RIYADH, Saudi Arabia—When he was 14, Michael Moseley often rode his bicycle to a small airport in his hometown of Grand Prairie, Texas, with just enough money earned from part-time jobs to pay for half-hour flying lessons.
It was the start of a skyward trajectory that ultimately propelled Moseley into the top ranks of the Air Force. Now, as a three-star general who has commanded the successful U.S.-led air war against Iraq, Moseley is still ascending.
"He has been a terrific officer who probably faces a very bright future," Air Force Secretary James Roche said. "I believe he would be very competitive to be one of our future top leaders."
While Moseley is well-regarded and well-positioned within the Air Force after a three-decade career, including 2,800 hours as an F-15 pilot, he has drawn little attention outside the military.
Even in his current role, the 53-year-old lieutenant general is largely isolated from public view, working 15- to 18-hour days at a remote desert command post nearly 100 miles from the nearest city.
Moseley is a friendly sixth-generation Texan who drives a pickup, loves country music and seldom misses bird-hunting season. But Roche and others say the folksy veneer masks a scholarly intellect and an innovative military mind.
He leads in an approachable style reminiscent of Omar Bradley, the "G.I. general" of World War II, motivating subordinates through encouragement rather than intimidation. He refers to young airmen as "our babies," and tells his fliers, "I love you guys."
Moseley also resurrects a little of George Patton in his flair for earthy language. With troops surging toward Baghdad last week, he proclaimed that Saddam Hussein was between the "dog and the fireplug." Of opposing forces, he says matter-of-factly: "We'll kill them."
Moseley was working in the Pentagon as Roche's top congressional liaison when a hijacked jetliner crashed into the building on Sept. 11, 2001, killing 184. Less than two months later, he was placed in charge of the Air Force component of the U.S. Central Command and dispatched overseas to direct the air war in Afghanistan.
Moseley, whose command also includes the 9th Air Force at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., has remained in Southwest Asia to direct the air campaign against Iraq. He still oversees air operations in Afghanistan's mop-up campaign, thus shouldering responsibility in two theaters of war.
The aerial strategy for Operation Iraqi Freedom was the culmination of more than a year of work and was designed to embrace the objectives of his boss, Gen. Tommy Franks, another Texan, who heads the U.S.-led coalition.
After consultations with scores of strategists from all branches of the government, Moseley launched an aerial assault that aimed to quickly sever the Iraqi regime's communications with the field troops, leaving them confused and in disarray.
Other key elements of the plan included savage air attacks on the vaunted Republican Guard; neutralizing the already anemic Iraqi air force by destroying airfields and airplanes; and carrying out demoralizing strikes on symbols of Saddam's power, such as presidential palaces and government buildings.
Within days, the round-the-clock pounding by U.S., British and Australian aircraft was clearly achieving success, melting away Republican Guard fortifications and opening the door for a swift ground assault on Baghdad.
While the air war hasn't been flawless—an errant U.S. air strike Sunday, for instance, left some Kurdish allies dead and others wounded—it has consistently met and, in many cases, surpassed its strategic objectives, analysts say.
"There is no substitute for boots on the ground," said Chris Hellman, a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "But the ground forces wouldn't be as successful as they have been today if it weren't for the kind of air support they have been getting."
Moseley's war preparations not only showed his instincts as a strategic planner but also reflected a flair for diplomacy. Moseley consults daily with his counterparts in the other services and was careful to touch all the right bases in developing his plan.
Roche, in an interview with Knight Ridder, recalled that Moseley met him in Houston at the memorial services for the Space Shuttle Columbia astronauts and flew back with the Air Force secretary to outline "every bit" of the strategy.
Roche said Moseley, "out of courtesy as much as anything else," wanted "to make sure I was fully apprised of it."
At his command center in a mustard-colored aluminum warehouse, Moseley oversees a team of more than 1,000 personnel responsible for up to 2,000 missions a day. The operations center coordinates mostly precision-guided air strikes from 30 bases and five aircraft carriers.
Working in an office with electronic displays of the air and ground campaign, Moseley participates in daily video-teleconferences with Franks, head of the U.S. Command in Doha, Qatar, and the three commanders of the ground and sea wars.
In the opening days of the war, he was a ubiquitous presence on the command room floor, prompting top subordinates to urge him to stay rested and pace himself.
"He's a motivator and a tremendous communicator," said Brig. Gen. Dan Darnell, who has known Moseley for 26 years and serves as a top deputy in the air command.
Moseley spent part of his childhood near Paris in north Texas before his family moved to Grand Prairie, where Moseley graduated from high school in 1967.
His Air Force career stemmed from a boyhood yearning to fly. He worked in an ice cream store and cut lawns to earn money for flying lessons, then pedaled to the airport to persuade veteran pilots to take him up in a Piper Cub.
"I think they liked having a kid around who wanted to fly," Moseley remembered.
"They kind of adopted me."
While working during the summer in nearby Arlington at Six Flags Over Texas, Moseley met Jennie Willmann, who lived in Arlington and sold souvenirs at the amusement park. They were married in May 1971, the start of what she describes as "one long adventure."
Moseley entered the Air Force in 1972 after receiving bachelor's and master's degrees in political science from Texas A&M. His assignments took them to bases in Texas, New Mexico, Japan, Alabama and Washington as Moseley rose from an F-15 instructor to high-level jobs in the Pentagon.
After their two children grew up and left home, the Moseleys spent much of their time browsing antique stores and cultivating their love of Texas history. Both are descendants of pioneer families who settled in Texas in the 1840s.
"We have a lot of fun together," Jennie Moseley said. "We enjoy each other's company."
Jennie Moseley remained in South Carolina when her husband was ordered overseas after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Separated for more than 500 days, the Moseleys write each other e-mails several times a day but are rarely able to talk by phone.
After the war ends, Moseley would conceivably be a strong candidate for a fourth star and a premier assignment. But he said he is unsure where he and his wife will wind up.
"I'm going to be so glad to see her, I'll go wherever she wants to," he said.
(Montgomery, who reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, reported from Riyadh. Guynn, who reports for the Contra Costa Times, reported from Washington.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+moseley