Air Force General's Supporters Mount Campaign to Make Him Leader of Space Force

U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast, commander of Air Education and Training Command, visits the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, July 22, 2019. (U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Emily Smallwood)
U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast, commander of Air Education and Training Command, visits the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, July 22, 2019. (U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Emily Smallwood)

Air Force Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast, who recently left his post as commander of Air Education and Training Command at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, is expected to hang up his uniform soon. But former associates and other close to Kwast, a decorated fighter pilot, say he deserves one more assignment: four-star head of the U.S Space Force, a new branch of the military that Congress is poised to create in coming months.

These supporters, including some former members of Kwast's staff, have quietly launched a campaign of persuasion, publishing a series of opinion pieces in recent days in a range of news outlets, including right-of-center political sites such as Breitbart and Newsmax. They argue Kwast, if not serving as chief of the Space Force, which would fall under the Department of the Air Force, should work directly for President Donald Trump to lead development of the new service.

Some also deliver an indictment of the Air Force for tanking Kwast's career, and contain pointed criticisms of the way the Air Force has handled the space portfolio for decades.

"The Air Force has failed to provide the nation with the strategy, technology and systems needed to confront today's growing threat," Henry Cooper, chairman of High Frontier, an organization that advocates for a stronger U.S. missile and space defense, wrote in an op-ed published in conservative site Newsmax. Cooper was President Ronald Reagan's chief negotiator at the Geneva Defense and Space Talks.

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"To demonstrate that 'No good deed goes unpunished,' General Kwast was recently prematurely relieved from his command -- after only half of the usual tour for this important position responsible for educating and training future Air Force leaders," Cooper continued. "This opposition is prominent in the public discourse, reflecting hostile positions taken by then-Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson when the president first signaled his initiative."

Kwast's supporters say he was "blacklisted" for promotion, and his career essentially ended, because of his refusal to comply with a service-wide gag order regarding space issues. Air Force officials maintain his career came to a natural conclusion and that he wasn't relieved prematurely. Kwast himself wouldn't address the rumors when asked about them by Military.com.

The op-ed campaign tactic has raised eyebrows -- inside and outside the Pentagon -- because it's rare for people to advocate so openly for top military posts. And Kwast's bid is especially notable because Space Force has been such a politically charged issue for the Air Force, according to a handful of sources who've spoken with Military.com.

"Agitating for a job through op-eds is unusual and sort of breaks what is supposed to be the normal internal process," Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University who studies civilian-military relations, told Military.com in a phone call. "But this administration, particularly this president, there's just a raft of stories that say he picks policies and picks personnel within a much more porous way."

That said, military leaders indirectly lobbying for key positions in public channels is not unheard-of. In some cases, leaders themselves have advocated on their own behalf. For example, then-Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan publicly stated he wanted the top Pentagon job.

"Of course," he told DefenseOne in March.

The overtone of partisanship in this case, however, is putting a bad taste in some peoples' mouths.

"What concerns me is the possibility the advocates were deliberately trying to get the president's attention by selecting political outlets he'd read or his staff would bring to his attention," added Loren DeJonge Schulman, deputy director of studies and the Leon E. Panetta senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

One of the op-eds was written by Frank Gaffney for Breitbart, another right-wing political news site. The former acting assistant secretary of defense for International Security Affairs under Reagan over the years has become a controversial figure, and his think tank, the Center for Security Policy, was labeled as an "extremist think tank" by organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, among others, for promoting anti-Muslim policy views, as well as outlandish statements including a claim that a Muslim Brotherhood "operative" directly worked for then-Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to subvert the U.S. government.

"The president nominates and certainly his opinion matters," DeJonge Schulman said. "But trying to drive his opinion on nonpartisan military officer selection via political outlets' op-ed pages seems to skirt a line of politicization Kwast and his colleagues probably feel uncomfortable with."

In a Thursday phone interview, Kwast said the conversation should be about ideas, not about his position in the Air Force or future roles.

