WASHINGTON - In unusually blunt terms, Defense Secretary Robert Gates yesterday challenged the Air Force, whose leaders are under fire on several fronts, to contribute more to immediate wartime needs and to promote new thinking.
Gates singled out the use of pilotless surveillance planes, in growing demand by commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, as an example of how the Air Force and other services must act more aggressively.
Gates has been trying for months to get the Air Force to send more unmanned surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, such as the Predator drone that provides real-time surveillance video, to the battlefield. They are playing an increasing role in disrupting insurgent efforts to plant roadside bombs.
"Because people were stuck in old ways of doing business, it's been like pulling teeth," Gates said of his prodding. "While we've doubled this capability in recent months, it is still not good enough."
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Gates's complaint about struggling to get more drone aircraft to the battlefield was aimed not only at the Air Force but at the military as a whole.
Gates made his remarks to a large group of officers at the Air Force's Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. Noting that they represent the future of Air Force leadership, he urged them to think innovatively and worry less about their careers than about adapting to a changing world.
He did not mention any of the controversies that have dogged the Air Force in recent months - most recently the disclosure that investigators had found that a $50 million contract to promote the Air Force's Thunderbirds aerial stunt team was tainted by improper influence and preferential treatment.
The inquiry found no criminal conduct but laid out a trail of communications from Air Force leaders - including from its top officer, General Michael Moseley - that eventually influenced the 2005 contract award.
The bulk of Gates's remarks focused on suggested areas in which the Air Force can adapt to changing times. But while his comments were directed mainly at the Air Force, his concern about faster fielding of unmanned surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft included a broader appeal to the entire military. The Army, Navy, and Marine Corps have been expanding their fleets of drone aircraft.
"We can do and we should do more to meet the needs of men and women fighting in the current conflicts while their outcome may still be in doubt," he said. "My concern is that our services are still not moving aggressively in wartime to provide resources needed now on the battlefield."