Gates to Air Force: Get Used to Drones, Cargo Runs
(WIRED) If any cadets at the Air Force Academy joined up in the hopes of dogfighting enemy jets or going on big bombing runs, Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ lecture on Friday probably came as a disappointment.
It’s not that the future doesn’t feature fighter jets and bombers — after all, Gates is a big proponent of the Joint Strike Fighter, and his new budget kickstarts the process of building the Air Force a brand new bomber. But he warned the Air Force to “shed the nostalgia” for “air-to-air combat and strategic bombing.”
That’s because the kinds of missions the Air Force performs in Iraq and Afghanistan are features, not bugs. Drone flights. Cargo lifts and drops. Medical evacuation. Airborne spying. Gates strongly praised a forthcoming “Air-Sea” joint warfighting doctrine that the Navy and Air Force are currently writing: “Think of naval forces in airfield defense, or stealth bombers augmented by Navy submarines.”
If he outlined a defense future reliant on air, sea and space capabilities last week at West Point, his speech today was a reminder that the last thing he’s after is a “return to the last century’s mindset,” Gates told cadets. It’s a challenge he extended to all the services, not just the Air Force.
“Stability and security missions, counterterrorism, train, assist and equip, persistent battlefield ISR, close air support, search and rescue, and the ever-critical transport missions are with us to stay — even without a repeat of Iraq and Afghanistan,” Gates said.
Gates also warned that the end of growth in the defense budget is going to compel the services to start acting really jointly — including buying stuff that’s useful to more than one service, as the Joint Strike Fighter program is. He singled out the drone planes that all the services buy independently, saying that buying a common “ground station” for controlling them makes sense in an era of tight cash. (Of course, it’s not like the $300 billion Joint Strike Fighter program is cheap.)
But Gates’ speech wasn’t a call to replace the fighter jets with an all-drone fleet. It was a call to balance out the Air Force’s more cherished missions with those it’s seen as a deviation from the norm — even as they’ve become the norm. Gates noted the huge increase in air operations in Afghanistan: more than 33,000 close air support sorties last year, a whopping 20 percent increase from 2009.
As much as he praised the drones, he recited decades’ worth of blown predictions of the obsolescence of manned aircraft, and warned against “the kind of techno-optimism about remote-control warfare that has muddled strategic thinking in the past.” Shortly after becoming defense secretary, Gates all but sparred with the Air Force to invest more heavily in drones. His comments today represent something of a valedictory peace offering — if one that comes after winning the drone fight, and capping the Air Force’s most cherished fighter, the F-22.
Those fights earned Gates some serious criticism from inside Air Force circles. Retired Maj. Gen. Charlie Dunlap (a friend of this blog) called him out last year for executing a vendetta against flyboys and presuming that the future of war looks too much like the ground-based Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. Ironically, Gates’ West Point speech earned him jabs from Army circles for shortchanging the role of armor and writing off ground warfare.
Gates blasted back at his critics — in Air Force, Army and Navy circles alike — for “mistaken interpretations” that he’s getting rid of core competencies. And he called himself a believer in “air supremacy,” not a “skeptic of air power.” To hear Gates tell it, the whole point of his “efficiencies initiative” was to save cash from obsolete programs and overhead so the services can expand their portfolios for the missions they’ll likely face in an unpredictable future.
Whether the Air Force Academy speech will satisfy his critics remains to be seen. Indeed, Gates sounded a note that they’re likely to seize upon. “Over the last four years, I have pushed the Air Force, and indeed all of the services, to institutionalize capabilities needed for asymmetric threats and unconventional warfare,” he said. “However, as my discussion of air supremacy today should confirm, this is not because these are the only kinds of missions I believe the military must be prepared for.”
To those skeptical of Gates, that sounds like a lack of prioritization among key defense tasks at a time when the defense budget won’t grow. But to his advocates, it’s an overdue corrective to a military bureaucracy that prepares only for the wars it wants to fight, not the ones it’s likely to confront. Whichever interpretation wins out is likely to hang over the tenure of Gates’ successor.
Photo: U.S. Air Force