Fine Print: When It Comes to News, Gates Is the Man to See

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has become known for speaking his mind, and his comments often reveal new information.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has become known for speaking his mind, and his comments often reveal new information. (By Manuel Balce Ceneta -- Associated Press)
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By Walter Pincus
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is someone whose words, whether in a speech or a news conference, should always be examined. Held over from the Bush administration, he has become the senior government official who most speaks his mind and as a result provides a great deal of news, especially if you look closely at what he says.

Last Wednesday, Gates spoke before the Air Force Association convention, and afterward he answered questions that contained a variety of new information.

Take what he said about cybersecurity, and the touchy subject of how to integrate protection of strategically important governmental and civilian databases and Internet communications.

Saying he was "sort of speaking a little out of turn here because I can't speak for the administration as a whole," he called "wholly unrealistic" the idea of replicating the Pentagon's National Security Agency (NSA) and its site protection services (for the Defense Department and other government sites) within the Department of Homeland Security for civilian sites.

Although there has been some mention of that approach, Gates said the government lacks the time, money and personnel to do it. "You just couldn't create another NSA in a year or two," he said.

His solution for meeting concerns about possible civil liberties violations with the NSA protecting civilian sites was "to double-hat a deputy secretary or an undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and have that person also be a civilian deputy at NSA." Then, he said, create firewalls to make sure "going after foreign threats do not spill over into the civilian world."

He also previewed the "likely conclusions" of the Pentagon's nuclear posture review. The results are not expected before the end of the year. Gates said it is "clear at least to me" that it will call for "larger investments in modernizing our nuclear infrastructure, the labs and so on," which to a degree is already going on. What is new is his saying that the review "in one or two cases" will "probably [recommend] new designs" for nuclear weapons "that will be safer and more reliable."

This is a position Gates has backed before. But, as he hinted, if it becomes a recommendation in the posture review and is approved by President Obama, it would revive a debate among congressional Democrats over whether these new designs mean new warheads or just safer versions of existing ones.

Perhaps Gates's most interesting statements were in his view of the Air Force of the future, in which "remotely piloted aircraft will get more numerous and more advanced, with greater range and the ability to fight as well as survive." He said the director of the Air Force's unmanned task force has compared today's unmanned airborne vehicles (UAVs) to "manned aircraft based on the Wright Brothers' Flyer."

Gates said future UAVs teamed with F-35 fifth-generation fighters "potentially give the United States the ability to disrupt and overwhelm an adversary using mass and swarming tactics, adding a new dimension to the American way of war." But he cautioned that this "profound shift in battlefield technology" would have a wider implication: "Their low cost and high utility make UAVs very attractive to other nations."

He also warned that potential adversaries, such as China, remain a threat not because they modernize to match the U.S. fighter-to-fighter or ship-to-ship, but because they are investing in cyber and anti-satellite, anti-air and anti-ship weaponry. These could degrade the current U.S. advantages in projecting power in the Pacific through forward bases and air carrier strike groups.

Gates's answer was to find a way "to strike from over the horizon." He committed himself to "an airborne long-range strike force," but warned against repeating the experience of the B-2. That stealth strategic bomber took so long to develop that, capable as it was, at $2 billion an airplane only 21 of the planned fleet of 132 could be built.

Gates frequently adds a bit of previously unknown history to his answers. For example, last Thursday, while explaining to reporters about the decision to shelve the plan to establish missile defense facilities in the Czech Republic and Poland, he slipped in something he had not disclosed before. He said, in speaking of Moscow's opposition to the proposal, "that the radar that was going into the Czech Republic looked deep into Russia and actually could monitor the launches of their ICBMs as well."

Up to that time, it was generally believed that the radar would be directed only at Iran. No government official had publicly acknowledged that the radar, which had a 360-degree capability, would be able to see as far as the Caucasus Mountains inside Russia.

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