US Secretary of Defense Bob Gates is right to toss rhetorical bombs at his airpower branch, even when he's slightly off on his aim.

It's not that the US Air Force lacks the will to send more surveillance assets to where they are needed in Afghanistan and Iraq, as he clearly implied in a 21 April speech delivered to impressionable young officers at the Air University.

Ask the air force and they will tell you - cheekily, behind the boss's back - that nearly all of the surveillance assets that can be spared, and even some that can't, are already in the combat zone.

It's also not the fault of any contractor. General Atomics probably could not build Predator-series aircraft any faster.

No, the unspoken target of Gates's frustration is not really about a lack of hardware. It's about the USAF's misguided strategic vision. It's about a procurement budget that purposely looks beyond the needs of the current war and gives priority to the conflict that the USAF prefers would come next.

He should be angry about why there are so few surveillance assets to spare, when the USAF's most expensive procurement item - the Lockheed Martin F-22 - serves no discernible purpose in a war against insurgents and terrorists.

This is not even the first time Gates and the USAF leadership have fought in public over this issue. Three months ago, Gates startled the USAF top brass by telling them "no", as in "no more F-22s".


When a four-star general assured reporters that the USAF would still win the argument, Gates's aides quickly reminded the general who is in charge of the military. They labelled the remark "borderline insubordination" .

The repeated public spats are not unexpected. Gates's influence in steering a massive bureaucracy is limited by joining an administration in the final two years of its existence. Unlike his predecessor, Gates has had little time to imprint his will on the budgeting process, and, of course, that's not why he was recruited to succeed Donald Rumsfeld anyway.

But that lack of influence may be the motivation behind his public feuds with the USAF brass. Maybe if he can't persuade them by wielding long-term budgetary power, he can at least shame them into acquiescing.

That is at least until Gates's term expires with the handover to a new administration next January.

Source: Flight International