collision avoidance system in the F-22—something left out during rounds of cost- and weight-cutting earlier in the program. It also urged USAF to hire more aerospace physiology professionals and reinvigorate that career field within the Air Force.

“The [Centers] of Excellence for Aviation Physiology, Human Systems Integration, and those sorts of things need to be re-established because we are operating an aircraft in an environment with systems that perform differently” than any previous fighter, Martin said. The F-22’s performance “may have some effect on the humans’ response and in the human reaction. We’re not aware of some of those yet,” and USAF didn’t have such a panel of expertise in-house to call on.

“I am convinced there is a root cause,” Martin said. “I want everyone to know, particularly those who operate [the F-22] and their families, we will not rest until we find that root cause.”