Media Availability with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates En Route to Colorado Springs, Colo.
SEC. GATES: What I thought I'd do is -- Geoff took notes on the Q&A session. So I'm basically going to let him brief you on the Q&A. And as they say on ESPN, I'll do the color commentary. (Laughs.)
I guess I took questions for about 55 minutes -- about 55 minutes. It covered the gamut. It was, I think, a good dialogue. They asked a lot of questions. I think they asked 20 questions altogether. And as you'll see from what Geoff says, it really -- well, it provided me an opportunity, among other things, in the Q&A to dispel some of the rumors that this was about something other than the Donald report, that we were going to recreate the Strategic Air Command, things like that. And it allowed me to deal with that sort of stuff. And that was a welcome opportunity.
Geoff, why don't you go ahead?
MR. MORRELL (Pentagon Press Secretary): As the secretary said, he took 20 questions in all -- how convenient -- and they ranged from being asked by -- I think master sergeant was probably the lowest-ranking guy.
Okay. And then to major general. But the main issues there, as I identified them, were nuclear issues, everything from further fallout from the Donald report to how does the Air Force go about fixing the problems the Donald report has identified.
A lot of talk -- (audio skip) --
SEC. GATES: -- will we get the money that's necessary to make the improvements, for example, on training, on career development, test equipment? I mean, a whole range of questions.
I don't think we know, but I told them that -- check me on this -- I told them that while the nuclear program had not been a high priority, that the amount of money required to make the necessary fixes, I thought, in broad terms, was pretty modest. And that there was no doubt in my mind that we could find that money, either in the Air Force or within the Department of Defense.
MR. MORRELL: Another issue -- current needs versus future requirements, the balancing act between the two. The secretary noted at one point that the FY '09 procurement budget for the first time in history will top $100 billion.
SEC. GATES: That's the base budget, not the -- (inaudible). So that's modernization, that's the Navy, the Air Force, FCS for the Army, and so on.
MR. MORRELL: And reiterated his commitment to do everything in his power to make sure the guys fighting our current conflicts have what they need to do the job while at the same time not backing off future needs. So the need to balance those two. So there were several questions along that line.
ISR was another recurring theme. Modernization, tanker -- I think there was at least one question about the tanker contract. And really it had more to do with future outsourcing of aircraft than it did about the current state of the tanker dispute.
A couple of F-22 questions, as you might expect.
SEC. GATES: And I basically used the question about the F-22s to address the speculation that, in truth, these changes were due to disagreements over the F-22. And I said that that was not true, that in fact that issue had been settled for some weeks. And that I had essentially made the decision that we would allocate enough money to keep the production line open so that the next administration could decide on the balance between buying more F-22s and buying more joint-strike fighters. And I thought that that was a significant procurement decision that ought not be made in the last six or seven months of an administration.
MR. MORRELL: And that despite rumors, that had nothing to do with the secretary's decision for a change of leadership in the Air Force.
The Air Force's GWOT contribution, obviously, the secretary noted in his speech, and that came up a few times from everything to do with on a strategic communications level why is it that we have not been able to communicate the fact that we are contributing to this effort to sort of what more can we do.
And then China was sort of the recurring issue, probably as a subset of some of the areas I've mentioned earlier. But it came up in several questions. Just in terms of --
SEC. GATES: And really the context was future-oriented, near-peer competition and all of the implications for Air Force modernizations.
MR. MORRELL: There were a couple of answers that I'd draw your attention to. One was having to do with the Donald report. The secretary noted at one point that he did not assume the Navy has everything necessarily right either, which is one of the reasons that he has asked Secretary Schlesinger to look at these issues department wide.
He also noted in the ISR questions that never before, probably in the history of warfare, has there been a better fusion of operations and intelligence as there is right now going on in Iraq and Afghanistan.
SEC. GATES: Which is what has contributed to this insatiable appetite. Because the question was, how much more do we need? What's the right end state? And I said, I don't know. I said "I don't know" in the framework of about a five-minute answer. (Laughs.) I kind of went all over the place. But at the end of the day, you know, I don't know.
Q Did they ask about your choice of General Schwartz?
SEC. GATES: They did not.
Q May I ask you about you’re your choice of General Schwartz? (Laughs.)
SEC. GATES: Well, I thought -- you know, I mean, it's a -- first of all, this is an area where I depend a lot on the views of the chairman. And I just felt that General Schwartz brings fresh eyes to these issues. He's very smart. He's very process-oriented. I mean, the changes that he's made in TRANSCOM have been pretty dramatic in terms of how you manage all these priorities and the logistics of supporting the war in two theaters with limited capability. I mean, he really -- to the degree you're dealing with trade-offs and how you satisfy multiple missions simultaneously, it seems to me that his record at TRANSCOM speaks for itself.
