Washington Watch

June 1, 2008

L’Affaire Thunderbird …

Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne on April 18 disciplined a two-star general officer and four other less senior airmen based on evidence that they took part in improperly steering a nearly $50 million contract to a favored vendor.

USAF canceled the deal two years ago. Now, having dealt out punishment, the service considered the matter closed, but some on Capitol Hill disagreed. Several Senators—including Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee—want further investigation of the affair, especially as it pertains to actions of senior officers. (See next item.)

Wynne took “administrative action” against Maj. Gen. Stephen M. Goldfein and four others not publicly named. The five played roles in the award of the contract to a company called Strategic Message Solutions—a firm well-connected to both the Thunderbirds demonstration team and Air Force officers.

The contract was for Thunderbirds Air Show Production Services (TAPS), which entailed the creation of a jumbotron-type multimedia program to coincide with Thunderbirds performances at air shows.

Wynne based his actions on the findings of a two-year-long probe conducted by the Defense Department inspector general office. The IG, presenting a 251-page report, contended that the Air Force’s December 2005 award to SMS “was tainted with improper influence, irregular procurement practices, and preferential treatment.”

SMS was headed by Ed Shipley, a member of the Air Force’s “Heritage Flight,” a group whose owner-pilots fly vintage aircraft under the auspices of Air Combat Command, and who had been made an “honorary Thunderbird.” (The IG report redacted Shipley’s name.)

Wynne had requested the probe after an SMS competitor complained about not being picked for the contract, even though the competitor had more direct experience and more applicable assets, and bid half of the $49.9 million awarded to SMS.

The IG claimed Goldfein improperly inserted himself into the selection process and exerted command influence on some of his subordinates to steer the work to SMS. Goldfein, who at the time was commander of the USAF Warfare Center at Nellis AFB, Nev., was in the chain of command for most of those on the source selection committee, which included members of the Thunderbirds air-ground team. Goldfein talked his way into being appointed as an “advisor” to the committee, and had the requirements altered in such a way that they favored SMS on a key point.

Members of the source selection committee told the IG that Goldfein made a remark to the effect of, “If I had a vote, I’d select SMS.” The source selection chairman, whose name was also redacted, told other members he knew SMS was not the best value choice, but he “caved” to Goldfein’s pressure.

… and Questions About Higher-Ups

Even as the Air Force was delivering its punishment to the five airmen, the IG’s report aroused sharp Congressional interest in the actions of some other present and former officers. Among those was the Chief of Staff, Gen. T. Michael Moseley.

Levin and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote to Pentagon Inspector General Claude M. Kicklighter on April 21, saying that Kicklighter’s report “raises serious questions about the role played by other more senior current and former Air Force officials.”

Levin and McCain asked the IG to take a second look. They wanted Kicklighter to report back to the committee and the Secretary of the Air Force, Michael W. Wynne.

Another, angrier letter to Wynne came from Sen. Claire C. McCaskill (D-Mo.), also on the committee. McCaskill said that she could not understand why Wynne had not reprimanded Moseley or relieved Goldfein of his duties. (The Air Force said that since Goldfein currently works on the Joint Staff, it is not up to USAF to determine whether he should be removed from his post.)

One obvious reason is that the IG report did not accuse Moseley of any wrongdoing.

However, the report makes plain that he was in favor of the project and discussed it with subordinates, including Goldfein. Moseley obtained $8.5 million from a special “contingency fund” to get SMS rolling on a sole-source contract. He accepted hospitality from the owner of SMS while the contract was in competition, though he insisted the matter was not discussed at the time.

The complex SMS case began in 2004 when the head of the company did some free work for the Thunderbirds. Shipley had a “silent partner”—retired Air Force Gen. Hal M. Hornburg, a former head of ACC. Hornburg, said the IG report, approached the Air Force about a video program that would fill dead time in the Thunderbirds show. It isn’t clear who on the USAF side set the project in motion.

According to testimony and e-mails gathered by the IG, Moseley believed “Thundervision” could play a role in a “strategic communications” effort to educate the American public about the value of the Air Force. He wanted the video shown on the History Channel or similar venues, or for free as public service announcements.

E-mails reproduced in the report showed that Hornburg’s successor at ACC, now-retired Gen. Ronald E. Keys, told Moseley that ACC could not spare $50 million for a video show at a time when, due to budget contraints, it could only fund 75 percent of its base operating support needs. Keys wrote, “I cannot support burning that kind of money to fix something that isn’t broken when I am not buying fixes to things that are broken.” Keys noted that the $50 million could fund many important projects.

Moseley replied by telling Keys to “hold off killing or deciding anything.”

Although Moseley initially produced money to jump-start the project, ACC contracting officials nixed it, saying that it had to be competed. Top USAF officials also determined that the ability to produce the videos to be shown on Thundervision may have existed in-house, but they were unsure if the unit would survive the base realignment and closure process, and Moseley opted not to use it.

