Trip Was Gesture of Respect to Airmen, Gates Says
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jun. 10, 2008 Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ trip to Langley Air Force Base, Va., Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., and Scott Air Force Base, Ill., was a gesture of respect and confidence in airmen following a rough week for the Air Force.
On June 5, Gates asked for and received the resignations of Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley. The actions were necessary, Gates said, because of systemic problems and weaknesses in the U.S. nuclear weapons program.
Gates said he made his trip based on a fundamental leadership principle he follows.
“When you make a tough or controversial decision, … it is critically important and a gesture of respect that you go out and explain what lay behind that decision to the people most affected by it,” he said.
Part of the trip was to explain the situation, part of it was a gesture of respect for airmen, and part was to give airmen the opportunity to ask him questions. Gates spoke about the trip and much else during an interview aboard a C-40 taking him back to Washington.
He said he felt the trip accomplished the objectives. He said the questions he received from a range of ranks from airman to major general were thoughtful, respectful and probing. “They were very professional,” Gates said. “Lots of questions about money and resources.”
During the speech -- which was essentially the same at all three bases -- he announced he was halting planned personnel cuts in the service.
“Clearly the decision to not continue the cuts in personnel in the Air Force went down very well in all three places,” he said. “(The trip) also … gave me a better opportunity to spell out my views on the needs to balance support for those in war and for going forward with modernization programs.”
The secretary said he believes his views on the security challenges the United States will face have been caricatured. "People have said I was all about the last war, and I didn’t care about the future, and I didn’t think there were any future threats," he said. “It was an extraordinary stretch.”
Gates said the focus of the military must be the wars that servicemembers are fighting now, but there must be an emphasis on future capabilities.
“It is a matter of balance,” the secretary said. “We must build out the Navy. We must modernize the Air Force, in particular the aging fighter and tanker fleet. And we must prepare the Army and Marine Corps for full-spectrum conflict.”
Gates said there is still a vital need for a nuclear deterrent in the era of terrorism. “It’s hard for me to imagine terrorists acquiring nuclear materials from (any place) other than a state,” he said.
The United States worried about “loose nukes” following the collapse of the Soviet Union. “We now have 17 years of experience under our belt; I think the programs we have worked in cooperation with the Russians ... have been successful,” he said.
“If you ask every senior leader what keeps them awake at night, it’s terrorists getting weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear,” he said.
Gates said nuclear weapons play a role in deterring states who might be the source for terrorists. “The consequences to a state unleashing a weapon of mass destruction against the United States would be catastrophic,” he said.
They do not, however, deter terrorists, he added.
At Scott Air Force Base, Gates met with Gen. Norton Schwartz, whom he recommended to be the new Air Force chief of staff. Gates said he congratulated the general -- who had already put in his retirement papers -- and spoke about the opportunities and challenges for the service.
“Talking with senior commanders, I think one of the assets that the new leadership of the Air Force will have going forward is a lot of these folks’ pride has been offended,” the secretary said. “Several of them said to me, ‘We’re better than this.’ I think there is a real determination to show that and get on top of these problems very fast.”
The Air Force already has a number of programs under way to address the decline in nuclear mission. Gates said he wants those programs to continue and that he will evaluate them along with the results of the panel that former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger will lead.
“We’re not going to wait 45 to 60 days to begin addressing these issues,” he said.