Hon. Senators and Representatives,
Among the most solemn of your many duties is the oversight you provide of our Armed Services on behalf of the American people. It’s no secret that without effective oversight and consistent auditing, agencies with the size, political power, and budgetary authority of the services are at constant risk of becoming breeding grounds for corruption.
Accordingly, I call to your attention Northrop-Grumman’s recent hiring of retired Gen. Mark A. Welsh, III, who left his role as Air Force Chief of Staff just 167 days ago, to serve on the company’s board of directors. Northrop is our nation’s third largest defense contractor, and a considerable portion of its $30 billion in annual revenue is derived from its status as a prime combat aircraft manufacturer. This makes it rational for Northrop to place Gen. Welsh in the board.
But through an ethical lens, this is a deeply disturbing development. In his role as Chief of Staff, Gen. Welsh was in a position to make or influence — and indeed did make and influence — budgetary decisions that had determinant impacts on Northrop’s viability as a prime manufacturer. His placement on the board so soon after exercising such influence makes it fair for the public to question the nature of his relationships with Northrop executives at the time those decisions were made.
Four decisions that occurred during Gen. Welsh’s tenure are particularly troubling when viewed in light of his newly-awarded position.
First, he directed his personnel officers to cut 25,000 airmen from service end strength in 2014, with the cuts directed to fall within a single budget year rather than the five years authorized by Congress. Gen. Welsh took this course despite the service exhibiting considerable morale issues, and despite commanders raising readiness concerns due to insufficient manpower.
Second, he repeatedly pushed for early retirement of the A-10 close air support aircraft despite its demonstrable necessity in the nation’s ongoing conflicts. Gen. Welsh was so wedded to this decision that he promoted a two-star subordinate to a critical role on the Air Staff after that officer had been investigated and reprimanded for accusing A-10 supporters of treason if they communicated with you, their elected representatives.
Third, Gen. Welsh failed to respond effectively to an obvious and severe shortage of pilots to operate the Air Force’s fleet. On his watch, the Air Force released pilots to save money while failing to respond to their voiced concerns about operational tempo, quality of life, and readiness. Today, the Air Force is in crisis, with a projected shortage of fighter pilots so large that risks emboldening the nation’s adversaries.
These three decisions have something in common: they created budgetary capacity for a fourth decision: award of the B-21 bomber contract to Northrop-Grumman in October, 2015 — barely one year before Gen. Welsh was announced as a board member. While the precise value of the contract has not been released by the Air Force despite calls to contrary from Chairman McCain and others, it is estimated to carry a value of between $80 and $100 billion. This contract is widely viewed as critical to the survival of Northrop-Grumman as a prime combat aircraft manufacturer.
Gen. Welsh has never satisfactorily explained his insistence on massive personnel cuts that left the Air Force, by his own admission, understaffed by roughly 60,000 airmen. He has never satisfactorily rationalized his decision to oppose continuation of the A-10 without a viable close air support replacement. He has never made it clear why he failed to act on a growing pilot shortage that is now a strategic risk for the Air Force and the nation. His failure to explain makes it fair to question whether he was animated by inappropriate or even unethical motives, such as the creation of a budgetary condition allowing for the award of the B-21 contract.
Congress must investigate what drove Gen. Welsh to govern the Air Force in the manner he did. Given his decisions paved the way for his new employer to collect tens of billions of dollars in revenue from the taxpayer, it is both fair and necessary to investigate the nature of his relationships with Northrop-Grumman at the times those decisions were made.
Were there actual or implied promises of future compensation in return for decisions favorable to the company? Was there an explicit quid pro quo? In all likelihood, these things did not occur. But for the American public to have confidence in the ethical cleanliness of Gen. Welsh’s decisions, an investigation is necessary.
Without an investigation, we are left with the appearance of a corrupt system where one hand washes the other, and the American people pay unjustified costs for a weakened defense. This is precisely the sort of appearance that deserves the attention of the Committees in their crucial oversight role.
On behalf of many other concerned Americans and tens of thousands of airmen watching closely to see how Congress will respond to this apparent conflict of interest, I ask that you urgently investigate this matter.
John Q. Public
Retired Air Force Officer