AF Problems Deep-seated, Says Senior Senator

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A senior Senate lawmaker, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), told me this morning that he believes the Air Force suffers from systemic problems and must examine how it buys weapons, how it manages its forces and perhaps rebuild its long-term strategy in the face of todays changing international situation.

Sessions a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and ranking member of its strategic forces subcommittee, said he and his colleagues arent certain how to proceed yet to fix the service.

Sessions did praise Gates for his actions in sacking Air Force Secretary Mike Wynne and Chief of Staff Mike Moseley, noting he had helped reestablish personal responsibility among senior leaders.

A congressional source, asked about the likelihood that Congress might undertake a probing look at the Air Force to try and figure out what must be done to rebuild the service said any action was unlikely before the election. Senior lawmakers are already being drawn into daily management of the campaign message wars. And senators such as Sessions, while eager to do the right thing, will find it difficult to muster support from their colleagues for a bipartisan effort such as this would require.

Sessions comments came the day after Defense Secretary Robert Gates made extraordinary visits -- well intentioned and well executed to Air Force commands to deliver the message that he believes the service matters and has his support and to give service officials the chance to ask him questions face-to-face. One of the most interesting exchanges shed some bright light on just how much far apart are the secretary and the Air Force.

Gates, flying to Colorado Springs, Colo., told reporters that he took the opportunity of a question about the F-22s to address the speculation that, in truth, these changes were due to disagreements over the F-22. And I said that that was not true, that in fact that issue had been settled for some weeks. And that I had essentially made the decision that we would allocate enough money to keep the production line open so that the next administration could decide on the balance between buying more F-22s and buying more joint-strike fighters. And I thought that that was a significant procurement decision that ought not be made in the last six or seven months of an administration.

You can imagine how much the Air Force officers believed that, no matter how true it is. The gap is so wide that even gates spokesman, Geoff Morrell, felt compelled to tell reporters that despite rumors: the F-22 issue had nothing to do with the secretary's decision for a change of leadership in the Air Force.Gates briefly mentioned the acquisition side of the Air Forces problems, noting that he is figuring out how to get the modernization program back on track. He gave the example of the tanker decision. I mean, we're 10 years past when we should have started replacing the tanker fleet.

Gates said that no one asked him about his recommendation of Gen. Norton Schwartz, leader of Transportation Command, as Air Force Chief of Staff. A reporter asked about the choice. He's very process-oriented. I mean, the changes that he's made in TRANSCOM have been pretty dramatic in terms of how you manage all these priorities and the logistics of supporting the war in two theaters with limited capability But I also liked his experience and mobility and jointness. He has a lot of joint experience. His whole command has been about how do you support all of the services. So that was important. And frankly, also, the Special Operations experience.

-- Colin Clark

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