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Gen. Mark Welsh III, outgoing commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and incoming Air Force chief of staff, talks about Air Force issues at USAFE headquarters on Ramstein Air Base, Germany, July 27.
Gen. Mark Welsh III, outgoing commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and incoming Air Force chief of staff, talks about Air Force issues at USAFE headquarters on Ramstein Air Base, Germany, July 27. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — The incoming Air Force chief of staff says eliminating sexual assault is a priority, tied to readiness and strengthening the Air Force.

Amid a sex scandal at Lackland Air Force Base that has rocked the service and delayed his confirmation, Gen. Mark Welsh III said everyone at every level of command needs to be held accountable.

“[Sexual assault] just has the potential to rip the fabric of your force apart. I think it is doing that to a certain extent now,” Welsh said in an interview Friday, a day after Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, placed a hold on Welsh’s confirmation.

Cornyn issued a statement demanding “corrective steps to reform” the training program at Lackland, where military officials say more than a dozen basic training instructors are under investigation for sexual assault involving more than 30 alleged victims. The first to face court-martial, Staff Sgt. Luis A. Walker, was sentenced last week to 20 years in prison after being convicted of charges involving 10 female trainees.

Welsh, 58, was confirmed Thursday after a face-to-face meeting with Cornyn that convinced the senator Welsh shared his concerns. “Gen. Welsh demonstrated a genuine resolve to improving Air Force-wide policies to prevent a recurrence of the grossly unacceptable conduct that took place at Lackland,” Cornyn said in a statement.

Despite training and education, advances in victim care and expanded reporting options, the Air Force “isn’t doing enough” to combat sexual assault. By the end of the year, Welsh said, the Air Force expects to handle 600 reported assaults.

“We’ve got to look towards the front end of the problem in my view,” he said, by trying to stop the crime before it’s committed. That could include screening new recruits for any potential character traits “that trend in that direction,” or increasing penalties for minor sexual crimes, “if there is such a thing,” Welsh said.

“I’m not an expert in this,” he said. “I don’t know how to fix it, but I won’t quit working on it.

“The number is zero. That’s the only acceptable goal. Everybody in our Air Force needs to think that way and every commander, every supervisor who isn’t actively engaged in being part of the solution of this is part of the problem.”

Welsh also faces challenges from a shrinking defense budget, a smaller, aging force, and lawmakers who have rejected proposed reductions to the Air National Guard.

Readiness, he said, “will be a focus of mine the entire time I’m chief. Are we really ready? If the nation calls, will we win the next war and do our part to do that? If the answer to that is ever approaching ‘no,’ or ‘I’m not sure,’ then we’re not doing our job.”

Welsh said he supported the fiscal 2013 Air Force budget, rejected by lawmakers, that proposed cutting the force by 5,100 guardsmen, 900 reservists and 3,900 active-duty airmen.

“It was a good analysis,” Welsh said of the proposal, which was criticized by some members of Congress and state officials as disproportionately targeting the Air Force Reserve and Guard.

“The truth is, going forward we have to do something different than we’ve done in the past,” he said. “We can’t keep the same force structure with 10 percent less funding over the next five years,” without eroding training or modernization efforts.”

Training is a key ingredient of readiness, Welsh said.

“I have been concerned about training and very vocal about it since the day I got here, so we have to be careful about that,” he said. “You can’t trade that off for infrastructure, facility support, other things. You just can’t do that.”

But the Air Force also needs to modernize, an area in which it has “been struggling,” Welsh said.

“Twenty years of full time activity in a war zone has aged equipment faster than we thought it would,” he said. “We’re flying airplanes at a much higher rate, we’re using systems at a much higher rate than they were originally intended when we purchased them.

“Our people are tired. We’re not overstressed, but we’re tired.”

Welsh remains optimistic he can further his priorities with a “practical, stable, supportable investment plan.”

“I think we can get better,” he said. “We may have to get smaller to do it.”

Given the financial crunch, “we need to justify what we do everywhere these days,” and that includes taking a hard look at the Air Force footprint in Europe, said Welsh, who has led U.S. Air Forces in Europe for the past year and a half.

“I think we need to look very hard in Europe and say, ‘What are the enduring missions here?’ because there are things that we’re going to be asked to do here regardless of what happens in Europe, Africa or the Middle East,” Welsh said.

As he prepares to lead the Air Force as the service’s 20th chief of staff, Welsh said his leadership style hasn’t changed since he was a lieutenant. He relies on others he considers more capable, empowering and enabling them to get the job done.

“We have people I consider brilliant in this business. I’m not one of them, I never have been. We have people I consider visionary. I’m not one of them,” he said. “But I think I understand people fairly well and I think I trust them and I think that’s a good thing at every level of leadership and command.”

Welsh said he tries to live up to his late father’s example.

“My dad was a hero,” he said. “I mean a real hero.”

Mark Welsh Jr., who retired as an Air Force colonel, received a Silver Star and five Distinguished Flying Crosses, among other honors. He towed a glider across the beaches on D-Day, served in three wars and flew more than 9,000 hours, mostly in fighter aircraft, Welsh said.

“All he wanted to do was to serve his nation, his family, his kids,” said Welsh, tearing up. “Everything about me is based on him.”

Welsh keeps a nearly life-size cutout of John Wayne in his office. He’s had it for 25 years and it is making the trip with him to the Pentagon. In most of Wayne’s movies, it’s clear what he stands for, Welsh said.

Welsh doesn’t want people guessing what he stands for, which is “everyone is critically important and they deserve to be treated that way.

“In this business, honesty is life,” he said.

“All I want people to do is do the best they can at whatever they’re doing. And when you’re not working, keep your priorities straight. Mine are clear: Family, country, service, all the time.”

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