The longest-serving Air Force secretary, Michael Donley, who was credited with helping to create Global Strike Command to improve oversight of the service’s nuclear missiles, retired Friday following a farewell ceremony at Joint Base Andrews, Md.
Donley assumed the role in June 2008 after his predecessor Michael Wynne and former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley resigned amid mishaps involving the nuclear force. In one notorious incident in 2007, a B-52 bomber was mistakenly loaded with nuclear warheads and flown across the country, triggering a widespread review and reorganization within the service.
Donley played a role in the 2009 creation of Air Force Global Strike Command, headquartered at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., and tasked with managing and overseeing the services’ fleet of B-2 and B-52 long-range strike bombers, as well as its arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs.
The 23,000-member command has a mission to “develop and provide combat ready forces for nuclear deterrence and global strike operations – safe, secure, effective – to support the President of the United States and Combatant Commanders,” according to the service.
The organization, which flies B-52s on regular missions in the Pacific region, in 2011 was involved in enforcing a no-fly zone in Libya. Three B-2s with the 509th Bomb Wing on March 19 of that year struck 45 targets at an airfield in Ghardabiya “with great precision,” according to an article in Air Force Magazine.
Global Strike Command emerged from the Cold War-era organization called Strategic Air Command and is also designed to deploy U.S. power quickly and with great effect, according to Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group Corp., an aerospace and defense market research firm in Fairfax, Va.
“This is a way of rapidly deploying air power in areas where there may not be an existing capability nearby,” he said. “This is about the ability to project global power rapidly. If you look at it from an operational viewpoint and not just the hardware, this is an ‘effects-driven’ capability.”
Yet more than three years after the command was established, lawmakers remained concerned about the service’s management of nuclear weaponry.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., last month said inspection shortcomings that led to the suspension of at least 17 junior officers at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., from their authority to control and launch Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles “could not be more troubling.”
Donley defended the changes implemented on his watch, saying the service over the past several years has significantly strengthened the inspection process. “I am confident in the Air Force’s ability to maintain a safe and secure nuclear deterrent,” he said.
Donley was honored at the farewell ceremony by family, friends and top Defense Department officials, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh.
Hagel credited Donley’s ability to work in a bipartisan manner.
“Here's an individual who served five presidents, Republican, Democrat presidents,” he said. “I suspect he was asked more than occasionally, how could you both work in the Bush White House and work as -- continued to work as -- Secretary of the Air Force under President Obama? I don't know what his response would be or was, but I suspect it was very simple. It's bigger than presidents. It's bigger than politics. It's about our country. And if we had more of the Mike Donley attitude and sense of purpose in our country today, we'd probably all be a little better off.”
Donley previously served as the director of administration and management in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He also supported two presidents and five national security advisers while working at the National Security Council from 1984 to 1989.
"I am most grateful to have had this opportunity to meet, to know and to represent America's airmen - the living engine of our Air Force who have stepped forward generation after generation to sustain and advance American air power," he said.
Donley was succeeded by Acting Secretary Eric Fanning, the highest-ranking openly gay person in the Defense Department.