RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — The occasion was a change-of-command ceremony for U.S. Air Forces in Europe, but it had the air of a hail and farewell, a gathering of some of the top generals in the Air Force.
Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, who is slated to become the next Air Force chief of staff, relinquished command of USAFE and NATO’s Allied Air Command to Gen. Philip Breedlove at a ceremony here Tuesday. But when Welsh will move on is uncertain, as his confirmation in the Senate has been delayed over the sexual assault scandal at Lackland Air Force Base.
Welsh, a combat-experienced fighter pilot described by those who have served with him as a brilliant strategist and a compassionate leader, was nominated earlier this year to replace chief of staff, Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, who is scheduled to retire Aug. 10 after four years in the job. Schwartz presided at the change of command.
Welsh’s confirmation was blocked last week by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who demanded the Air Force take “corrective steps to reform” the training program at Lackland.
“I am really excited about the next job, if I get the chance to do it,” Welsh said at Tuesday’s change-of-command ceremony. “I am also intimidated by it.”
Schwartz said Welsh’s experience and abilities “offer an entirely optimistic outlook for the future of our Air Force, should the Senate confirm his nomination.”
Welsh, Schwartz said, “has left big shoes” for Breedlove to fill. He’ll be expected to continue to improve mission readiness, strategic impact and quality of service at more than a half a dozen main operating bases and more than 100 geographically separated locations within USAFE.
Welsh told the airman assembled for the ceremony inside a spacious flight-line hangar that Breedlove “brings passion for this work and a commitment to teamwork that you are going to really admire.”
Breedlove knows Europe well, having served multiple tours in Spain, Italy and Germany during and after the Cold War, most recently from 2008-2009 as the commander of 3rd Air Force, headquartered at Ramstein.
Speaking to the numerous U.S. military and NATO members and local German officials in the audience, Breedlove said that he and his wife, Cindy, “feel like we are coming home.”
“I am looking forward to being back amongst you, to learning from you, to serve alongside of you,” he said. “There are many jobs to be done.”
One of those jobs is new for the USAFE commander, that of directing U.S. Air Forces Africa. Command of air operations on the African continent was given to USAFE and 3rd Air Force after the inactivation earlier this year of 17th Air Force.
Speaking at Tuesday’s ceremony, Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command, told Breedlove “we look forward to your new role in Africa, where we will need your guidance, your experience and your energy.”
Breedlove comes to Ramstein this time from the Pentagon, where he was the Air Force vice chief of staff for the last 19 months — “my right-hand man,” Schwartz said.
“Always remember, General Breedlove,” Ham said, “that every day in Africa is a day you’re not in the Pentagon.”