ARLINGTON, Va. — Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced Monday that he plans to immediately stop all personnel reductions for Air Force.

Gates made his promise Monday while addressing airmen at Langley Air Force Base, Va., to discuss his ouster of Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley.

Along with airmen lost through normal attrition, Air Force leaders had planned to cut an additional 6,800 airmen from the rolls in fiscal 2009, Capt. Michael Andrews, an Air Force spokesman for personnel matters told Stripes on Monday.

Of those, 4,700 would have been enlisted members, and 1,900 officers, Andrews said.

In his address at Langley, Gates said the American public’s focus on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is mostly about the Army, but “the reality is that our airmen and women, and those in the other services are under strain as well. In fact, you have been forward-deployed, and at war for 17 years — since the first Gulf War.”

Pentagon leaders know this, Gates told the airmen, “and are working to ease the burden.”

And the first step, Gates said, is to stop personnel cuts.

Unlike the expanding Army and Marine Corps, the Air Force has had a “Force Shaping” plan in effect since 2002, when leaders announced they would cut 40,000 people over five years and use the savings to modernize its aging fleet of aircraft.

Air Force leaders had planned to announce cuts this month.

Calling a halt to the cuts is a good thing for the Air Force, Loren Thompson, a defense policy analyst at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., said Tuesday.

The problem, Thompson said, “is that there isn’t enough money for defense. The Air Force’s approach was to slight one area in order to find money for another area. But it was going to have negative consequences to cut these airmen.”

Thompson, who is close to many senior Air Force leaders, said he spoke several times to both Wynne and Moseley about why they had chosen to keep cutting personnel in favor of investing in future weapons, “and their view was simple: Eventually, these planes get so old that they start falling out of the sky, and something has to be done before that happens, even if it means taking risks in the near future.”

The Air Force leaders “were too concerned about the state of the fleet to wait any longer,” Loren said.

But that thinking was “out of step” with Pentagon leaders, whose focus is on current operations, he said.

On Tuesday, Gates repeated his message to about 500 Air Force Space Command members at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Later in the day, he was scheduled to travel to Scott Air Force Base, Ill., headquarters of Air Mobility Command, to speak to up to 2,000 people.

Scott is also headquarters of U.S. Transportation Command, which is led by Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz, Gates’ choice to succeed Moseley.

Schwartz had previously announced that he would retire in 2009.

Gates’ choice of Schwartz is a significant departure from the usual Air Force chief of staff, who is traditionally selected from the fighter community.

Schwartz is a command pilot with more than 4,200 hours in his log book, but he flies transports.

Meanwhile, the secretary’s choice to succeed Gen. Duncan J. McNabb as the next vice chief of staff, Lt. Gen. William M. Fraser III, is a bomber pilot.

Is Gates’ choice his way of telling the Air Force it should focus more on air mobility and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, instead of air-to-air combat?

Asked that question Tuesday, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the nominations could be read “a lot of different ways.”

But what really drove Gates “more than anything else,” Mullen said, “was the talent search for the best combination,” Mullen said.

In addition to his expertise in logistics, airlift, and refueling, Schwartz also has extensive experience in special operations. “And I think it’s also very important that we have somebody like Fraser, who’s got the bomber background, given the reason all this happened,” Mullen said, referring to the episode where an Air Force bomber crew flew a load of nuclear weapons cross-country without knowing the ordnance was onboard.

Schwartz "is an exceptionally smart person, he is a team player, and he has the right range of assignments to match where this administration wants to go," Thomson said.

At the same time, he added, "Some people in the Air Force would say he’s barely Air Force at all, given his past assignments and his relationship with [former Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld," when he was Director of the Joint Staff in 2004.

"Getting along with Rumsfeld sort of implies that you don't argue back," Thomson said, so "if there is a crucial issue for the Air Force where Gates and [Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon] England are decidedly wrong, I’m not sure what he’ll do."

Even so, "I would say Schwartz is probably the best choice the Air Force could have, under these circumstances," Thomson said.

"The Air Force has to recognize it’s mildly out of step with the rest of the political system. And if it’s going to get back in step, it needs a different sort of leader.”

Jeff Schogol contributed to this story from the Pentagon

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