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Gates Says U.S. Air Force May Resist Change Once He Leaves

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he is concerned the Air Force may revert to a Cold War-era focus on fighter jets and bombers at the expense of drones and other new weapons after he leaves office later this year.

While manned aircraft are needed, the Air Force must recognize “the enormous strategic and cultural implications of the vast expansion in remotely piloted vehicles” that already play a major role over Afghanistan and Iraq, Gates told about 2,000 cadets in a speech to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado.

“The view still lingers in some corners that, once I depart as secretary and once U.S. forces draw down from Iraq and Afghanistan in accordance with the president’s and NATO’s strategy, things can get back to what some consider to be real Air Force normal,” he said. “This must not happen.”

Even as it buys the manned F-35 Joint Strike Fighter built by Lockheed Martin Corp. and develops a new strategic bomber, the Air Force must give equal weight to unmanned drones and “the service’s important role in the cyber and space domains,” Gates said.

The Air Force now has 48 Predator and Reaper combat air patrols flying in Iraq and Afghanistan compared with 18 in 2007, Gates said. Predators and Reapers, for surveillance or striking ground targets, are drones made by closely held General Atomics of San Diego. The Air Force is now training more pilots for advanced unmanned aerial vehicles than for any other single weapons system, he said.

As he prepares to step down as defense secretary this year, Gates has used his public appearances to press for changes in the Pentagon structure that he says will better prepare the country for 21st-century threats.

Congressional Audience

In a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, he last week said any future defense secretary “should have his head examined” if he advocates sending a large land army into the Middle East, Asia or Africa.

His words may carry weight in Congress, where he enjoys bipartisan respect, if not outright support. Gates, who took office in 2006, is the only defense secretary to have served under both a Republican and Democratic president.

“I suspect that my remarks today will be construed as an attack on bombers and fighters,” Gates said. “But my actions and my budgets over the last four years belie these mistaken interpretations.”

He noted his support of Air Force plans to buy 2,400 of the F-35 fighters, with the first Air Force training versions due to arrive in about two months.

F-22 Upgrade

His proposed 2012 budget, he said, includes money to develop an “optionally manned, nuclear-capable, penetrating Air Force bomber,” and money to modernize the F-22 Raptor fighter jet with radar and electronic protection technologies borrowed from the newer F-35 program.

Manned aircraft, he said, continue to play a pivotal role in Afghanistan, where the pace of air operations has increased over the past year in support of a surge in ground operations.

The Air Force conducted more than 33,000 close-air-support-mission flights in 2010, an increase of more than 20 percent compared with 2009, Gates said.

Budget Pressures

Taking questions from cadets, Gates also addressed the budget pressures that caused him to cut $78 billion worth of programs over the next five years.

Noting the House decision to kill money for the alternative engine to the F-35 that the Pentagon doesn’t want, Gates said, “My hope is we can finally shed this potential extra $3 billion expenditure that we don’t need.”

He said the budget “discipline” he has imposed will leave the Defense Department in a “good place” and he doesn’t foresee the need to put “other major programs on the block for the next year or two.”

In the longer term, Gates said he worries whether the Air Force will be able to build new refueling tankers and a new bomber simultaneously, and whether the Navy will be able to build all the surface ships it needs and a new ballistic missile submarine at the same time.

Gates, 67, has said he plans to leave office sometime this year, without specifying a month. He described his appearance today as his “third and final visit” to the Air Force Academy as defense secretary.

Gates was appointed to his job in December of 2006 by former President George W. Bush, following the departure from the Pentagon of Donald Rumsfeld.

Bush and Gates had their first public reunion last night since Bush left the White House. The two men appeared briefly on stage together in Dallas to headline a fundraiser for the Boy Scouts of America.

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