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Gates Comments on Tanker Competition, Other Issues

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

A U.S. MILITARY BASE IN SOUTHWEST ASIA, March 11, 2010 – The recently released request for proposals for the Air Force’s next-generation tanker aircraft was fair, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today, and he expressed disappointment that Northrop-Grumman has withdrawn from the competition for the $35 billion contract.

Gates also talked about military retention and the proper mix of military members, career civil servants and contractors during a question-and-answer period with servicemembers of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing.

Earlier this week, Northrop-Grumman announced it would not compete to build the KC-X tanker, leaving the field to Boeing. “I wish that we had had a competition; I wish that both companies had stayed in it,” the secretary said at the town hall-style meeting that included many tanker pilots and crews. “I think the request for proposals that the Air Force sent out was fair and balanced and was based on Air Force requirements.”

Gates promised the airmen that the Defense Department will “certainly be sharpening our pencil when it comes to negotiating with Boeing.”

The newest of the Air Force’s current KC-135 tanker aircraft now in service were built in the 1960s, and Gates said the program would experience no more delays. “The bottom line: I don’t see any reason for this outcome to bring any further delays to a long-delayed program,” he said.

The secretary addressed a question about the right size and mixture of the department’s manpower. One of his first acts upon becoming secretary in December 2006 was to recommend to then-President George W. Bush that the Army and Marine Corps increase in size. “I came to the job with the view that the Army and the Marine Corps didn’t have enough troops to carry out all the missions they were being asked to perform,” he said.

Since those permanent increases were approved, Gates said, he has asked for and received permission for further temporary increases in the Army.

But the Navy and Air Force were having problems, also. “I had been in the job just a few months when I realized that both the Navy and the Air Force were basically trying to pay for their modernization by cutting people and personnel costs,” he said. “So in 2007, I froze further reductions in the Air Force. The service had been headed for 316,000, and I stopped it at 330,000.”

That freeze brought to light a philosophical priority for the secretary. “I think that the men and women in uniform are the country’s most strategic asset and, frankly, if I’m given a choice between some equipment and having the professionals to do this job, I’ll choose the latter,” he said.

The secretary said he also was concerned about too many government-unique functions being done by contractors, and he used pilot training as an example. Basic pilot training – learning to fly a Cessna – doesn’t require an experienced F-15 pilot as an instructor. “But when you get beyond that, you ought to have someone who has military and combat experience,” he said.

The secretary also looked at contractors doing inherently governmental jobs on the civilian side of the department. Contractors were monitoring government contractors, and Gates recommended that function come back under civil-service control.

“In contracting, we’re going to convert 10,000 acquisition contract jobs to permanent civil servants who belong to the Department of Defense, and are only looking out for the Department of Defense and not their home company,” he said. “Then we will add another 10,000 civil servants to that.” Overall, the Defense Department will convert tens of thousands of contractor professional services and management support jobs to civil servants as well.

“This is not disparaging to contractors,” Gates said. “We need them, and we have an important partnership with them in many places, but we kind of let it get out of control, in my view. I think we’re beginning to get our arms around the problem by making better choices about what’s done by people in uniform, what’s done by career civil servants and what’s done by contractors.”

Personnel matters of other sorts concern him, too, he said.

“Most people in America don’t realize – and probably many in the Pentagon don’t realize -- that the Air Force has been at war for 18 or 19 years – since the first Gulf War,” Gates said. “Another concern that I had when I took this job is that when it comes to the reserve components, we might have pulled a bait-and-switch on people, particularly [noncommissioned officers] and officers that joined before 9/11 and joined a reserve component that was a strategic reserve, not an operational reserve.”

But airmen who joined the Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve after the 9/11 attacks clearly understand the requirements of that service, Gates noted. He said that so far retention – in all components – has not been a problem.

The secretary told the servicemembers he would like to see more “dwell time” at home stations between deployments, and that the services are moving in that direction. The Marine Corps is now up to about one year deployed and 1.7 years at home. The surge into Afghanistan probably has slowed the Army’s progress, he acknowledged, “but they’re still at about 15 months at home to a year deployed, and headed toward 18 or 19 months by the end of this year or the beginning of the next,” he said.

Gates pledged that all services will keep a sharp eye on retention and the tools and incentives the department uses to manage the force.

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Biographies:
Robert M. Gates

Related Sites:
Special Report: Travels With Gates



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