National Harbor, Md. — Defense Secretary Roberts Gates gave a sweeping review of the Air Force on Wednesday in a speech peppered with a few favor-culling announcements and yet another defense of his most controversial budgetary decisions.
From the rise of unmanned aerial vehicles to the future size and safety of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, Gates promoted the programs and weapons systems he is asking Congress to approve this fall.
Addressing the Air Force Association national convention, just outside of Washington, the secretary praised the service’s air and ground efforts in Afghanistan and pushed back criticism that his new way forward was too much of a departure from what the Air Force does best.
“Contrary to what some have alleged,” he said, the Pentagon’s efforts at “institutionalizing” irregular warfare capabilities, such as Predator and Reaper drones — which have doubled in Afghanistan this year — is not a sign of a total restructuring.
“With hundreds of thousands of troops deployed in two major combat theaters, fielding these capabilities and putting them into the hands of the warfighter as soon as possible are the most important things we do,” said Gates.
And while the Air Force now trains more unmanned aircraft operators than fighter and bomber pilots, $175 million proposed for irregular programs in the Air Force was, he said, “not exactly an existential threat” to the $64 billion set aside for other future programs.
At the same time, Gates reiterated his support for existing fighter power beginning with the F-22 Raptor. The Air Force Association has opposed the secretary’s efforts to halt the F-22 production line and plastered an F-22 picture across the cover of the convention’s program. But Gates said the roughly $6.5 billion he has proposed to upgrade the fleet assures U.S. domination of the skies for decades.
The secretary once again highlighted his ambitious next-year request for the more-versatile F-35s. Gates recently visited the F-35 production plant in Texas.
The critics’ notion of a “looming fighter gap,” he said, relied on “dated assumptions about requirements and risk.”
“The more compelling gap is the deep chasm between the air capabilities of the United States and those of other nations,” he said.
By the time China produces its first “5th generation” fighter, he said, the U.S. will have more than 1,000 F-22s and F-35s. And while the U.S. conducted 35,000 refueling missions last year, Russia performed about 30.
Gates also said he was committed to “long-range strike capability” without repeating the mistakes of the B-2 program which became so expensive — $2 billion each — that just one-sixth of the fleet was built.
The secretary also highlighted new efforts to support robust space and cyber commands, as well as the new Global Strike Command that oversees the nuclear arsenal.
Gates drew his only mid-speech applause by announcing the Pentagon would give the Air Force back its authority to select the winner of a contract for an aerial refueling tanker — but not without a parental warning to the industry.
“We are committed to the integrity of the selection process and cannot afford the kind of letdowns, parochial squabbles and corporate food fights that have bedeviled this effort in the past,” said Gates.
Air Force Sec. Michael Donley, in a statement, said that buying new tankers remains the service’s “number one acquisition priority.” The contract award will come next year.