It’s no exaggeration to say we owe a debt of gratitude to Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley, who plans to end his long career in public service June 21.
Affable, low-key, skilled at explaining the Air Force to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Donley, 60, ascended to the service’s top civilian position at a difficult juncture.
At the time, Defense Secretary Robert Gates was dismantling the Air Force.
Gates fired the previous Air Force secretary and chief of staff.
Giving priority to Afghanistan-style counterinsurgency, Gates abandoned the F-22 Raptor super fighter, delayed a new bomber and reduced our readiness for “near-peer” war with a modern nation state like Russia or China.
Donley and then-Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz were humiliated into publicly betraying the F-22 in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post on April 13, 2009 — a sad day for American air power. We’d developed the most capable fighter in the world and halted production at 187 airframes.
Gates retired in 2011. Donley struggled through the wreckage, found his footing and pushed key Air Force programs through Congress.
On his watch, the nation began serious work on an air refueling tanker, the KC-46, a goal that had eluded three of Donley’s predecessors.
The costly F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter program still isn’t perfectly on track, but under Donley, JSF has made progress.
Donley improved the handling of nuclear materials. Hit with a funding crunch, he oversaw a painful but smartly executed restructuring of the Air Force’s civilian workforce.
He had the right things to say to legislators, the press and the public when the Air Force’s basic training center was the site of a sex scandal involving military training instructors.
He didn’t hesitate to stand firm against congressional opposition to Air National Guard cuts.
He warned, wisely, that ongoing deliberations about budget and strategy are “two separate discussions trucking along in parallel” — meaning that leaders above his paygrade need to merge their planning about fiscal issues and decisions about policy.
Donley’s leadership “came during a challenging time for the Air Force, and he helped instill a culture of responsibility, initiative and professionalism to the service,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said April 26.
I wish Donley had pushed harder for a new bomber. That’s been the spoken priority of generations of leaders — but it hasn’t gotten funding. It’s partly the secretary’s job to use persuasion to pry open Capitol Hill purse strings.
Bomber aside, Michael Donley has done a good job. Troops know it and like him.
So here’s a tip of the hat to you, Mr. Secretary, and best wishes for the future.