Moseley provided to the IG an April 28, 2005 e-mail he termed “the opposite of a smoking gun.” In it, Mosely said, he had handed off details and execution of the project to contracting experts of ACC and the Air Weapons Center at Nellis AFB, Nev.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) offered a speech on the Senate floor praising Wynne and Moseley as “leaders to have confidence in” and “tenacious in their support of the young men and women who serve under them.” Hatch decried the “misrepresentations … [and] inaccurate assertions” about the case, saying it had “already been dealt with by the proper military authorities.”

Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, answered “yes” April 29 during a breakfast meeting with defense reporters when asked if he still has confidence in Moseley’s ability to lead the Air Force after the Thunderbird Air Show Production Services contract affair.

A Pentagon spokesman told Air Force Magazine that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates “continues to have confidence” in the leadership of the Air Force, but is awaiting the results from “investigations” into various USAF missteps before forming any final judgments.

At Maxwell, a Strange Interlude

In an April meeting with military reporters, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates did something unusual: He clarified some of his statements about the Air Force that weren’t really ambiguous in the first place and shouldn’t have needed clarification.

Gates on April 21 gave a major address at the Air War College, Maxwell AFB, Ala. (See “Gates’ Maxwell Speech,” p. 69.) In it, he lauded the Air Force for its contribution to US success in the wars of Southwest Asia, its efforts to apply lessons learned to its current forces, and to adjust to new battlefield realities.

At the same time, Gates urged each of the four military services to be more creative in getting new capabilities swiftly into the fight. Gates specifically wanted more intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) assets in the theater, and said the services needed to bypass their usual bureaucracies to make it happen faster.

The speech was piped into the Pentagon pressroom. Somehow, reporters discerned in Gates’ remarks a pointed attack on the Air Force, with the charge being that USAF was all but sitting out the wars being fought in Afghanistan and Iraq.

According to Brian Williams of the NBC Nightly News, the Pentagon chief had criticized USAF “for not providing enough help for American troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Brit Hume of Fox News said Gates had just “dropped some bombs on Air Force brass for being too slow” to adapt to various new forms of warfare.

Most news outlets took their cue from an Associated Press story, which said Gates criticized the Air Force for not doing more to contribute to “immediate wartime needs.” Such stories circulated, mostly uncontested, for two days.

With one exception. Within hours of Gates speech, the Air Force Association issued a statement noting that USAF had already deployed 85 percent of its Predator UAVs to Central Command for combat operations, and noted that the service was two years ahead of schedule in pumping UAVs into the combat theater. It also pointed out that USAF had offered to go “all in” with even its training assets, but Gates had declined this offer.

“To say the Air Force is not giving enough forces to support operations is mistaken,” noted AFA’s statement.

AFA also maintained that Gates, if he actually agreed with the press’ interpretation of his speech, must have had in mind the Army when he made his remarks or isn’t getting enough “air advice.” Of the top 11 positions in the Joint Staff, said AFA’s statement, “none … are filled by airmen.”

At a Pentagon press conference later that week, Gates was asked if he felt the coverage of his speech was accurate. He expressed his puzzlement at the spin his remarks had been given.

Gates said that “if you read the text … you’ll see that it’s not a dig at the Air Force at all. In fact, a significant part of the speech was full of praise at what the Air Force has done” in the theater. He reiterated his kudos to the service, and said that his remarks about increasing the nation’s ISR had been aimed at “all the services.”

He explained that “in too many instances, there is a tendency to look out a year or two … or three” in terms of programs and standard processes, “and not enough willingness to think out of the box, and how … we get more help to the theater now.” He also said ISR was merely one example of what he was talking about.

The message, he said, was “about, frankly, the bureaucracy … in the Department of Defense as a whole. It really had nothing to do with the people downrange. They’re doing an incredible job.”

Gates elaborated that he had created a task force to look at ways that ISR assets in-theater could be quickly multiplied to answer commanders’ demands. The task force, led by Brad Berkson, director of program analysis and evaluation, is to provide a quick-turnaround plan to mobilize Pentagon resources to the problem. After interim reports at 30 and 60 days, a final plan is due to Gates this month.

The task force, Gates explained, will take inventory of all ISR assets in all the services, and see if training programs could be adjusted to “squeeze a little bit more” of the platforms into the fight. It will then visit the theater and determine if forward deployed forces are “making maximum possible use of the assets they have,” and whether more capability can be squeezed out there, as well. Finally, the task force is to offer ideas on streamlining the process of acquiring and fielding ISR assets.

On one count, though, Gates did chide the Air Force. He told the Maxwell audience that adaptation will require “rethinking long-standing service assumptions and priorities about which missions require certified pilots and which do not.” The Air Force maintains that its unmanned aerial vehicles require remote piloting by rated officers, but Gates disagrees.