Thank you, General Schwartz, for your kind introduction, and thank you for your kind comments, Governor Hoeven. Senator Conrad, Senator Dorgan, Representative Pomeroy, General Schwartz, Mayor Zimbelman, and all the civilian and military leaders from the Minot community, I want to thank you for being here today.
As both the Governor and General Schwartz indicated, actually I should apologize especially to all the airmen who are standing for being late, but I had to make a detour to Chicago this morning. As I suspect you know, the President-elect this morning announced that I will remain as Secretary of Defense. Serving in this position for nearly two years – and especially the opportunity to serve with our brave and dedicated soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and defense civilians – has been the most gratifying experience of my life. Still, remaining as Secretary of Defense beyond the conclusion of President Bush’s term was never my expectation or desire.
However, as I said earlier today in Chicago, the President-elect has persuaded me that my service to our country is needed for a little while longer. And so, I must do my duty just as all of you and your comrades in arms and your families do yours. I am honored to serve you, to serve our country, and I will be honored to serve President-elect Obama – the eighth president I will have served.
It is great to be here with “Team Minot.” Of course, I would have to tell you it’s always great to be anywhere but Washington, D.C. – the only city in the world you can see a prominent person walking down lovers’ lane holding his own hand.
My roommate at Officer Training School 40-plus years ago, believe it or not, was born and grew up in Minot. The last time I visited this great state, it was to give a speech for the Boy Scouts. In Fargo. In February. I’m told that you know you’re from North Dakota when:
· The idea of snow in June doesn’t surprise you;
· You can’t find your house key because you never lock the door; and
· Passing six cars on the highway is considered a traffic jam.
Coming here to a missile base is, for me, going full circle from second lieutenant to Secretary of Defense. I received my commission from the Air Force on January 4, 1967 and was married three days later. A few days beyond that, I reported for duty at Whiteman in Missouri, then home to 150 Minuteman Twos. I served there for about a year, but it only took about a day to figure out who really made the military run – or at least who made us junior officers run – the Non-Commissioned Officers. So I did what my sergeant told me and the two of us did my job pretty well. To all the NCOs with us today, thank you for keeping your lieutenants out of trouble.
Working at Whiteman during the Cold War was like having a front row seat to history – though it didn’t seem so to many of us at the time. I was assigned to the base plans and intelligence office, and one of my duties was to brief missile crews on international political and military developments … I would tell you their lack of interest was awesome.
Because of my academic background and the fact that I actually could pronounce the names of our targets in the Soviet Union, I frequently briefed high-ranking officers on our wing’s strategic Minuteman missile targets. I remember one briefing in particular. I was explaining our target set to an Air Force lieutenant general – whom I would characterize as a cigar-chomping Curtis LeMay wannabe. When I told him that 120 of our 150 missiles were aimed at Soviet ICBM silos, he blew up and, with many expletives I will delete, said it was an outrage that we would be hitting only empty silos instead of killing Russians. He demanded that I, Second Lieutenant Gates, rewrite the nuclear targeting plan.
That reminds me of another story about targeting plans. One day, our plans and intelligence office received a flash message that there was a problem with the targeting set. We needed to retarget every one of our missiles deployed over 16,000 square miles. So, we ordered pizza and worked all night to fix the strike-execution checklist and other documents. Then we laminated them in large, sticky sheets, much like fly paper. You know, this was 1967. The next morning, we received a call from a major in one of the launch-control capsules. It turned out that under the lamination of the strike-execution checklist was a foreign object, something that he deeply suspected was a piece of pepperoni.
I understand Minot has excellent relations with the surrounding community, which was not always the case with the local farmers around Whiteman. When I arrived in Missouri, it was only two or three years since the missiles had been deployed and many of the farmers were still very unhappy because their land had been taken from them for the silos. As a way to smooth over relations, the Air Force took a number of the farmers to Vandenberg Air Force Base where they received briefings. One briefing included a video of what a missile launch would look like, including an 80 ton missile silo cap being blown off and away several hundred yards. One farmer was convinced that the cap was going to kill a lot of his cows. Apparently, no one was successful in telling him that if those caps ever blew off, he would have a lot more to worry about than his cows.
On another occasion, one of the base helicopters, which were used to ferry crews and secret documents to the launch-control capsules, landed outside the installation’s fence on a farmer’s property because of high winds. A no-nonsense Missouri farmer drove up his tractor, threw a chain around the strut of the helicopter, padlocked it, and demanded $1,000 rent to use his cow pasture as a landing pad.
All joking aside, Whiteman was my first introduction to the extraordinary men and women of the Air Force, who were charged with carrying out our nation’s nuclear mission. We all proudly wore the patch of Strategic Air Command on our uniforms, a constant reminder of the serious nature of our mission and the exceptionally high standards it warranted.
Renewing and sustaining that tradition of excellence in the Air Force’s nuclear mission has brought me here today.
