Former Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz never expected to take the reins of the Air Force ― and certainly not in the way it happened.

Schwartz ― who was a C-130 pilot with more than 4,400 flight hours ― was an unlikely candidate to become the service’s chief of staff, which until then had always gone to fighter or bomber pilots.

And he, like the rest of the Air Force leadership in the summer of 2008, was stunned when the mishandling of nuclear weapons cost Secretary Michael Wynne and Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley their jobs.

In a recent interview with Air Force Times’ Jeff Martin, Schwartz said that he and the rest of the brass sat around a table during a Corona meeting in Dayton, Ohio, on June 5, 2008, waiting for Wynne and Moseley to arrive.

“All of a sudden, the Blackberries started buzzing and ringing, and everybody looked, and the announcement [had been made] that both Secretary Wynne and Chief Moseley had been relieved,” Schwartz said.

The Air Force’s top leaders had just been fired.

Everyone there was shocked, he said. But they soon realized that someone at that table would have to step up and take Moseley’s place.

He didn’t imagine it would be him, Schwartz said, adding that he thought at least two other general officers had much better chances. But against the perceived odds, he was chosen.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates gave him three priorities: Fix the Air Force’s troubled nuclear mission, support its fight “without reservation,” and improve relations with Capitol Hill.

Schwartz felt he largely succeeded at setting the Air Force back on course after the upheaval that thrust him into the job.

But there were curveballs thrown his way ― particularly the damaging budget cuts known as sequestration, the consequences of which are still being felt in the force today.

Sequestration “forced us to do some things that, I would say, were not ideal,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz acknowledged that some manning decisions during that time were made under faulty assumptions. At the time, with fewer resources available, the Air Force felt it would be best to get smaller and “maintain quality,” retaining the best airmen, he said.

But driving that decision, he said, was the assumption that the amount of fighting expected of the Air Force would also diminish. The United States was expecting to wind down operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Needless to say, the demand signal did not wind down, and, as a result, our Air Force got over-tasked, too small for the missions that were assigned,” Schwartz said. “And I do feel responsible for that. Perhaps we should have hedged more.”

Schwartz said he thinks it’s now time to re-equip the military, as happened during the Reagan era of the 1980s.

Schwartz said he felt he became too “status quo” as he approached his final year as chief. He left a memo for his successor, Gen. Mark Welsh, advising him to focus on driving innovation.

“There was a need for innovation that I really didn’t inspire as much as I should have,” Schwartz said. “I think he and [former] Secretary [Deborah Lee] James moved down on that aggressively, and it certainly is evident today in the space domain and lots of different dimensions.”

But under his command, he said that the Air Force was right to increase its use of remotely-piloted aircraft, and to more closely tie RPA airmen into the broader pilot culture ― even if it meant committing what he called “unnatural acts.”

The Air Force took manned aircraft pilots out of cockpits to fly RPAs, even though it was “not healthy in the long term,” he said.

During his tenure, the Air Force went from having eight orbits of RPAs to 58.

And the Air Force made a collective decision to award wings to RPA pilots and sensor operators, he said, because it was apparent RPAs were here to stay.

“There was a bit of a disruption in the force field,” Schwartz said. “It was the right thing to do, there’s no question. But culture is a challenging thing to change. That capability was a core competency of the United States Air Force, and the people that did it were not outsiders.”

To show how strongly they felt that RPA operators were mainstream airmen, Schwartz’s wife Suzie said they spent their first Christmas as chief of staff at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.

“It was really eye-opening for me, to see how many people it actually takes,” Suzie Schwartz said.

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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