Defense Secretary Leon Panetta opted for a familiar ally to pilot the Air Force through its latest period of turbulence and transition, as it searches for a niche with an aging fleet in the post-9/11 era.
Panetta announced Thursday that Gen. Mark Welsh, a senior officer who worked closely with Panetta when he was CIA director, will be nominated by President Obama to become the next Air Force chief of staff. Experts say the relationship between Welsh and Panetta, could hand the military branch an upper hand in Defense Department policy and budget battles after years of tension between past defense secretaries and past Air Force leaders.
"Success in many ways is based on an organization chart, and personalities and the trust people form with one another," says David Deptula, a retired three-star Air Force general who served as the service intelligence chief for the force. The Panetta-Welsh ties "will be a plus for both the Department of Defense and the Air Force."
One national security insider said Welsh was "Panetta's preferred choice" to replace Gen. Norton Schwartz, the outgoing air chief. Their relationship will be key, after service leaders and defense secretaries have clashed for years about everything from the Air Force's stubborn pursuit of more super-advanced but super-pricey F-22 fighters, to sending additional surveillance planes into war, to buying more drone planes.
Welsh was associate director for military affairs at the CIA from August 2008 to December 2010. Panetta was the agency's director from February 2009 to June 2011.
"His ties to the defense secretary should help him to restore some balance to the Pentagon's modernization plans, which have tended to favor sea power and ground forces in recent times," says Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a longtime Pentagon observer and industry consultant.
Yet, his ties to the defense secretary alone will not be enough to overcome the myriad problems the Air Force faces, former officials and experts say. If confirmed by the Senate, Welsh is set to inherit a service with an aging fleet of aircraft in a time of shrinking annual Pentagon budgets.
"He's going to have a big challenge with the budget pressure that all the services are under," says Michael Wynne, a former Air Force secretary. "In particular, the Air Force has got to recapitalize its aircraft. He will have a tough time balancing the hardware needs of the service and the budget pressures."
And the service's aircraft needs are many.
"The Air Force's fighters, bombers, tankers and radar planes have become decrepit, and yet policy makers continue to delay replacement efforts," says Thompson.
Sources say Panetta determined Welsh was well-suited to tackle the issue.
"It's about coalition building, and his experience there is overriding in that direction," says Wynne, citing Walsh's CIA stint and work with NATO partners in his current role as head of U.S. Air Forces in Europe.
"Panetta was looking for someone who can recognize what the strategic outcome of these budget and policy challenges needs to be," says Wynne. "I think Panetta wants someone who is capable of looking three or four years out, not just at next month or next year."
The air chief job, however, is about much more than just buying new aircraft fleets. It's also about making the service a relevant option for the president when it comes to dealing with national security issues.
"We are at an inflection point for our Air Force, as we shape a smaller but superb Air Force in an increasingly complex geopolitical and security environment," Schwartz said in a statement shortly after Panetta announced Welsh's nomination.
But that has been true for some time. Since the onset of the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Air Force leaders and air power proponents have talked about a service at a crossroads that seems in a constant state of justifying its own existence.
"The issue is really 'What is the mission and role of the service?' " says Wynne. "We're coming off five decades of no strafing of our troops," meaning the Air Force has had to find other missions beyond engaging enemy aircraft.
Another aspect of the service's invariable inflection point is its high-technology identity. From its super-sophisticated fighter jets, surveillance aircraft, and even its tanker planes, the service is not shy about its technological advantage over would-be foes.
Ironically, however, this is what pushed the service to the periphery of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and sent it into a decade-long spiral of searching for an identity.
Within the service, his peers and insiders say Welsh is highly regarded.
"Mark Welsh is a natural leader with an impressive record of accomplishments and a wide range of experience," Schwartz said.
"Welsh is highly regarded within the force and among his general officer peers," says Eaglen. "He is considered a respectful but assertive four-star general, and likely to take the service in a different direction."
It remains unclear just where he will take it, but Welsh is a return to the long history of a fighter jock as chief. After his brazen and bold fighter pilot predecessor, Gen. T. Michael Moseley, was dismissed by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Schwartz for four years has been, as Eaglen says, "the ultimate team player."
"Norty thought about the force balance and transport aircraft a little more than past chiefs of staff did," says Wynne. "And he had more of a special operations background than Welsh does. Picking Welsh seems to be a good move because with this shift to the administration's shift to the Asia-Pacific, the need for air dominance is coming back."
John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report via the DOTMIL blog. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.