Gen. Larry D. Welch, CSAF No. 12
Welch headshot

“Here we are, 35 years later, and we still haven’t figured out this brave new world.”

Larry D. Welch never planned to stay in the Air Force, let alone become Chief of Staff. Having enlisted in 1951, Welch was a one-striper, temporarily marching new recruits around Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, when he led a group to a briefing about the aviation cadet program. When it was over, interested recruits were asked to put a card in the basket.  

Welch, who was standing in the back of the room waiting to escort the recruits to their next stop, put his name on a card and dropped it in the basket. Soon after, he was summoned to a captain’s office; the captain praised his scores and sent him for further testing. “At the end of that, I had two choices,” Welch said. “I could go into a program that would make me a second lieutenant and a pilot, or a program that would make me an Airman First Class electronics technician.”

It wasn’t a hard decision. 

Time after time over the course of the next three-plus decades, Welch came to a fork in the road and found another opportunity waiting for him. He served in fighter units in Europe, the continental United States and Alaska, deployed to Vietnam, and held a series of leadership posts at Tactical Air Command. He shepherded President Ronald Reagan’s strategic programs through the budget and approval process—the B-1 and B-2 bomber programs, the M-X intercontinental ballistic missile, and two cruise missile programs—as deputy chief of staff for programs and resources, and in July 1984 he was promoted to Vice Chief of Staff, replacing Gen. Jerome O’Malley. 

Gen. Michael J. Dugan, CSAF No. 13
July-September 1990

“There was more to my life than being Chief.”

Gen. Michael J. Dugan liked the Air Force he inherited from Gen. Larry D. Welch in July 1990. He had no intention of reinventing it; rather, he wanted to polish it like a treasure, to make it even better. The U.S. Air Force in 1990 had the world’s greatest fighters and bombers, the most lethal nuclear arms, the most flexible and capable airlift. Its Airmen, both enlisted and officers, were the best trained, most ready, most effective in the trade. They were the victors of the Cold War, a national treasure.

By the summer of 1990, however, the Cold War was over. Poland was the first of the Eastern Bloc nations to shake off the bonds of communism in June 1989. When East Germany opened up the Brandenburg Gate and the Berlin Wall collapsed that November, the remaining communist states fell like dominos: Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria. The Warsaw Pact was no more; only the Soviet Union remained, impotent to stop the democratic surge.  

In Washington, leaders of the world’s lone superpower contemplated funding cuts and peace dividends. But peace was not yet on the horizon. Iraq, in the wake of a protracted eight-year war with Iran, was saddled with debt and addled by falling oil prices. Its leader, Saddam Hussein, sought debt relief from neighbors and, once rebuffed, found solace in long-dormant border disputes with Kuwait. If it couldn’t get terms from its bankers, it could exact revenge. On Aug. 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait.   

Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, CSAF No. 14

“I wasn’t so much interested in who’s a fighter pilot as I was in who’s a warrior.”

When Gen. Merrill “Tony” McPeak arrived as Chief in October 1990, Iraq had, only months before, invaded and occupied Kuwait. The United States was assembling an enormous coalition against Iraq, and the Air Force would soon demonstrate a new era of American air power: Stealth aircraft that could evade enemy detection; precision weapons that could strike with pinpoint accuracy; and dominance like no air force had ever demonstrated before.

Yet McPeak’s job was not to fight that war, but to organize, train, and equip the Air Force for what would follow. By the time he became Chief, the Cold War that had defined his entire adult life was over. Born in 1936 in the midst of the Great Depression, McPeak had reached adulthood in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The Soviet Union was suddenly no longer America’s archrival. In fact, the Soviet Union no longer existed.

“Desert Storm began a couple of months after my swearing in,” McPeak recalled in July. We’re on a video call and he’s in workout gear from his home in Oregon. A photo taken in the Oval Office in December 1990 of the Joint Chiefs meeting with President George H.W. Bush and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney rests on the credenza behind him. McPeak wears a beard, and sounds very much like he did as Chief, still ramrod straight, still intense, still able to laugh at and with himself. “You would think that I spent a lot of time worrying about how to support [Gen.] Chuck Horner out in the sandbox, and I did. But I was also talking to the Secretary [of the Air Force] from Day One about how we were going to reorganize the Air Force. …  [Secretary] Don Rice and I had agreed before the end of January ’91 on  how we wanted to reconfigure the Air Force.” 

