Craig says his price to unfreeze the promotions is the delivery of four Air Force C-130 cargo planes to the Idaho Air National Guard, which he says the Air Force promised seven years ago.
The dispute, reported in Sunday's New York Times, has outraged Pentagon officials, who charge Craig has delayed important Air Force business over a minor home-state issue. One senior military official called Craig's actions blackmail, telling the Times, "If we say yes to this, Katie bar the door."
Craig argues that the Air Force has come up short on a promise to station a squadron of eight C-130's at Gowen Field in Boise – just four C-130's are now based there, a spokesman for Craig said.
"This is a problem created by the Air Force that can be easily solved by the Air Force," Will Hart, the spokesman, said.
Craig's maneuvers have also frustrated some of his Republican colleagues, like Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, which approved most of the promotions weeks ago.
Under Senate rules, a senator can put an anonymous hold on any nomination, promotion or legislation. However, military promotions generally breeze through the Senate without objection. The plane-for-promotions dispute was disclosed to The Times by a former military official.
The impact of Craig's actions has been felt throughout the Air Force, from junior officers to the senior ranks, where promotions for more than 20 generals are now on hold, including Gen. Robert H. Foglesong, who has been nominated to be commander of American air forces in Europe; and Maj. Gen. John W. Rosa Jr., who was slated to take over as the new superintendent of the Air Force Academy last month.
"We obviously can't operate like that," a senior military official said. "Idaho is a great state, but we can't put more planes in there without taking them out of somewhere else."
Even officials in Idaho are puzzled by Craig's actions; the cargo planes have not been a major issue there.
"It's not something people here are tapping their fingers over, waiting for them to show up," said Lt. Col. Tim Marsano, a spokesman for the Idaho National Guard.
Craig's office charged Air Force leadership was engaged in "some sort of strategy to renege on promises made to Sen. Craig."
Will Hart, the Craig spokesman, charged Air Force leadership was engaged in "some sort of strategy to renege on promises made to Sen. Craig."
He said Craig's "record of overwhelming support for the military speaks for itself."
The dispute comes as a new round of military base closings is scheduled to be decided in 2005. Defense officials tell the Times that increasing the number of C-130's at Gowen Field could make it a more likely base to keep open.
Defense officials say their arguments have had little impact on the Idaho senator. "We've tried to explain the facts of life to Sen. Craig that the Air Force is getting smaller, not bigger," one official said.