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Pentagon's Gates Keeps Single-Minded Focus on Dual Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
"The bureaucracy's first impulse was to deny that the demand really existed," said Brad Berkson, who served as director of program analysis and evaluation in the defense secretary's office.
In the weeks that followed, Gates pulled together a special task force, made up of his immediate staff and some military officers, to find more surveillance planes, both manned and unmanned. "We literally counted every tail in the fleet," said one Pentagon official involved in the effort. The results were stunning: Less than 25 percent of the military's arsenal of surveillance aircraft, which included Air Force Predators, Army Shadows and Navy P-3 Orion planes, was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, the task force found.
The deficiencies in Iraq and Afghanistan were a result of a shortage of Air Force control stations, from which pilots fly the unmanned aircraft. The Air Force also hadn't trained enough pilots to operate all of the Predators in its rapidly expanding arsenal.
Gates's team went to extreme lengths to get more hours out of the available ground control stations and pilots. The task force arranged for experienced pilots to use stations normally set aside for training to fly combat missions during off hours. Because the Predators are controlled using satellite links, pilots can operate aircraft flying in Afghanistan and Iraq from bases in the United States.
The Air Force also lost a few hours of flying time each day because Predator pilots controlling planes from Creech Air Force Base, Nev., had to make an hour-long drive into town to buy lunch, visit the bank or pick up their children from day care. Gates set aside money to build a cafeteria, child-care facilities and other amenities at Creech. "We decided the pilots' time was extremely valuable," Berkson said. "We didn't even want them to have to stand in line at the bank."
Some Air Force officials complained bitterly that the defense secretary's staffers were micromanaging commanders at Creech. In one case, a member of Gates's staff called one of the base's commanders to ask him why his pilots were working shorter hours than Army pilots flying similar unmanned aircraft. "I was having to justify my organization down to the gnat's ass just about every week," an Air Force officer recalled, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to talk freely about his superiors. "It became a distraction."
Results on Predators
By early 2009, the task force's efforts had produced results: The number of U.S. military Predators in the air over Afghanistan and Iraq had increased almost three-fold, to 31 from 12. In a speech last year at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., Gates compared the effort to "pulling teeth."
In the months since he was asked by Obama to stay on as defense secretary as the Cabinet's lone holdover, Gates's top priority has been incorporating the lessons of the task force and similar initiatives into the 2010 defense budget. "His engagement on this budget has been orders of magnitude greater than any other secretary of defense that I can recall," said Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in an interview. "There is a certainty about what he wants, and you can't get around it."
The current budget, for example, sets aside $2 billion so the Air Force will be able to keep as many as 50 unmanned surveillance planes in the air by 2011. Gates also carved out $500 million to increase the number of helicopters in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have been in short supply since 2003. As with the Predators, the helicopter shortfall was caused by a lack of crews to maintain and fly the aircraft. The Pentagon has 6,000 helicopters in its fleet, but about 800 of them are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mullen said.
'We . . . Must Do Better'
Last week, Gates flew to Afghanistan, where he asked for the resignation of the top American general in charge of the war. He had chosen Gen. David D. McKiernan for the post 11 months earlier but had become convinced that a new commander was needed to arrest the decline in the country. "We can and must do better," he later told reporters at a Pentagon news conference.
During his trip, Gates flew to a sprawling American base being built in southern Afghanistan to accommodate thousands of new U.S. troops now arriving in the country. He met four Marines who showed him their charred and dented MRAP. A few days earlier, as they patrolled the desert surrounding the base, a roadside bomb had detonated under the vehicle.
One of the Marines inside had broken his arm. The other three emerged with minor scratches and bruises.
Gates looked pleased. He shook their hands, struggled to make small talk and thanked them for their service.