Was the Gates Counter-USAF Sortie Fair?

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Ok, I gotta get into this fray...

So yesterday Gates dressed down the Air Force during an address at its war college in Alabama. He said getting the service to deploy enough drones to Iraq and Afghanistan was like "pulling teeth" and he cited the struggle as an example of services refusing to adapt to the new era of warfare.

His criticism was greeted with quiet applause by many in the analyst/journalist/military world who are mainly concerned that the Air Force is focusing too much of its efforts on legacy platforms like the F-22. Don't get me wrong, I like it when a defense secretary shows a little backbone and acts like he's leading the services rather than being led by them (or Congress).

But I think we should inject some perspective into his undiplomatic attacks. I'll get this one out of the way first: Can you imagine the outcry if it had been Rumsfeld who delivered this critique? When the former secretary slapped the Army upside the head, he was slammed for being too wedded to an outmoded "revolution in military affairs" mentality and that he favored technology over manpower. Army generals initiated a whisper campaign to discredit him. And after a while it worked. Wonder if the powerful Air Force brass will start the same thing? Only time will tell.

I also think it's a bit unfair to say the Air Force is stuck in the old ways of doing business:

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," he said. "My concern is that our services are still not moving aggressively in wartime to provide resources needed now on the battlefield."

He cited the example of drone aircraft that can watch, hunt and sometimes kill insurgents without risking the life of a pilot. He said the number of such aircraft has grown 25-fold since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to a total of 5,000.

Gates has been trying for months to get the Air Force to send more surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, like the Predator drone that provides real-time surveillance video, to the battlefield.

"Because people were stuck in old ways of doing business, it's been like pulling teeth," Gates said. "While we've doubled this capability in recent months, it is still not good enough."

If you really think about it, the Air Force has been pretty agile in this fight. They've deployed Airmen as provisional convoy security teams, sent over explosive ordnance disposal teams to augment Army, Navy and Marine IED hunters, scattered hundreds of tactical air controllers around the globe to help the ground pounders in close air support missions, their planes fly constantly over Iraq and Afghanistan helping spot IEDs, killing senior insurgent and al Qaeda leaders and tracking bad guy mortar teams. The service has done a lot of filling in on missions it's not traditionally done before and stepped up to the plate with little complaint.

Maybe complaining about the number of UAVs the Air Force has deployed is reasonable. A colleague in one of my email loops put it this way:

Gates apparently does not know about the real issues involved in deploying more Predators, and is paving the way to the inevitable day when an Army Warrior crewed by 19-year-old NCOs has a midair with a loaded C-130, directs a barrage of guided artillery on to a school bus or puts Hellfires through a group of allied vehicles.

The Air Force argues the delay in deploying UAV squadrons is due to training needs back home. My colleague above might be going a little far in his analogy -- I don't think we need winged aviators necessarily to fly UAVs on all missions -- but his point brings up a larger issue that Gates ignores in his UAV critique.

The bottom line is ALL the services need to adapt to a new way of fighting, and in large part they have. Now the Air Force's obsession with the F-22 is an easy mark for critique. But at least someone's thinking about air-to-air while everyone else is handing out soccer balls and building insurgent network wire diagrams.

-- Christian

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