I want to take a moment to call attention to the nominee for chief of staff of the US Air Force—General David Goldfein. The general, who is currently the vice chief of staff, led US Air Forces Central for nearly two years, and prior to that, spent two years directing operations for Air Combat Command. His combat experience, however, is about more than planning and commanding. He’s actually one of very few serving American pilots who have been shot down in combat.
During the 1999 Kosovo War, then-Lt. Col. Goldfein commanded the 555th Fighter Squadron (the Triple Nickel), a unit of 24 F-16s still flying from Aviano, Italy. On 2 May, while flying a mission himself over Novi Sad, he was brought down by an S-125 (S-3, NATO says) Neva missile fired by the Yugoslav 250th Missile Brigade. Goldfein had actually been hunting surface-to-air missile batters, by one bagged him before he could do the reverse. As he later told the El Paso Times, "I became a very expensive glider pretty quick.” He managed to eject, and was picked up by a combat search-and-rescue crew—though not before pursuing troops put a few bullets into the helicopter. The tail of his plane is still in the Aviation Museum in Belgrade.
Let me stress that I don’t mean to call out his experience in a Donald Trump-on-John McCain way. The 250th Brigade was a sufficiently creative unit to down not just Goldfein's F-16, but an F-117 stealth fighter too. Rather, I mean that it’s good to have a service chief who has not just direct experience in combat, but direct experience at losing on a tactical level. Plenty of American flag officers have lost men and women in tough fights, but mostly they just have great and laudable experience with winning on a tactical level. Their collective record on the strategic level is rather mixed, but unsatisfactory campaigns may leave less personal impressions than getting shot down in combat.
The problem is that winning doesn’t produce all the same lessons as losing. Amidst the affection at the Pentagon for entrepreneurial business these days, we often hear about the importance of learning from failing, and failing fast and repeatedly, to keep the cycle of learning going. It’s better not to lose aircrews and aircraft in combat, of course, but as these two losses in 1999 showed, technology makes no one invincible in the long run. And as Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work has lamented, much of the US military long ago lost its fingerspitzengefühl for critical thinking about its capabilities. War games, drills, and field exercises rarely end in fiasco, but the wars sometimes do. The reverse would be better.
As for Goldfein, after getting dropped back at Aviano, Goldfein he took another F-16 over Yugoslavia the very next day. That takes grit, and I think that he’ll bring that to the job of chief.