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In Praise of Tac Air, Bombers

The Air Force must continue changing, focusing more on the joint fight, keeping its focus on increased UAV deployments and seeking balance between transport, rescue and the other missions demanded of it today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Air Force Academy.

Lest he be accused of hammering fighter pilots again, Gates said he has been misunderstood when he has made speeches at West Point and before the Navy League criticizing basic systems and how they are used and built.

"At the Navy League last year, I suggested that the Navy should think anew about the role of aircraft carriers and the size of amphibious modernization programs. The speech was characterized by some as my doubting the value of carriers and amphibious assault capabilities altogether. At West Point last week I questioned the wisdom of sending large land armies into major conflicts in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and suggested the Army should think about the number and role of its heavy armored formations for the future. That has been interpreted as my questioning the need for the Army at all, or at least one its present size, the value of heavy armor generally, and the even the wisdom of our involvement in Afghanistan. I suspect that my remarks today will be construed as an attack on bombers and tac-air," he said.

Not so, he said. He's trying to refocus the services away from their traditional core missions, whose advocates have tended to distort what the services buy and what they should do and who should lead. And Gates believes "that the view still lingers in some corners that once I depart as Secretary, and once U.S. forces drawdown in Iraq and in 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. This must not happen," he said.

Once the drawdowns occur and budgets grow tighter, what we might call the recidivist forces may rise, Gates made clear. So he praised those working across the services, noting work on the Air-Sea Doctrine, saying the services leadership "recognize the enormous potential in developing new joint war fighting capabilities...."

But he also stressed his belief that some of the traditional Air Force missions really are crucial and that he thinks must be funded and fought, surely music to some blue suiters who think Gates has it out for fighter pilots.

"So even as I’ve touted the need to incorporate the lessons of the current conflicts, I have also committed the Department of Defense, and this country, to the most advanced and expensive tactical fighter program in history – the $300 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter," he told the cadets.

And he defended his decision to cap the F-22 buy at 187: "As I have said before, the F-22 is far and away the best air-to-air fighter ever produced, and it will ensure U.S. command of the skies for the next generation. But in assessing how many F-22s the Air Force needed, the Department had to make choices and set priorities among competing demands and risks. Three years before I took this job, the previous Secretary of Defense imposed a funding cap on the F-22 and approved a program of 183 aircraft. Subsequent analysis conducted by the Department concluded that 187 was the number needed for high-end air to air missions that only the F-22 could perform, the number ultimately chosen. Within a fixed Air Force and overall Department of Defense budget, buying more F-22s would have meant doing less of something else – in this case, other air power capabilities where the military was underinvested relative to the threat."

At the end of his speech Gates put in a call for the Air Force to encourage leaders who break the mold, citing one particular hero of reformists and those who believe in data driving the fight, fighter pilot and analyst John Boyd.

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