The Duck of Minerva

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Bad Week for the USAF


June 22, 2008

Certainly not a winning week for the Air Force. Already reeling from the high-profile dismissal of both its uniformed and civilian leader, the USAF was slammed again in two major stories this week.

First, the GAO slammed the Air Force’s procurement procedures with a stinging rebuke of its decision to award its major tanker contract to the Northrup-Grumman. The USAF has been looking to upgrade its tanker fleet for years but the entire process has been clouded by scandal. There was the ill-fated sweetheart lease deal for Boeing. There was the criminal interference by senior Boeing leaders and a senior civilian AF official, where the official steered contracts to Boeing in return for a job after retiring from government (this led to actual jail time). Supposedly this competition for the tanker contract would move beyond the dysfunction, but alas, no. The Boeing team cried foul after it lost the contract, and as it turns out, the GAO found substantial problems with the process and recommended the Air Force scrap the existing contract and start all over again.

The Post quoted one analyst:

“We’ve not seen a document as scorching as this from an independent, nonpolitical agency,” he said. “They are essentially saying there is either incompetency in the Air Force or there was political interference that led them to bend over backwards to benefit one competitor because they feared the power of the purse strings. Either way, the Air Force procurement system has gone horribly, horribly wrong.”

Given that they were bending over backward to avoid the political interference given the outcome of the previous tanker debacle, I’d lean toward incompetency.

On top of that, we learn from the NYT that the Army, fed up with the Air Force, recently stood up its own air unit to provide UAV surveillance in Iraq.
Since the days of the Key West Agreement, the Army has only maintained rotary aircraft (helicopters) while the Air Force took care of all fix-winged air assets. This has led to years of inter-service tension, as the Army must depend on the Air Force for transport, close air support, and recon/surveillance. The Air Force has long focused on its strategic role (nukes), with an emphasis on fighters and bombers, leaving the help-the-Army portions of the service to play second fiddle.

This overall attitude certainly played a role in Gates decision to fire the top AF brass. Note the discrepancy in assessment of the USAF in today’s active combat zones:

Army and Marine Corps officers in Afghanistan have complained that Air Force pilots flying attack missions in support of ground operations do not come in as low as their Navy and Marine counterparts. Instances of civilian casualties from bombing and missile attacks have increased tensions among local populations, which have to be eased by ground commanders, adding to their burden of winning hearts and minds in the counterinsurgency efforts.

“We are supporting the Army as best we can,” Michael W. Wynne, the departing Air Force secretary, said Friday.

Its pretty clear that a large part of the defense establishment has concluded that “as best we can” is not good enough.

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.