"The American people and Congress are not fully aware of the power of space with the technologies of the last few years," Kwast said. "The power of space is going to create a great race and a new game for economic power, military power and political power. And it's going to change the world."

Kwast cited China as an example of how the space landscape is rapidly changing.

"I believe we need to be more aggressive as a society to be the beneficiaries of this power of space," he said.

Kwast did not comment on his future plans, his retirement date, or the recent opinion pieces.

The Underlying Conflict

There have been contradicting sentiments about Kwast's alleged departure that have been brewing for some time.

Multiple sources who've worked with the general have told Military.com in recent weeks that they believe Kwast has been treated unfairly, and say former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson blacklisted the general for promotion because Kwast defied a gag order on discussing space missions and the Space Force publicly. Officials confirmed to Military.com that there was a gag order, which closely followed the Air Force's 2018 guidance to limit engagement with the press in what was described as an effort to protect operational security in line with the new National Defense Strategy.

"The gag order worked -- for more than a year, during the most important Air Force debate in a century -- the majority of officers have held their tongue," Pete Garretson, who was most recently the deputy director of the Schriever Scholars program, as well as the director of the Space Horizons Task Force at the Air Command and Staff College, said in an op-ed for Breaking Defense. Garretson retired as a lieutenant colonel in June.

Kwast penned an Op-Ed in Politico last year on the issue, saying "radical collaboration" was needed to win "the new space race."

Kwast's "courage opened the floodgates for others to follow, ultimately overturning the false impression of a monolithic Air Force intent on blocking Congress and blocking the Trump Administration," Garretson added in his op-ed. "Kwast provides a powerful example of character and moral courage that all officers should emulate."

But there are others in the service -- who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal -- who say there aren't many open four-star positions left in the service that Kwast could be promoted to anyway.

The general, an F-15E Strike Eagle pilot, has over 3,300 flying hours, including more than 650 combat hours in Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Southern Watch, Allied Force and Enduring Freedom, and was a military aide to Vice President Al Gore between 1997 and 1999, according to his official Air Force biography.

Despite serving in a number of prestigious and high-profile positions, he has not held any space-specific positions during his tenure.

His leadership style is reason enough to give him a second chance, one source said. Kwast started "a real space education" for officers in the service, according to the source, who worked with Kwast in recent years under AETC.

Before AETC, Kwast was the president of Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, between 2014 and 2017.

"He sponsored cutting-edge research, he established research task forces, [and] sponsored wargames," the source said on background. Kwast "takes personal and professional risk; he turned things around, most in his initiative [to] ignite young officers who shared a passion for national security [and space]."

Others were more critical.

Another source -- who also directly worked with Kwast in 2014 at Air University -- called his ideas on military strategy, leadership and space "incoherent."

"I would give this guy a D on a paper, or even an F," the source said. "I feel that strongly about him."

A Tough Transition

It's not clear if the recent op-eds have caught Trump's eye.

A White House spokesman for the National Space Council declined to comment Thursday when asked if Kwast was being considered for an administration post.

Any change in his military position would also get the attention of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Rick Berger, a research fellow with the American Enterprise Institute who specializes in defense policy and budget appropriations.

"Space is a more technically challenging domain, like a surface warfare officer learning how aerial combat works" for the first time, Berger said. "It's just so alien. Kind of the same thing with cyber. So while expertise isn't necessary for success, and Kwast would probably be very good on the cultural part of the problem -- to the extent it exists and or should be fixed -- I think he'd face a lot of questioning [from Congress] about his lack of experience in the domain."

Air Force officials, meanwhile, said the service going to press ahead with plans for Space Force despite any criticisms.

"The U.S. Air Force is 100 percent committed to the establishment of a new space service for our nation and is working with the administration and Congress to make that a reality," Air Force spokesman Maj. Will Russell said in a statement. "It will be critical, for decades to come, that we ensure a climate of unity and trust as we move forward in creating the nation's space force, its capabilities and its culture. Clearly, ensuring space access and dominance is an imperative for the U.S. and our allies."

"We are grateful for Lt. Gen. Kwast's service to our nation for the past 33 years," he said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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