But I also liked his experience and mobility and jointness. He has a lot of joint experience. His whole command has been about how do you support all of the services. So that was important. And frankly, also, the Special Operations experience. So it was the mobility, it was jointness, Special Operations and being really, really smart.
Q What about Special Operations? Why is that significant to you?
SEC. GATES: Well, because I think Special Operations has become, you know -- for my entire career, until '93, Special Operations -- Pete Schoomaker put it best. Special Operations was the Ferrari in the garage, and nobody took it out because they didn't want to dent it. And I used the line in one talk, the Ferrari is out of the garage.
And in Special Ops, particularly with respect to dealing with violent extremist networks, is really central to our war on these guys. And so already having this experience, I think, is useful. I mean, it's not the centerpiece. Being smart and being joint are the two biggest factors.
Q This is the first non-fighter pilot, non-bomber pilot to lead the Air Force. Did you --
SEC. GATES: Based on what I've read in one of your newspapers -- since 1982.
Q Okay. Let's say the first one --
SEC. GATES: Before that it was the bomber guys.
Q Right, right.
SEC. GATES: And when I was in the Air Force, we always wondered whether a guy who had a missile badge but was unrated would ever even make general officer, okay. So this is about the transitioning Air Force.
Q Can I ask you about your decision to halt further reductions in the Air Force? How many people are we talking about? What's the cost saving that you're giving up? What's the price tag that will be associated with that decision?
SEC. GATES: It's about -- the goal of the Air Force was to go down to 316,000. They are, I think, now just a bit over 330,000, and that's where we'll stay.
Q So about 14,000.
SEC. GATES: Yeah.
Q So obviously, personnel is really expensive. So what do -- (inaudible)?
SEC. GATES: I'd have to check with my guru Gordon England.
Q So you made this decision not knowing how much it would cost?
SEC. GATES: Yeah, I know. But I don't remember the slide, okay? (Laughter.)
SEC. GATES: It struck me as not that much money, okay.
Q It’s going to be a billion dollars, right?
SEC. GATES: Yeah, but I would say as I recall it's less than a couple of billion dollars.
Q Maybe Geoff could get us that figure.
MR. MORRELL: I will try.
Q You said the decisions were based only on the Donald report, not on other issues. Thursday (inaudible) – there was a real sort of sorrow in your voice when you said Air Force leadership was not introspective. (inaudible.) . . . forced you to do it. (Inaudible) goes beyond the two instances (inaudible). . . . something about the Air Force culture (inaudible).
SEC. GATES: Well, except that Donald's conclusions, in that regard -- which are the source of my remarks, focused strictly on the nuclear mission; that they had lost -- I mean, when I -- "when I was in the Air Force" (speaking dramatically) -- (laughs) I mean, when I was in the Strategic Air Command an operational readiness inspection scared the hell out of me, because careers were made and broken on those inspections.
And if you failed an ORI in the Strategic Air Command, you were gone. It was an extraordinarily rigorous process. And the rigor of that inspection and self-analysis process, I think, is one of the things Admiral Donald found had weakened.
Q -- (inaudible) -- the failure of the Minot inspection -- (inaudible) -- have anything to do with your decision? -- (inaudible) -- you just talking about --
SEC. GATES: No, because it actually was not even addressed in the Admiral Donald report.
Q Yeah, but you said it was connected. It was --
Q (Inaudible) it came a couple days right before -- (inaudible)?
Q It came a week -- it came a week after you -- right before you made that decision, so -- (inaudible) --
SEC. GATES: My decisions were based on the conclusions of the Donald report.
Q Mr. Secretary, I can't tell you --
Q -- (inaudible) -- some changes -- what sort of changes do you expect General Schwartz to make -- (inaudible) –
SEC. GATES: Well, one of the -- one of the questions that I got was, kind of, what are your priorities for the new Air Force leadership? And I said, well, first of all, obviously fixing the nuclear stewardship issue.
But I said, getting -- the second one was, figuring out how to get the modernization program back on track. I mean, we're 10 years past when we should have started replacing the tanker fleet. So, the tanker thing is clearly important.
And figuring out how to work with the Congress and get this thing done, and support for whatever decision the next administration makes in terms of the balance between F-22s and Joint Strike Fighter -- but getting on with it, kind of, ending the debate, making decisions and moving on.
And to start getting stuff built is really, I think, important. And I made the observations (inaudible) -- the tankers that we're flying today are the tankers that I rode in as a second lieutenant in 1967.