The sign over Minot’s main gate reads, “Only the best come north.” It aptly captures the professionalism and the pride that comes from being entrusted with America’s nuclear mission. After all, this base has the distinction of receiving the first Minuteman Threes in the early 1970s. Since then, the “Rough Riders” have earned the prestigious Omaha Trophy for the best wing in Strategic Command five times as well as the coveted trophy for the best missile wing in Space Command.
Then there are the “Warbirds,” who fly the venerable B-52, an aircraft that I would have to share with you was built in my hometown, Wichita, when I was a little boy. It still remains a critical component of America’s nuclear deterrent.
Your mission at Minot today, and my experiences at Whiteman several decades ago, are inextricably linked by this stark strategic reality: America’s security depends on a reliable and credible nuclear deterrent.
First, some context. As you know, the United States has reduced its nuclear arsenal substantially over the last two decades. Within a few years, we will have 75 percent fewer nuclear weapons than at the end of the Cold War. Abolishing nuclear weapons once and for all is a worthy long-term goal. Three presidents I worked for during that conflict – Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush – believed this and said so publicly. But all came up against – and acknowledged – the grim reality that, as long as others have nuclear weapons, we must maintain some level of these weapons ourselves: to deter potential adversaries and to reassure over two dozen allies and partners who rely on our nuclear umbrella for their security – making it unnecessary for them to develop their own.
We must be realistic about the world around us – about the challenges we face and about our ability to predict what other nations will do. During the 1990s, President Clinton described his administration’s approach to nuclear weapons as a “lead and hedge” strategy: We’ll lead the way in reducing our arsenal, but we must always hedge against a dangerous and unpredictable world. Rising and resurgent powers, rogue nations pursuing nuclear weapons, proliferation, international terrorism – all demand that we preserve this “hedge” and make it clear that challenging the United States in the nuclear arena, or with other catastrophic weapons, could result in an overwhelming, devastating response. Try as we might, and hope as we will, the power of nuclear weapons and their strategic impact is a genie that cannot be put back in the bottle – at least for a long time.
The mere existence of weapons with such destructive power alters the international landscape – and rightfully brings much scrutiny on how they are handled. Nobody is more aware of this fact – painfully aware – than the men and women of this base. The serious lapses of last year were unacceptable, and resulted in severe consequences starting at the unit level and reaching up to the top senior leadership of the Air Force. A subsequent investigation found the problems were the result of a long-standing slide in the Service’s nuclear stewardship, where this critical mission – and the career field associated with it – did not receive the attention, the funding, or the personnel it deserved.
Based on everything I have seen, heard, and learned in recent months, I strongly believe that the Air Force is now moving in the right direction to reclaim the standards of excellence for which it was known throughout the Cold War:
· The Air Force staff has stood up a new office on the Air Staff that will focus exclusively on nuclear policy and oversight. This office will report directly to General Schwartz;
· The Air Force has announced the creation of a Global Strike Command that will bring the nuclear-capable bombers and ICBMs under one entity;
· The Nuclear Weapons Center at Kirtland Air Force Base is being revitalized and expanded;
· The Air Force is undergoing a top-to-bottom review of which nuclear components need to be taken out of the supply chain and placed under control of the Nuclear Weapons Center;
· And finally, the Air Force is developing a stronger, more centralized inspection process to ensure that nuclear material is handled properly.
Beyond these changes, I asked former Energy and Defense Secretary James Schlesinger to form a task force to review the organization of both the Air Force and the Department of Defense as a whole to ensure that we have proper leadership and oversight of the nuclear enterprise. And I look forward to receiving his report and recommendations later this month.
That brings me to the main reason for my visit to this base at this time. I’m told that a Secretary of Defense has never visited Minot, but I wanted to tell you in person that, as stewards of America’s nuclear arsenal, your work is vital to the security of our nation. Handling nuclear weapons – the most powerful and destructive instruments in the arsenal of freedom – is a tremendous responsibility. We owe you the attention, the people, and the resources you need to do the job right. For your part, you must never take your duties lightly. There is simply no room for error. Yours is the most sensitive mission in the entire United States military. I am confident it is in good hands.
As I mentioned earlier, the Air Force is my service – the uniform I wore more than four decades ago. I am very proud of that association. And I am proud of the fighting spirit of Airmen today. Over two thousand men and women from Minot have deployed in support of the war on terror – including about 320 right now. Being far away from home is difficult for you and your families at any time, but it is even more so during the holidays. I am glad to have this opportunity to tell you first hand that your service and your sacrifice are appreciated.
Whether you are part of the 5th Bomb Wing or the 91st Missile Wing, your mission at Minot Air Force Base is as important as ever in the demanding security environment that our nation faces today – and will undoubtedly face tomorrow. I have every confidence in you, and in the Air Force that has served this nation so well for over six decades. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for everything you do to protect the American people. And please also thank your families for me for all they do to support you and thus our country.
Thank you very much.