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John J. Kruzel - American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 5, 2010 - As the United States and Russia prepare to sign a historic nuclear arms reduction treaty, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates related to Air Force cadets some lessons he has learned from a government career that has taken him from the shadows of the Cold War into a much-altered security landscape as the Pentagon's chief.
Speaking to cadets at the U.S. Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, Colo., last week, Gates discussed changes in the geopolitical structure since his early days as an Air Force officer assigned to Strategic Air Command more than four decades ago.
"The world you are entering is much more complicated than it was when I was a junior officer during the Cold War," he told the audience in Colorado Springs, Colo. "From global terrorism to ethnic conflicts, from rogue nations to rising powers, the challenges we face simply cannot be overcome by traditional military means alone."
Gates' remarks on April 2 came ahead of President Barack Obama's scheduled visit this week to Prague, Czech Republic, where he and Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev are slated to sign the new strategic arms reduction treaty. "New START," as the treaty is known. The treaty will slash each country's nuclear arsenals by a third and improve oversight of the drawdown.
But, while the move brings the world further from the specter of the Cold War, Gates implored the young Air Force officers to display the leadership and courage necessary to confront a new set of threats their nation faces.
He emphasized that junior officers should contribute to an environment in which they can offer their candid advice to superior officers. Gates related anecdotes about Air Force officers of note whose maverick -- and even tactless -- style made them alternately demonized and lionized.
"If, as an officer, you don't tell blunt truths or create an environment where candor is encouraged, then you've done yourself and the institution a disservice," Gates said.
Gates cited the continuing necessity for men and women in uniform "to demonstrate uncommon courage – both on the battlefield and off."
"In order to succeed in the asymmetric battlefields of the 21st century – the dominant combat environment in the decades to come, in my view – the Air Force will require leaders of great flexibility, agility, resourcefulness, and imagination, leaders willing and able to think and act creatively and decisively in different kinds of conflict than we have prepared for during the last six decades," he said.
Gates said such exemplary Air Force service can been seen in the skies above Iraq and Afghanistan, and even on the ground, as airmen have been called on to perform tasks far different from what they envisioned when they donned the uniform -- from convoy security to bomb clearance and disposal to search and rescue.
"I seriously doubt anyone would have believed that America's first 21st-century war would begin with airmen on horseback directing B-52s to provide close air support for cavalry charges in Afghanistan," Gates said. "[It's] ironic, considering that early doubters of aviation's military value feared that noise from the planes would frighten the army's horses."
The Afghan campaign, Gates said, which is in the midst of a U.S. troop surge, has put new demands on the Air Force, as the priority has shifted from Iraq, where the number of American forces will draw down to 50,000 before Sept. 1.
"I am told that since 2007, the daily traffic at Bagram Air Base has nearly doubled to roughly 900 aircraft operations each day," Gates said, referring to a main U.S. logistical hub in Afghanistan. "The surge of troops and operations associated with the president's new strategy will require yet more work, more dedications, and more sacrifice from America's airmen."
In a parting message to the cadets, Gates noted that each of those in uniform had entered the military in a vastly different time than the Cold War era in which he began his military service.
"You entered military service in a time of war, knowing you would be at war," he said. "Theodore Roosevelt once said, 'The trumpet call is the most inspiring of all sounds, because it summons men to spurn all ease and self-indulgence and bids them forth to the field where they must dare and do and die at need.'"
"All of you have answered the trumpet call," Gates continued, "and the whole of America is grateful and filled with admiration."