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Secretary of Defense Gates' Speech at Air War College

Speaker: Robert M. Gates
Published April 21, 2008



Secretary of Defense Gates' Speech at Air War College

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates gave this speech at the Air War College in Maxwell, Alabama on April 21, 2008.

Thank you, General Lorenz. It is great to be back at Maxwell. I last spoke here nearly sixteen years ago, when I was Director of CIA. The world was a very different place then but, of course, some things never change. For example, Washington, D.C., has always been a perilous assignment, one that has cut short more careers than anywhere else in the world. As General Lorenz has pointed out, the worst day at Maxwell is still far better than the best day at the Pentagon.
        Representatives from many NATO nations are here today – including dignitaries from Poland. As I look around, I see more than a hundred international students in the audience. To our international brothers-in-arms: I appreciate your nations’ partnerships and I hope we can find new, creative ways to keep working together that capitalize on our respective areas of expertise.
        As General Lorenz just mentioned, I was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Air Force on January 4, 1967. I was married in Seattle on January 7, 1967 and a few days later reported for duty at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri – then home to 150 minuteman ICBMs. One of my duties at Whiteman was to brief the missile crews on international, political, and military developments. I would have to tell you their lack of interest was awe inspiring.
        Because of my academic background and modest Russian language skills, I frequently briefed high-ranking officers on our wing’s Minuteman targets in the Soviet Union. Translated, that means I was one of the few people in the entire wing and aerospace division that could actually pronounce the names of our targets. One time, I was explaining our target set to a lieutenant general, the Commander of Eighth Air Force at Westover – who I would describe as a cigar-chomping Curtis Lemay wannabe. When I told him that 120 of our 150 missiles were aimed at Soviet ICBMs, he exploded and, with many expletives I will delete, said it was an outrage that we would be hitting only empty silos. He wanted to kill Russians. He demanded that I, Second Lieutenant Gates, rewrite the nuclear targeting plan.
        That reminds me of another story about targeting. One Friday night, we were called out of the Whiteman Officers’ Club during happy hour because there was a problem with the war plans. SAC Headquarters had decided to change the launch sequencing for all the missiles. We worked all night to fix the strike-control documents – that meant wrestling with large, unwieldy sheets of laminating material as sticky as fly paper. The next morning around 9 o’clock, we got a call from a major in one of the launch-control capsules. He sounded puzzled as he examined the strike-execution checklist and identified what he thought was a piece of pepperoni under the lamination. In fact, he had correctly determined the kind of pizza we had during the night before.
        Maxwell has a special claim on history. In 1910, an Alabama businessman leased a cotton field to the Wright Brothers. They set up the first flight school here at Maxwell, near “base ops” today. They conducted night flights over Montgomery and even set an altitude record rising 2,500 feet, the second highest ever achieved at that time. They could scarcely imagine today’s flying machines.
        In the invitation to speak here, General Lorenz asked me to talk about challenges that you, as Air Force officers, will face as you become senior leaders.
The Air Force has been in the process of constant change for decades, with a steady drumbeat of expeditionary air operations. Perhaps uniquely among the Services, the Air Force has been at war, more or less constantly, for 17 years, since the launch of Desert Storm. Since September 11th, the Air Force has flown nearly a million missions in the war on terror, with an average of 300 sorties per day ranging from lift to medevac to close air support.
        The contributions of airmen have made a real difference for those fighting on the ground. Survival rates for those injured are up to 90 percent, in part, due to aero-medical evacuation. During Desert Storm, it took about 10 days to medevac wounded to the U.S. Now it takes about three days.
        As Secretary Rice mentioned a week ago from this stage, the Air Force is doing some missions it would never have imagined in 2001 – such as Air Force officers leading Provincial Reconstruction Teams. In addition, there are about 14,200 airmen performing “in-lieu-of” tasks on the ground, where an Air Force civil engineer might replace an Army heavy construction engineer. Then there is the example of Air Force Tech Sergeant, Jeremy Sudlow of Pandora, Ohio, who logged more than 430,000 miles on Iraq’s roads as the convoy commander of a medium truck detachment. And in one month alone, C-17s helped take nearly 5,000 trucks off dangerous roads in Iraq.
        Some of you have seen continuous operations in a combat theater since the day you donned a blue uniform. All of you raised your right hand knowing that deployments were a fact of life. And as you well know, these activities have taken a toll on the Air Force’s Cold War-era equipment. For example, the average age of a tanker is 47 – 15 years older than the average age of pilots flying them. I believe the Air Force procurement program that the President has requested, and I have supported, is an appropriate and responsible one that will allow the Service to reset from current operations and prepare for future challenges.