Gen. Ronald Fogleman, CSAF No. 15
Fogelman shot

“It’s a tour, not a sentence.”

When Gen. Ron Fogleman became Chief of staff in 1994, the Post-Cold War drawdown was well underway, and the military was embroiled in social issues. The Navy’s Tailhook scandal had fueled a rethink of women’s roles in the military, and in aviation in particular. President Bill Clinton, the first Baby Boomer to become president, was also the first since Franklin Delano Roosevelt not to have served in the military, and had campaigned to allow homosexuals to serve openly in the military.  

Fogleman was not the first choice; having already been told he was not going to get the job in May of 1994, he was contemplating retirement when, in August, McPeak called to tell him he would be the next Chief. He had barely two months to prepare.

“The Air Force had been through all this turbulence—restructure, drawdown, all kinds of events had occurred that were causing angst within the Air Force,” Fogleman said. “At the same time, we had been given sort of a Northern Star, this thing called Global Reach, Global Power … which gave the blueprint for what the Air Force was going to look like.” Fogleman asked his fellow four-stars what the Air Force needed, and answered his own question: Stability.

Gen. Michael E. Ryan, CSAF No. 16
Ryan headshot

“Flexibility is the enemy of stability. And unfortunately, air power is very flexible.”

As America rolled toward the end of the second millennium and the year 2000—Y2K, as it was dubbed—President Bill Clinton was in his second four-year term as President, Rep. Newt Gingrich was in his second two-year term as Speaker of the House, and the Defense Department was in trouble. Eight years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Americans were more interested in the new “dot-com” boom than national defense. The post-Cold War drawdown that began in 1991 had twisted military personnel policy such that it seemed the armed forces were more focused on getting people out of uniform than in recruiting members to join or stay in.

Enter Gen. Michael E. Ryan. While not a stranger to Washington—Ryan had been a military assistant to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Larry Welch (CSAF No. 12) and for two Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Generals Colin Powell and John Shalikashvili—but he was returning after three and a half years in Europe, during which he had led the U.S. air campaign that forced an end to the Bosnian civil war and led to the Dayton Peace Accords. 

In Bosnia, Ryan had been left largely to his own devices. “No one told me what to do. No one told me to put a work plan together called [Operation] Deliberate Force,” he said. “I just did that on my own. No one tasked me to do that. And I picked every … aimpoint that we used in that war to avoid civilian casualties because we couldn’t be seen as being as bloodthirsty and as committing atrocities, as the participants in that war had been [doing] to each other. In Srebrenica, they killed maybe 6,000 Muslims. There was a horrible war. And how do you stop a war? How do you end a war? We were able to do it by taking away the Bosnian Serbs’ capability to fight.” 

Gen. John P. Jumper, CSAF No. 17

“I tried to always make things better.”

Gen. John P. Jumper was holding his first staff meeting in the Air Force Operations Center in the Pentagon’s basement when the first plane hit. It was Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, 2001, and whatever plans he may have had as he began his tenure as Chief, the next four years were going to play out very differently than he could have imagined. The intel briefing was paused and the screens were switched to CNN, which had live video of the burning Pentagon on the screen. That was when the second plane struck the World Trade Center. 

“That was the point of max confusion, of course,” Jumper recalls. “We took off from our command center to go up and warn our people away from the E-ring,” the outer offices of the Pentagon. In the Secretary of the Air Force’s office, Jumper found Secretary Jim Roche “sitting on his phone and sort of physically tucked him away from his phone back toward the middle of the building.” Then the third plane struck, exploding into the West side of the Pentagon.

Jumper was an experienced four-star. He had commanded U.S. Air Forces Europe during the Kosovo War in 1999 and had run Air Combat Command for 18 months after that. He hadn’t expected to be the Chief, an assignment he attributes as much to luck and timing as to talent, but he had a ready list of ideas he’d been “harboring” and was ready to start right in on them when 9/11 reworked his agenda in a flash. 

Gen. T. Michael Moseley, CSAF No. 18

“Buzz was right.”

The one thing everyone knows about Gen. T. Michael “Buzz” Moseley is that he was fired from the job. Being relieved short of completing his four-year tour as Chief was not on the radar when Moseley moved up from Vice Chief to become Chief of Staff in September 2005. 

