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Norton Schwartz, in a file photo, prepares to testify at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on troop rotations in Iraq.
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Read excerpts of NPR's interview with the Air Force's new top officer.
The Air Force has a new top officer — Gen. Norton Schwartz — who says he plans to focus on getting more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft to Iraq, and on improving the handling of nuclear weapons.
Schwartz, a 56-year-old officer from small town New Jersey, replaces Gen. Michael "Buzz" Moseley, who was fired by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in June for Air Force mishaps involving the handling of nuclear weapons — and amid complaints that the Air Force wasn't doing enough to help ground forces in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Moseley publicly complained about sending his airmen to drive fuel trucks and guard prisoners in Iraq, saying, "I'm less supportive of things outside our competency."
Schwartz, meanwhile, says he appreciates the need to send Air Force officers and enlisted men to Iraq. "There's a need, the nation's at risk, and this is what we're called on to do," he says.
Schwartz also says he will redouble efforts to send more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft to Iraq. That's another problem Gates had with Moseley — the general was not moving fast enough to get things like Predator drones, which can take pictures and drop bombs, to the fight.
Getting the Air Force to move quickly on this, Gates said during a speech last spring at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, was "like pulling teeth."
And finally, Schwartz says he will move to improve the Air Force's handling of its nuclear weapons. Gates was incensed when nuclear fuses were inadvertently sent to Taiwan. And a B-52 crew accidentally flew from North Dakota to Louisiana with a load of nuclear missiles.
Schwartz says he may set up a new nuclear command, like the defunct Strategic Air Command, or place a more senior officer in charge.
Schwartz, the son of a New Jersey typewriter salesman, was only accepted into the Air Force Academy after the prime candidate flunked his physical.
In April 1975, he took part in the American evacuation of Saigon as a second lieutenant. Schwartz was a green co-pilot with a seasoned crew.
"We flew several missions into Saigon, both into Bien Hoa and Tan Son Nhut," he remembers. "You know it was an exciting time for a young fella and a good way to get started."
But it was another evacuation — a botched one, five years later — that had a deeper impact on Schwartz and lingers to this day.
Schwartz remembers watching President Jimmy Carter tell the nation about the failed attempt to rescue the American hostages from Iran. American aircraft were refueling in the desert when they slammed into each other. Carter called off the mission. Five American rescuers were killed, three others seriously injured.
"It was a searing experience for America," Schwartz says.
Just a few months later, Schwartz was training for a possible second rescue attempt of the American hostages. He was among a select group of pilots flying a C-130 cargo plane fashioned with rockets for quick takeoffs.
But that second attempt was never ordered. The hostages were released just as a new president, Ronald Reagan, was being sworn in. No matter for Schwartz; just being part of it meant something, he says.
"I mean, this was all about bringing Americans home," he says.
What He Believes In
Schwartz chooses his words carefully, with the precise cadence of a pilot. He's tall, with sharp, angular features — he could easily pass for Mr. Spock in his later years.
He sits in a massive Pentagon office, with unopened boxes piled around. The walls are mostly bare.
Schwartz will hang a framed copy of a Time magazine essay — titled "The Essence of Courage"-- on his office wall. It's a moving piece by the late Hugh Sidey about that failed Iran hostage rescue and the mettle of the men who took part.
"I recommend you Google it," Schwartz says quietly. "Because it will tell you a lot about what I believe in."
What he believes in is the ethos of the special operator, the term for the military's elite commandos on the ground and in the air. It's stayed with him as he moved on to staff jobs, then took over the U.S. Transportation Command — a somewhat mundane job of making sure troops and equipment make it overseas.
"His motto was, 'A promise made is a promise kept,'" recalls retired Maj. Gen. Jim Hawkins, a longtime friend. "It tells what his inner being is like. The special operators really rely on one another and entrust their lives to one another."
Former bosses recall a quiet and driven officer. Retired Maj. Gen. Jim Hobson remembers Schwartz sticking his head inside his office soon after arriving in Florida to fly the Talon, a plane that brings commandos into the fight.
Schwartz wanted to teach pneumatics, hydraulics and electrics to the lieutenants in the squadron in his spare time.
Hobson knew the Talon course was among the most demanding — learning to fly in low, quick landings and takeoffs in the darkness or under fire.
"So I said, 'Schwartz, your No. 1 job is to finish first in the class. And if you got time, you know in the evenings or whatever, to teach, pneumatics, hydraulics and electrics to lieutenants, then be my guest.' Well, he taught pneumatics, hydraulics and electrics to all the lieutenants and the captains who needed it, plus finished first in his class," Hobson said.
Hobson came to see Schwartz as his "racehorse." A go-to guy who was soon plucked by a more senior officer for his staff.
He rose up the ranks, as a planner and special operations commander. Schwartz was always looking to where the Air Force could help in the fight.
After 18 American soldiers died in a gunfight in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993 — an event made famous in the book and movie Black Hawk Down — Schwartz argued that Air Force precision bombs and the powerful AC-130 gunship could have been used to save more Americans.
"Don't go downtown without us," Schwartz wrote.
The Invasion Of Iraq
As the U.S. prepared to invade Iraq, Schwartz was at the Pentagon, as director of operations. Under the critical eye of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, he was deciding when troops and equipment would move in.
"Gen. Schwartz was always, if you will, under the gun. Sometimes we would hit a home run. Sometimes we would have to go back for more homework," recalls Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, who was then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"But it never changed his demeanor. ... He's very level when it comes to his demeanor and the way he approaches problems," Myers says.
For Schwartz, it's about getting the Air Force into the fight. Still fresh in his mind are the memories of Vietnam and what might have been accomplished in Mogadishu and in the Iranian desert.
But Myers says Schwartz's greatest challenge will not be in fixing the Air Force's nuclear team or in getting more Predators to Iraq, but with finding money.
"What he faces is a lot of old hardware," said Myers, "All types of airplanes, and trying to get the budget to put the capital fleet, if you will, back on its feet."
Schwartz acknowledges that the Air Force will have to suppress its appetite for some of that hardware.
"But at the same time, I don't intend to be timid about explaining why it is America needs to invest in its Air Force," he says.
That explaining will begin this winter when a new Pentagon budget arrives on Capitol Hill.