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STRATCOM Change of Command

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Offutt Air Force Base, NE, Friday, January 28, 2011

It’s great to be back here in Omaha and at Offutt Air Force Base.   I can’t help but recall personally that it was 44 years ago this month that as a brand new second lieutenant I entered the headquarters building here.  So it’s always a special honor to be here and a great pleasure to be here with you on this important occasion today.   And I would also like to say, there’s a sense of déjà vu, because I remember being here to hand Chili the flag when he took command, and now to take it from him.

I’d like to start by acknowledging the Chilton family – especially his wife, Brigadier General Cathy Chilton and their four daughters – who must boast to schoolmates that when they sit down to family dinner it’s with not one, but two generals at the table. 

Today, I want to pay tribute to General Chilton and his three decades of military service, welcome General Kehler, express my appreciation to the men and women of the U.S. Strategic Command – and say a few words about the important role you play in our larger mission.

I’d like to start with a personal word of thanks to the STRATCOM personnel who operate the National Airborne Operations Center.  They take on the unenviable task of flying 600,000 miles with me to over 100 countries over the past four years – and that’s a lot of bacon cheeseburgers.  I keep warning everyone that the next Secretary will be a vegetarian.  Every time I fly I’m amazed at the impressive efficiency and dedication of the E4-B crew – not to mention their ability to keep that aircraft in one piece and aloft even in its golden years.  

Visiting this organization carries a special meaning for me, as I spent most of my time as an Air Force lieutenant, serving in the old Strategic Air Command.   I well understand the pressure under which you work – and the occasional pitfalls, some serious, some less so.  For example, one day in 1967, we were told there was a problem with the war plans.  SAC Headquarters in Omaha needed to change the launch sequencing for all the missiles immediately.  So, we at Whiteman, ordered pizzas and worked all night to fix the strike execution control documents, using – and, here, I’m really going to date myself – large, unwieldy sheets of laminating paper.  The next morning, we received a call from a major in one of the launch control capsules.  Turns out that one of SAC’s new targets had become a carefully laminated piece of pepperoni. 

General Chilton once said he joined the Air Force because he really wanted to become a United Airlines pilot and he didn’t know how else to get flight training.  Well, Chili, after logging more than 5,000 flight hours in the air force, plus over 700 hours in space piloting three different shuttle missions I think United  might just move your resume to the top of the pile.

General Chilton took over STRATCOM at a time when, as you all know, we were facing some real challenges in control and accountability for America’s strategic nuclear mission.   Chili has led the way in reforming the management of the nuclear enterprise – overseeing the creation of the Air Force Global Strike Command, providing more training for our nuclear airmen and restoring the nuclear mission to its proper place of honor.  Chili was also a tireless, principled, and effective, advocate for the New START treaty with Russia – a service for which the President and I are grateful.

I recently returned from a visit to Northeast Asia, where the importance of STRATCOM’s mission in all of its components is keenly evident.  Not only is North Korea determined to carry out nuclear tests and develop ICBMs that could potentially threaten the U.S., they have also proliferated these dangerous technologies in the past.  And even as the United States pursues a more constructive relationship with China, we and our allies cannot ignore the Chinese military’s recent advances in missile, space, and cyber warfare.  

Our nation looks to the men and women of STRATCOM to continue to provide the traditional strategic nuclear deterrent, while also taking on new strategic missions that reflect the technologies and threats of the 21st Century, most notably in space and cyber. 

I believe few people are as well suited to carry this command into the future as General Bob Kehler.  A former leader of our ICBM force, General Kehler has spent the past three years leading Space Command and oversaw the standing up of the 24th Air Force, our nation’s first true cyber command.   

Bob, I look forward to seeing the great things you will be able to do here at this vital command.  Good luck to you, and I know you will accomplish great things with your wife Marj by your side.

Chili, thank you for a life of dedicated and selfless service to our nation.  I wish you and Cathy all the best as you begin the next chapter in your lives.

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