Moseley had been the vice Chief for two full years. His prior experience included commanding U.S. Central Command Air Forces for nearly two years before that and before that two years as the Chief Air Force legislative liaison. Few were better versed on the issues facing the service at the time. But Moseley was no politician. Shaved-headed and stiff-necked, he remains as bluntly plainspoken now, 14 years after leaving office as he was when the bombshell struck in July 2008. 

Moseley was enroute to a Corona meeting—a gathering of Air Force four-stars—in Dayton, Ohio, when word came that he and Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne were both being relieved, a stunning dual beheading executed by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates whose frustration with the Air Force had become a public feud in recent months.

Gen. Norton Schwartz, CSAF No. 19

“You try to put people on a trajectory where, if lightning strikes, they’ll be there and they will be prepared.”

One thing was sure about Gen. Norton A. “Norty” Schwartz: He was never going to be Chief of Staff. Softspoken and a self-confessed introvert, he had spent barely three of the prior 11 years in Air Force jobs in the summer of 2008. Air Force Chiefs are typically fighter pilots, but Schwartz had flown C-130 transports and spent much of his career in the special operations world. When, in the spring of 2008, Schwartz’s relief as commander at U.S. Transportation Command was named, Schwartz already filed the paperwork to retire.  

Then lightning struck.  

Thursday, June 5, 2008. All the Air Force four-star generals were gathered in Dayton, Ohio, for Corona—one of the few, elite gatherings of the service’s top generals each year. But on this particular morning, something was wrong in this room full of high-priced talent. The two principals, Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley and Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne, were late.  

“We were all there in the room in Dayton, and we are awaiting the Chief’s and the Secretary’s arrival,” Schwartz recalled. “They were late, which was unusual. And everybody’s BlackBerry started buzzing.”

Gen. Mark A. Welsh, CSAF No. 20

“It’s very easy just to go back to the process you know and love.”

Gen. Mark A. Welsh never dreamed of becoming Chief of Staff, never saw himself as a visionary. “I’m not really good at looking deep into the future with a clearer understanding of what we should be and how to get from A to B,” he says, underselling his intellect. “I can figure out what is important for us to be. And I’m pretty good at moving people toward that.” But a visionary? That’s someone else. “I would characterize myself more as a realist, more of a rubber meets the road guy than a deep thinker.”  

The rubber hit the road in August 2012. The Budget Control Act of 2011 was now in full force, and its unintended consequences were becoming clear. The measure was the result of a compromise: Republicans agreed to raise the debt ceiling so long as Democrats agreed to cut spending. But the measure was intended to drive further compromise. The BCA imposed annual statutory limits on both defense and nondefense discretionary spending; it established a committee to work on a future deficit reduction agreement; and it imposed annual, automatic spending cuts if no deficit reduction agreement was reached.  

The threat of automatic cuts had been seen in 2011 as so onerous that no one would ever let things get that far. But by 2012, it was becoming clear that a deal was not in the offing. Automatic cuts were about to wreak havoc on Air Force spending.

Gen. David L. Goldfein, CSAF No. 21

“I finally just stopped, and did what Chiefs really ought to do, which is to listen.”

By September 2015, everyone knew that year’s “AFA”—the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space & Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md.—would be Gen. Mark A. Welsh III’s last as Air Force Chief of Staff. He’d been in the job since 2012, and his four-year tour would be up the following summer. 

On the eve of the conference, news outlets speculated about two ground-breaking options for his relief: Gen. Lori J. Robinson, then commander of Pacific Air Forces, and Gen. Darren W. McDew, who had only recently taken charge of U.S. Transportation Command. Absent from that conjecture: Vice Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein. 

Junior to both Robinson and McDew, Goldfein had survived a missile strike that downed his F-16 over Serbia, leaving him stranded in hostile territory until he could be rescued. “Intercepting an enemy missile with my airplane was not my best mission,” he said. Surviving and then thriving as his career advanced belied the notion that the Air Force suffered from a zero-defect mentality. In the wake of losing his airplane, Goldfein had not only survived, but thrived. 

“Beginning as a young captain in Desert Storm, I had not missed a single fight in my career,” Goldfein said. That included two years as the Air and Space Component Commander for Central Command from 2011 to 2013. Even so, Goldfein didn’t see himself as a serious candidate for Chief until Welsh let him know he was a serious contender, a wake-up call that forced him to start thinking seriously about how he would approach the role if he was indeed the choice.