        Those challenges will be immense, and they will be diverse. When I last spoke here in June 1992, the Soviet Union had dissolved just six months earlier. Four decades of nuclear stand-off fizzled out as the Cold War came to a quiet end. There were no parades or peace treaties. President George H.W. Bush didn’t dance on the Berlin wall nor declared victory over the Soviet Union. Only the Pentagon could resurrect what I said back then in June 1992: “We must expect continuing radical change and upheaval around the world – at times promising, at times frightening – before the form and patterns of a new era settle into place.”
        As this new era continues to unfold before us, the challenge I pose to you today is to become a forward-thinking officer who helps the Air Force adapt to a constantly changing strategic environment characterized by persistent conflict.
        Let me illustrate using a historical exemplar: the late Air Force Colonel John Boyd. As a 30-year-old captain, he rewrote the manual for air-to-air combat. Boyd and the reformers he inspired would later go on to design and advocate for the F-16 and the A-10. After retiring, he would develop the principals of maneuver warfare that were credited by a former Marine Corps Commandant and a Secretary of Defense for the lightning victory of the first Gulf War. Boyd’s contributions will resonate today. Many of you have studied the concept he developed called the OODA loop– and I understand there is an “OODA Loop” street here at Maxwell near the B-52.
         In accomplishing all these things, Boyd – a brilliant, eccentric, and stubborn character – had to overcome a large measure of bureaucratic resistance and institutional hostility. He had some advice that he used to pass on to his colleagues and subordinates that is worth sharing with you. Boyd would say, and I quote: “one day you will take a fork in the road, and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. If you go [one] way, you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and get good assignments. Or you can go [the other] way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself … If you decide to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself … To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you have to make a decision. To be or to do?”
        For the kinds of challenges America will face, the Armed Forces will need principled, creative, reform-minded leaders – men and women who, as Boyd put it, want to do something, not be somebody. An unconventional era of warfare requires unconventional thinkers.
        This range of security challenges – from global terrorism to ethnic conflicts; from rogue nations to rising powers – cannot be overcome by traditional military means alone. Conflict will be fundamentally political in nature and will require the integration of all elements of national power. Success to a large extent will depend less on imposing one’s will on the enemy or putting bombs on target – though we must never lose our will or ability to unsheathe the sword when necessary. Instead, ultimate success or failure will increasingly depend more on shaping the behavior of others – friends and adversaries, and most importantly, the people in between.
        This new set of realities and requirements have meant a wrenching set of changes for our military establishment that, until recently, was almost completely oriented toward winning the big battles in the big wars. Based on my experience at CIA, Texas A&M, and now the Department of Defense, the culture of any large organization takes a long time to change. The really tough part is preserving those elements of the culture that strengthen the institution and motivate the people in it, while shedding those elements of the culture that are barriers to progress and achieving the mission. All of the Services must examine their cultures critically, if we are to have the capabilities relevant and necessary to overcome the most likely threats America will face in years to come.
        For example, the Army that went over the berm about five years ago was, in its basic organization and assumptions, essentially a smaller version of the Fulda Gap force that expelled Saddam Hussein from Kuwait a decade prior. As I’ve told Army gatherings, the lessons learned and capabilities built from the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns need to be institutionalized into the service's core doctrine, funding priorities, and personnel policies. And that is taking place, though we must always guard against falling into past historical patterns where, if bureaucratic nature takes its course, these kinds of irregular capabilities tend to slide to the margins.
       Like the Army, the Air Force has adopted some of the lessons of its recent history. We see how deeply the expeditionary culture and mindset have taken root. The service has adapted capabilities to today’s realities and come up with some ingenious responses on the battlefield, such as small-diameter munitions that can strike the irreconcilable enemies with less chance of harming – or alienating – civilians.
        In an era when we are most likely to be challenged in asymmetric ways, I would ask you to think through how we can build the kinds of air capabilities most likely to be needed while continuing to offer a strategic hedge against rising powers.
        Protecting the 21st Century’s “global commons” – in particular, space and cyberspace – has been identified and adopted as a key task. Building the capacity of partners is another – a topic that Secretary Rice and I addressed before the House Armed Services Committee just last week. What the last 25 years have shown is that the threats can emerge almost anywhere in the world, but our own forces and resources will remain finite. To fill this gap, we must help our allies and partners to confront extremists and other potential sources of global instability within their borders. I ask you to think through what more we might do – through training and equipping programs, or other initiatives – to enhance the air capabilities of other nations. And whether, for example, we should pursue a conceptual “100-wing Air Force” of allies and partners to complement the “1,000-ship Navy” now being leveraged across the maritime commons.
