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Defense secretary challenges cadets to lead 21st-century Air Force
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates arrives at the Air Force Academy and meets Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Mike Gould before addressing the Cadet Wing in Arnold Hall Theater March 4, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo/Megan Davis)
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Defense secretary challenges cadets to lead 21st-century Air Force

Posted 3/7/2011   Updated 3/7/2011 Email story   Print story


by 2nd Lt. Meredith Kirchoff
Air Force Academy Public Affairs

3/7/2011 - U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates addressed cadets at the Air Force Academy March 4, asking them to think about the Air Force of the future, and the varied challenges it will face.

Secretary Gates told cadets this would be his last visit to the Academy in his current position, and that he relishes the time he spends with future leaders of the military. He spent part of the day interacting with cadets during two 400-level political science courses following his address in Arnold Hall Theater.

The secretary painted a picture of the challenges, or threats, the U.S. military of the 21st Century will face, and said it has been one of his priorities to engender institutional change that will prepare the services to overcome them.

"From global terrorism to ethnic conflicts; from rogue nations to rising powers with increasingly sophisticated capabilities," Secretary Gates said. "I freely acknowledge that this focus has, at various times, brushed up against the traditional preferences and bureaucratic sacred cows of all the services - including the Air Force."

The Secretary went on to address Air Force-specific issues that will affect the careers of the Academy's soon-to-be officers: unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and the future of manned flight.

"For the Air Force, its traditional orientation has been air-to-air combat and strategic bombing, and members of those communities have so dominated the service leadership and organizational culture that other critical missions and new capabilities have been subordinated and neglected," he said. "In order to make that transition, the Air Force has had to shed the nostalgia that can too often consume the institutional culture of any large, successful organization."

The secretary went on to answer a question burning in the minds of many future pilots in the Arnold Hall Theater audience.

"Now, in case there was any doubt, I strongly believe the United States military will always need manned flight," he assured them. "But I also believe we must recognize the enormous strategic and cultural implications of the vast expansion in remotely piloted vehicles, both for reconnaissance and strike, in this past decade - a development entirely unexpected just ten years ago."

Secretary Gates spoke to the necessity of the Air Force's role in a largely ground-focused war in Afghanistan, highlighting the air assets that provide invaluable support to U.S. soldiers and Marines. He also emphasized the air mobility mission at the forefront of moving troops and supplies as well as personnel recovery sorties and search and rescue teams.

"Without all of the efforts and exertions of tens of thousands of Airmen, many of them on the ground - including engineers, security forces, medical personnel, explosive ordnance disposal experts - the entire U.S. war effort would grind to a halt," Gates said, and went on to say the Air Force must not lose the versatility it has attained today, and revert to what was considered normal, even after current conflicts have ended.

Many of the cadets in the audience took Secretary Gates' counsel to heart.

"His calls for avoiding regressing back into the old state of the organization, to incorporate the lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan, was very interesting and thought-provoking," said Cadet 2nd Class Jay Zeigler of Cadet Squadron 30. "Overall, he gave all cadets added motivation to become the best officers possible in the 21st century."

Secretary Gates went on to speak about the importance of gaining the right acquisitions to combat a range of threats in a time of fiscal hardship. Specifically, he talked about the Department of Defense's decision to buy 2,400 F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter aircraft and to cap the number of F-22 Raptors at 187.

"Given that the military will face a broadening spectrum of conflict, and that our nation finds itself in an era of fiscal duress, the military's resources need to be invested in those capabilities that are of use across the widest possible range of scenarios," he said, noting his goal to guarantee the core requirements of each service, despite budget challenges, while choosing the platforms that will provide the most flexibility and efficiency.

He cautioned his audience not to misinterpret his message, and emphasized that preparations for the future are not an attack on bombers or tactical air power.

"All that said, I have also been trying to get across to all of the military services that they will have many and varied missions in the 21st Century," Gates explained. "As a result, they must think harder about the entire range of these missions and how to achieve the right balance of capabilities in an era of tight budgets."

The secretary rounded out his address with thoughts on the Air Force's integral role in the joint mission, stating, "Finally, all the services also need to think aggressively about how to truly take advantage of being part of the joint force" He went on to warn that it will be harder to attain than it might seem.

"It's easier to be joint and talk joint when there's money to go around and a war to be won," he said. "It's much harder to do when tough choices have to be made within and between the military services - between what is ideal from a particular service perspective, and what will get the job done, taking into account broader priorities and considerations."

Beginning his own career as an Air Force second lieutenant, the secretary had a challenging message for the future officers in the audience.

"This complex world, and the wide variety of capabilities and missions I've described, should give you a sense of the tremendous and varied challenges you will face throughout your career," he said. "But there are also tremendous opportunities ahead. And in order to take advantage of these opportunities - whether afforded by new technology or new strategic realities - as officers you will need to show great flexibility, agility, resourcefulness, and imagination."

He concluded by thanking each of the audience members for their choice to serve with the knowledge that our nation is at war.

Secretary Gates around the Academy

Following his address in Arnold Hall Theater, Gates moved to Fairchild Hall where he guest taught in two political science courses: Capstone Seminar in Political Science, for first-class cadets, and Politics of National Security.

"The secretary was open to all of our questions and addressed each one with depth and clarity," said Cadet 2nd Class Daniel Brand. "From nuclear weapons to China to Iran, the secretary was upfront, honest and spoke his mind." Cadet Brand is a political science major assigned to Cadet Squadron 17.

Other cadets from classes Secretary Gates visited echoed similar sentiments of the secretary's transparency and valuable counsel.

"He tailored his advice very well to apply to upcoming second lieutenants and had some new perspectives on how to approach leadership, decision-making and the importance of involving subordinates in realizing a unit's vision," said Cadet 2nd Class John Atkinson, who is also a political science major. "His stories about his relationships with colleagues instilled the importance of building good relationships and fixing those that aren't so great."

The secretary completed his visit to the Air Force Academy with lunch in Mitchell Hall where he was received with resounding applause and ate with cadets for more one-on-one conversation.

Cadet Brand summed up his experience by saying, "I was extraordinarily honored to have a face-to-face session with Secretary Gates, and I will undoubtedly remember this time as one of the premier highlights of my Academy career."

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