Q Mr. Secretary, since you made the announcement, I can't tell you how many e-mails I got saying that SAC was going to come back. And other questions about when -- what responsibility U.S. Strategic Command has with this whole nuclear (inaudible) --
SEC. GATES: Well, one of the -- I'm sorry --
Q I just wondered if you addressed that --
SEC. GATES: Well, that came up today. And I started to say, what -- so what is the biggest, what's the top priority in terms of fixing things in the nuclear arena? And I said, it seems to me that one of the most important conclusions -- and maybe the most important conclusion in Admiral Donald's report -- is that authority and responsibility for the nuclear program is split among multiple commands. So, there is no unity of command, and no one person responsible for setting the standards for evaluation, and for maintaining the professionalism, security, so on and so on, on the Force.
And so it seems to me that the first thing to look at -- and I don't know what Schlesinger and company will come up with, but is how do you fix this division of responsibility that has prevented any one person from being responsible, and making sure that standards are kept. I think -- I think, ultimately, one of the principal root causes of these problems is that there's no one person in charge -- or who has responsibility.
Now, I think you can fix that without recreating the Strategic Air Command. I'm not sure how you do that, but I don't think there's much interest in doing that, and I don't have any particular grief for it. But, I think that's one of the key issues to be addressed.
Q -- (inaudible) -- when nuclear submarines goes out to sea, -- (inaudible) -- Also, the Trident is more or less the same -- (inaudible) -- but it's ICBMs. But, when (inaudible) Air Force bombers can no longer -- (inaudible) -- there's no sense of immediate (inaudible) or threat -- (inaudible) -- ?
SEC. GATES: Well, I told them that I thought that -- in the future, that the importance of the nuclear deterrent would grow, rather than diminish, partly because of the risks of proliferation.
But also, just as an example, Russia is really not investing very much in their conventional forces. It's really clear -- and for a whole bunch of reasons, demographics and everything else -- and it seems clear that the Russians are focused, as they look to the future, more on strengthening their nuclear capabilities.
So, to the extent that they rely more and more on their nuclear capabilities, as opposed to what historically has been a huge Russian conventional military capability, it seems to me that it underscores the importance of our sustaining a valid -- a nuclear deterrent -- a modern nuclear deterrent.
Q -- (inaudible) -- said that the -- (inaudible) -- near competitors?. Did you articulate your vision of what is -- (inaudible) -- the balance between (inaudible) -- your competitor, and -- (inaudible) -- what you've talked about in other speeches?
SEC. GATES: Yeah, I basically -- I basically said -- I didn't -- I said I would be the last person to dismiss the possibility of near-peer conflict at some future date, but I thought that that date was well into the future if it ever came. And, therefore, we would not starve the forces that are actually in war today, to prepare for a war that may or may not ever come. So, we had to modernize. I mean, it was the comments that I made in the speech -- we have to modernize. We have to be prepared for a possible future conflict with near-peers.
But, in terms of urgency, we need to also -- to make sure we take care of the, of those that are in combat today. I mean, that's -- and I said, you know, the Congress made it easy for us with MRAPs. The Congress gave us $20 billion for MRAPs. We didn't have to make any trade-offs. And, frankly, if we had to eat the cost of the MRAPs, it probably would have gotten pretty bloody around the Pentagon. But those are the kinds of trade-offs that are likely to come in the future.
MR. MORRELL: Just take one -- one last one.
Q Could I just ask --
Q Mr. Secretary, I'd like to ask a question about the SOFA. Prime Minister Maliki --
SEC. GATES: What's your question? Let’s stick with the Air Force. (Laughs.)
Q Is SOFA in trouble? And, is it time to start looking at the U.N. for an extension on (inaudible?).
SEC. GATES: I think that we are going to continue working with the Iraqis on the SOFA. And I think that's still a focus. We're obviously working in parallel with the Strategic Framework Agreement. I think there are multiple ways this thing could come out but right now, as far as I know, we're still focused on the SOFA -- at least from the Department of Defense's -- (inaudible) --.
MR. MORRELL: Okay, --
Q Why did you just decide to make the personnel cuts? What was the thinking, because, because obviously (that's going to be a big ?) -- (inaudible) --
SEC. GATES: No, that well preceded this decision.
Q -- (inaudible) -- Air Force -- (inaudible) --.
SEC. GATES: Steve will tell you, every meeting that I have with Air Force NCOs around the world, they express the concern that they don't have enough people to do the job the way they think it ought to be done. They're really pushed because of the reductions in manpower in the Air Force. And so this was actually a decision that Secretary England and I made a couple three weeks ago.
MR. MORRELL: Thanks, guys.
SEC. GATES: Enjoy Colorado Springs tonight.
Q What's the sense you got that these kids -- as they are kids, these young men and women --
(End of audio.)
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