by DAVID AXE
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stood at the podium before a hostile crowd. It was September 16, 2009, at a hotel in southern Maryland. Gates was preparing to deliver the capstone speech of the annual Air Force Association Convention. The AFA, an air-power lobbying group and publisher, had long opposed Gates’ decisions regarding U.S. military aviation.
AFA protested when Gates curtailed production of the $150-million-a-copy F-22 fighter at 187 copies. “Not the best possible return on a development investment of $32 billion spanning 20 years,” AFA lamented. The association was also skeptical of Gates’ emphasis on unmanned aircraft and inexpensive “light” combat planes over traditional “heavy” Air Force systems, and his suspension of the Next Generation Bomber meant to succeed the B-2 stealth bomber.
The lobbying group was appalled when Gates proposed to retire early around 230 F-15, F-16 and A-10 fighters — 15 percent of the fighter fleet — that Gates said were too old, too expensive to maintain and surplus to U.S. needs.
The association supported some generals’ pleas for a $20 billion boost to the Air Force’s annual budget, to begin solving the air service’s equipment problems. But Gates declined to get behind the cash request.
AFA’s opposition to Gates’ ideas reflected the sentiments of thousands of current and former Air Force officers, as the secretary fought to reform the air service to better fight current wars — and to save it from impending material meltdown as existing aircraft age and the cost of new planes goes up and up.
Gates knew he faced a tough crowd. But he did not waver from his reformist message. He repeated his desire for a smaller heavy fighter fleet, more surveillance planes, new light fighters, more drones and better processes for producing affordable aircraft in adequate numbers. This mix of capabilities would “protect America against an array of lethal and complex threats,” Gates said.
“To overcome these challenges will call on all of the elements that make up America’s defense establishment – military and civilian, Congress, industry, retired flag officers, veterans’ groups and military service organizations – to step up and be part of the solution,” Gates added. “To be willing to stretch their comfort zones and re-think long-standing assumptions for the wider and greater purpose of doing what is necessary to protect our country. I believe this is happening in the United States Air Force.”
Gates was right. A strong core of reform-minded young officers is working hard to build the future Air Force, by challenging old assumptions. Dan Ward, a 36-year-old major working in the Air Force’s acquisitions establishment, is representative of the reformers. The same day as Gates’ AFA speech, I met Ward at a coffee shop in Rosslyn, an office district in northern Virginia.
Noting rising costs, shrinking budgets and an aging fleet, Ward said the Air Force was in big trouble. But the consequences Ward envisioned were not those the AFA feared. The lobbying group fears America losing its ability to win air battles with Russian and Chinese fighters. Ward, by contrast, is worried the Air Force is ignoring pressing needs for aircraft for small wars, counter-insurgencies and so-called “asymmetric” warfare. “We don’t have the right systems,” he said over his coffee.
But more money isn’t going to fix that, Ward insisted. “More money is our problem.”
(Photo: Hawker Beechcraft)
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