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updated 4/21/2008 11:55:35 AM ET 2008-04-21T15:55:35

Below are the comments about the Air Force made by Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Monday at Air University:

In the invitation to speak here, General Lorenz (commander of Air University) 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 aeromedical evacuation. During Desert Storm, it took about 10 days to medevac wounded to the United States. Now it takes about 3 days.

As Secretary Rice mentioned from this podium a week ago, 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.

And then there's 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 the 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. As you well know, the average age of a tanker is 47, 15 years older than the average age of the pilots flying them. I believe the Air Force procurement program that the president has approved and requested and that 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 standoff 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 or declare victory over the Soviet Union. Only the Pentagon could resurrect what I actually said back then in June 1992, and I said, "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 actually continues to unfold before us, the challenge that 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 principles of maneuver warfare that were credited by a former Marine Corps commandant and a secretary of Defense for the lightning victory in 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's an OODA Loop Street here at Maxwell, near the B-52.

But in accomplishing all these things, Boyd, who was 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 faces and 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. That is because this era's 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 targets, though we must never lose our ability or our will 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 oriented toward winning the big battles and the big wars. Based on my experience at CIA, at Texas A&M and now Department of Defense, it is clear to me that the culture of any large organization takes a long time to change, and 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 the 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 Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns need to be institutionalized into the service's core doctrine, funding priorities and personnel policies. And that is taking place, although 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 recent history. We see how deeply the expeditionary culture and mind- set 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 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 hundred-wing air force of allies and partners to complement the thousand-ship navy now being leveraged across maritime commons.

These new realities and missions should be reflected in our training and doctrine. The Air Force will be increasingly called upon to conduct civil-military or humanitarian operations with interagency and nongovernmental organizations and partners and deal directly with local populations. These missions will put a premium on foreign language and cultural expertise. As you know, Red Flag at Nellis Air Force base is a premier training exercise that began after the Vietnam War to improve air-to-air combat skills over the years.

The exercise scenarios have 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 four 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 air power in instability 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, so 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'd stood by flag-draped coffins 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 theater.

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 control of the skies — aircraft that our partners also can afford.

This morning I have raised some difficult questions, with perhaps difficult answers. I'm 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 and 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. And you will have to choose to do something or to be someone.

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 airpower strategy and meeting the complex challenges to our national security.

Thank you.

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