May 11, 2012
By Craig Whitlock
The White House has nominated Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and a former senior official at the CIA, to be the next Air Force chief of staff.
Welsh’s selection to lead the Air Force was announced Thursday by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta. Welsh would replace Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, who is scheduled to retire in August after a four-year stint as chief of staff.
Welsh and Panetta worked closely together at the CIA during the first years of the Obama administration. Welsh served as associate director of military affairs at the spy agency until December 2010; Panetta was the CIA’s director until Obama tapped him to lead the Pentagon in July.
Welsh “functioned as a critical link between the military and intelligence communities,” Panetta told reporters Thursday. “Over the course of our time working together, I developed a deep appreciation for his wisdom and his counsel.”
A pilot trained to fly F-16 and A-10 Thunderbolt II fighter jets, Welsh will take over the Air Force at a time when it is grappling with budget cuts and also cost overruns with its biggest-ever weapon acquisition program, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
At the same time, the Obama administration is expecting the Air Force to play a leading role in its new global security strategy, which emphasizes the importance of air and sea power while cutting back on land forces.
Welch is a native of San Antonio and a 1976 graduate of the Air Force Academy. His nomination must be approved by the Senate.