        These new realities and missions should be reflected in our training and doctrine. The Air Force will be increasingly called on to conduct civil-military or humanitarian operations with interagency and non-governmental partners, and deal directly with local populations. This will put a premium on foreign language and cultural expertise.
        As you know, Red Flag at Nellis Air Force Base is a premiere training exercise that began after the Vietnam War to improve air-to-air combat skills. Over the years, the exercise scenario has expanded to include allied nations, close air support, and other elements of modern warfare, but it has not yet addressed that gray zone between war and peace. Specifically, the exercise could include civilians from NGOs and government organizations, and be more closely integrated with land-component training such as the Army’s NTC in California.
        Furthermore, the counterinsurgency manual issued by the Army and Marines is over 200-pages long – and yet only 4 pages are dedicated to air, space, and cyberspace. Not long ago, the Air Force published a doctrine document on irregular warfare. But, as future leaders of air power, you should consider whether there is more the service might do to articulate and codify the unique role of airpower in stability operations.
        Other questions I would ask you to consider go to the heart of how the service is organized, manned, and equipped. What new priorities should drive procurement and what new criteria should drive promotions? At Whiteman in the 1960s, I recall missileers and non-rated officers questioning whether they would ever make flag rank because they were unrated – though I know a good deal has improved for the career prospects of non-aviators since then.
        In addition, we need to be thinking about how we accomplish the missions of the future – from strike to surveillance – in the most affordable and sensible way. We must heed John Boyd’s advice by asking if the ways we do business make sense. UAVs offer a case in point. In the early 1990s, I was Director of CIA. After 27 years of experience as an intelligence professional, I had seen many agents place themselves in harm’s way to collect information in some of the world’s most dangerous and inaccessible environments. I had stood by flag-draped caskets at Andrews Air Force Base receiving those from CIA who had given their all serving the nation. The introduction of UAVs around this time meant far less risky and far more versatile means of gathering data, and other nations like Israel set about using them. In 1992, however, the Air Force would not co-fund with CIA a vehicle without a pilot.
        Unmanned systems cost much less and offer greater loiter times than their manned counterparts, making them ideal for many of today’s tasks. Today, we now have more than 5,000 UAVs, a 25-fold increase since 2001. But in my view, we can do – and we should do – more to meet the needs of men and women fighting in the current conflicts while their outcome may still be in doubt.
        My concern is that our services are still not moving aggressively in wartime to provide resources needed now on the battlefield. I’ve been wrestling for months to get more intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets into the theatre. Because people were stuck in old ways of doing business, it’s been like pulling teeth. While we’ve doubled this capability in recent months, it is still not good enough. And so last week I established a Department of Defense-wide task force much like the MRAP task force to work this problem in the weeks to come, to find more innovative and bold ways to help those whose lives are on the line. The deadlines for the task force’s work are very short.
        All this may require rethinking long-standing service assumptions and priorities about which missions require certified pilots and which do not. For those missions that still require manned missions, we need to think hard about whether we have the right platforms. Whether, for example, low-cost, low-tech alternatives exist to do basic reconnaissance and close air support in an environment where we have total command of the skies – aircraft that our partners can also afford and use.
        This morning I have raised difficult questions with, perhaps, difficult answers. I am asking you to be part of the solution and part of the future. As up-and-coming Air Force leaders, I urge you to explore creative new ways airmen writ large can apply their skill, talent, and weaponry as the forms and patterns of this new era still settle into place.
        No doubt such changes will be difficult for an organization that has been so successful for six decades. The last time a U.S. ground force was attacked from the sky was more than half a century ago, and the last Air Force jet lost to aerial combat was in Vietnam. Such success is attributable, in part, to the ways airmen have pushed technology to its outer limits. But it is also attributable to maverick thinkers like John Boyd.
        As you graduate from your respective courses and leave Maxwell, you too will eventually face Boyd’s proverbial “fork in the road.” You will have to choose: to be someone or to do something. For the good of the Air Force, for the good of the armed services, and for the good of our country, I urge you to reject convention and careerism and to make decisions that will carry you closer toward – rather than further from – the officer you want to be and the thinker who advances air-power strategy in meeting the complex challenges to our national security.
        Thank you.


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