Gates vs. Air Force Round Two

By Sandra I. Erwin

Former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates' much-talked about memoir includes a chapter in which he relives bitter clashes with Air Force officials over nuclear weapon screw-ups, drone deployments and funding for the F-22 fighter aircraft.

The showdown culminated in June 2008 with the firing of Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley. In the memoir, titled, "Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War," Gates dubs the Air Force one of his "biggest headaches” during his time running the Pentagon.

Moseley, for his part, has not released any tell-all books, but did speak recently about the issues that sparked those notorious feuds with Gates. During a talk last month hosted by the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute, the now retired general suggested that, in hindsight, Gates made poor equipment-buying decisions that are now coming back to haunt the U.S. military.

Speaking at the Mitchell forum, where Wynne also was in attendance, Moseley said the shutdown of the F-22 program "will prove to be one of the most strategically dislocated decisions made over the last 20-25 years."

A decorated fighter pilot and an ardent advocate of high-performance aircraft, Moseley fought to keep the F-22 program alive but could not overcome the political headwinds. The Air Force in the mid-1990s envisioned it would buy more than 700 airplanes from manufacturer Lockheed Martin Corp., but rising costs compelled the Pentagon in 2001 to reduce orders to 295. By fiscal year 2006, the budget proposed by the George W. Bush administration funded just 187. Congressional supporters kept the project going until 2009.

Gates, with the backing of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., led the Obama administration’s effort to stop funding the F-22 in fiscal year 2010. The last aircraft ultimately was delivered in 2012. In speeches and congressional hearings during his tenure, Gates consistently bashed the F-22 — estimated to cost nearly $200 million apiece — as a symbol of extravagant spending on weapons that were conceived to combat the Soviet enemy but were no longer relevant in the fights against Islamic extremists or guerilla warriors like Hezbollah. He pointed out that China would not be able to field an advanced fighter jet until 2025 and by then, the United States would have hundreds of next-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighters in the inventory. Gates also blamed expensive weapons such as the F-22 for draining resources from wartime priorities, such as unmanned drones and armored trucks.

Moseley conceded the program initially was too large and expensive, but insisted that, had the production line stayed open, the price would have dropped considerably. “We didn't, and still don't need, a thousand of those things. But you need the right number.” Several of the United States' closest allies would have bought F-22s and helped lower the cost, he said. “The last airplanes we took delivery of were $87 million,” said Moseley. “Had we been able to go to another multiyear [contract] there was an understanding that we would be able to get them for $85 million,” he added. “Find me an airplane out there right now that costs $85 million and has that capability.”

Tight budgets were not the real reason why Gates terminated the program, he said. “The money was there. … We spent $50 billion on MRAPs [mine resistant ambush protected] trucks. We spent a large amount on unmanned aerial vehicles for every private first class and corporal,” Moseley said, and immediately added, “I'm being a little facetious but not much.”

The money was available, but the determination to kill the F-22 was driven by other factors, said Moseley. “Knowing what I know now I would have been more aggressive in protecting that airplane and the building blocks of 5th generation systems into the future.”

Another contentious issue that deepened the rift between Gates and the Air Force was what the secretary characterized as “foot dragging” in buying and deploying UAVs to war zones. He was convinced that Air Force leaders were intentionally slowing down drone procurements to ensure that there was sufficient funding for their prized fighter jets.

During a question-and-answer session at the Mitchell forum, Moseley said there is no intentional bias against unmanned aircraft in the Air Force. There is a place for both manned and unmanned, he said. “Secretary Wynne got tired of hearing me say this when we were beaten up about not going all unmanned." The reality is that there are few instances when the use of unmanned aviation is imperative. “One is when you believe the threat is so terrible that you'll lose the human,” he said. “I believe the Air Force has never found that threat. We will penetrate any threat. We haven't found a place we won't go. So I don't buy that one.”

The other is when human pilots are the limiting factor to the persistence of the machine. “I got that one,” said Moseley. “You leave the plane out there for 30 hours on a reconnaissance mission. That's a valid one.”

According to an excerpt of Gates’ memoirs published by Military Times, what triggered the dismissal of Moseley and Wynne, more so than the F-22 and the drone flaps, were incidents of mishandling of nuclear warheads and sloppy procedures for overseeing such sensitive weapons.

“I took no pleasure from the dismissals,” Gates wrote. “I enjoyed working with both men, but I didn’t believe they really understood the magnitude of the problem. … There would later be allegations that I fired the two of them because of their foot-dragging on ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance], or more commonly, because we disagreed on whether to build more F-22 combat aircraft, or on other modernization issues. But it was the Donald report that sealed their fate.” After the Air Force shipped four Minuteman III nose cones to Taiwan, Gates asked Adm. Kirkland H.

Donald to investigate the incident. The so-called Donald Report in June 2008 led Gates to blame the problems on a lack of accountability and held the service’s top leaders responsible.

Topics: Aviation, Tactical Aircraft, Defense Department, DOD Leadership, Procurement, Acquisition Reform, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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