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Press Conference with Secretary Gates at Ft. Rucker, Alabama

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
April 14, 2009

               SEC. GATES:  Well, thank you all for being here this afternoon.  I had a great afternoon here at Fort Rucker.  These amazing people here who are training people how to fly helicopters that are so much in demand everywhere, but especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, these people are doing something that is in direct support of our warfighters.  They do everything from lift to protection to medevac.  They do it all.

 

                I came here partly to see what they were doing, but partly also to recognize the role that rotary lift plays in support for our warfighters.  And a big part of what I'm trying to do in our budget for fiscal year '10 is recognize the importance of this kind of support for our warfighters and to see how we can increase it and also institutionalize it in the base budget of the Department of Defense. 

 

                And so I've added, for fiscal year '10 -- I've recommended the president adding an additional $500 million to increase the throughput of pilots and maintenance crews for our helicopters, for our rotary lift capability.  And that will be -- that will help us train more instructors, help with the infrastructure, probably get some additional airframes, and at the end of the day what's most important, get us more well-trained pilots that can support our warfighters.

 

                Before taking a few questions, I'd just like to add how much I appreciate the local communities around here for their support to the men and women at Fort Rucker.  The relationship is always important, and we are deeply indebted to the support that the communities provide for our men and women in uniform.  They are the best in the world, and we appreciate what you all do to help take care of them.

               

                So with that, I'll take a couple of questions.

 

                Q    How much of that $500 million is for Rucker?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I don't know.  That's a good question.   Probably a local reporter, right?  I don't know how much. But as the central place for the training of Army helicopter pilots, I would say Fort Rucker will get a significant share.

 

                Q     Secretary Gates, the people of Alabama were pretty happy about getting that refueling tanker -- (off mike) -- Mobile.  Would you support splitting that contract between Northrop Grumman and Boeing?  And what kind of criteria are you -- (off mike)?

 

                SEC. GATES:  I would not support splitting the contract.  I think that the -- that's not in the best interest of the taxpayer.  Just over the next five years, if we were to split the contract it would probably increase the development costs from somewhere around $7 billion to $14 billion.  We don't need two different logistics trains, we don't need two different training systems and we don't intend two different maintenance systems.

               

                So I think that we ought to have clean competition, and in terms of the criteria for the competition, I will leave that to our acquisition folks in the Air Force to put those requirements together.  We will share those requirements, those criteria, with interested parties, particularly the congressional delegations of the states that have an interest in this, get their input and then make our decision about going forward.

 

                I have announced that I have put money in the FY '10 budget to begin that competition this summer.  We're not going to delay it, as has been suggested by some.  And so my hope is that we can get on with this, award the contract perhaps early next year, next summer, in 2010, and then get on with building these tankers.  They're desperately needed by our Air Force.

 

                Q     What is your assessment of Army aviation?

 

                SEC. GATES:  Well, I had a very instructive 45 minutes or so with 11 instructor pilots.  It's clear that from their standpoint that there is a need for some further infrastructure improvements here at Fort Rucker.  Classrooms too crowded,  Not enough -- as the helicopters themselves become more high tech, the classrooms have not kept up with that, although I saw an amazing simulation facility here today.

 

                So, infrastructure, more pilot - more instructor pilots.  I've been told that there is a need for more up-to-date maintenance facilities.  So I got a pretty good list of the wants.

 

                Q     Sir, you talked about moving forward on the tankers program -- (off mike).  (Off mike) -- the nominee to be the new undersecretary for AT&L now is being held up in Congress.  You know, there haven't been nominations even announced yet for some of the acquisition stuff.  Is that an impediment to moving forward on -- (off mike) -- programs?  Are you meeting with anyone in Congress to discuss this?

 

                SEC. GATES: I have every hope and expectation that Dr. Carter's nomination will be moved in the near future.  At a time when most in the Congress believe there is a need for acquisition reform in the Department of Defense, to delay the confirmation of the person who is supposed to lead that effort clearly is counterproductive.  And we have a secretary of the Air Force, we have a chief of staff of the Air Force, and so I'm confident that we'll have the people in place that we can go forward with this.

     

              Q    Mr. Secretary, you said earlier today that you were pleasantly surprised with the reaction to the budget on Capitol Hill, that you hadn't heard directly from any members of Congress.  But in many parts of the budget, you've taken away from one program and given it to another, for example, for Lockheed Martin, taking away from the F-22 and giving to the F-35.

     

            Now, my question is, how much did you try to mitigate concerns from Congress by allocating resources that way?

     

            SEC. GATES:  I did something perhaps a little strange in Washington.  I did this without regard for the politics or trying to balance.  I tried to make the decisions based on what I thought with consultation, in consultation with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and with the concurrence of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  I tried to make decisions that I thought best served the national security interests of the United States, and everything else was secondary.

 

             STAFF:  Last one.  Last one here.

 

              Q     Secretary Gates, are you aware of an investigation into the use of troops -- (off mike)?  And do you have any comment?

     

               SEC. GATES:  I just learned about it today for the first time, and no, I don't have any comment.

     

               Q     Mr. Secretary, did you hear anything today that would give an indication of, if approved, how soon this $500 million will translate into actual pilots-- (off mike)?

     

              SEC. GATES:  Well, I talked to some of the pilots in there that are in training, and, you know, if they go through the several segments of training, it can be up to 25 weeks, so -- but my hope would be that -- well, first of all, the FY '10 budget doesn't start until next October.  So that's going to give us some time.  But my hope would be we could use that time between now and October to figure out exactly how that money can be best spent so that we can begin seeing some results within a few months.

 

                Q     That's after the --

 

                SEC. GATES:  After the fiscal year begins.

  

                STAFF:  Thank you.

 

                Q     Mr. Secretary, can I ask you to clarify a statement you made on missile defense?  You mentioned that you wanted to end emplacement of additional GBIs at Ft. Greely.  Does that necessarily translate into ending production of the orbital vehicle?  And if that's the case, does that basically eliminate the -- (off mike)?

     

               SEC. GATES:  I don't think I -- I don't think I took an action on that.  My view is that we kept in place and strengthened programs having to do with each aspect of missile defense.  Terminal defense, we've added money for both THAAD and SM-3, Standard Missile 3, a significant amount of money to maximize production there.  For mid-course, we will sustain the 30 interceptors in Alaska and California and, as I said, robustly fund continuing R&D so that those capabilities can continue to improve.  And we have a number of programs, some of them classified, that deal with the boost phase.

     

              I've kept alive the airborne laser.  It's clear that that program doesn't make any sense to go to a full procurement, but we are keeping alive the first 747 research vehicle and we will continue to put money into that program because we think high energy or directed energy has some real potential for that.

     

              So I think we -- for those who think we've slashed missile defense and so on, I think we have kept robustly funded each of the three elements of missile defense that makes sense.  I would say that we have shifted emphasis perhaps somewhat in keeping the ground-based interceptor program where it is with additional funds for research and development, but we have put substantial funds into the terminal phase, into THAAD and SM-3, in no small part because they provide significant additional protection for our troops in the theater and that are deployed, the same thing with the six destroyers that we will convert to having an Aegis missile defense capability.

     

              So anybody who thinks that we're not taking missile defense seriously, that we do not take seriously the North Korean launch and what North Korean capabilities are developing, I think has not looked carefully enough at the program.

     

               Thank you all.

 

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