WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday that U.S. military services are not doing enough to support soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, singling out the Air Force for adapting too slowly to the new enemies on those battlefields.
In unusually harsh public criticism, Gates said his attempts to get the Pentagon to help commanders more quickly on the ground have been "like pulling teeth," and he blamed military leaders who are "stuck in old ways of doing business."
He said he was particularly upset with the military's failure to get more unmanned spy planes into the air over the two war zones - primarily an Air Force responsibility. While the number of drones has doubled in recent months, Gates has set up a task force to push for even more.
"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," Gates said. "Our services are still not moving aggressively in wartime to provide resources needed now on the battlefield."
The criticism comes in the midst of a tense period for Gates and the Air Force. The Defense secretary has fought a series of increasingly acrimonious internal battles against the Air Force leadership, who have pushed for dozens of new F-22 fighter planes and resisted more drone deployments. In doing so, the Air Force has failed to focus its energies on the wars at hand, Gates has charged.
The Air Force Association, an independent advocacy group made up largely of retired Air Force officials, issued a statement shortly after Gates' remarks insisting that the service has pushed to get more drones to war zones. Association officials said they concluded Gates "was referring to the Army" in his criticisms.
"I don't think he's got a lot of airmen advising him on things," retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael M. Dunn, the association's president, said in an interview. "This would be in a lot worse shape if the Air Force hadn't gotten out ahead of it, because you can't produce something overnight."
Gates has voiced concern in the past that the Pentagon he inherited in 2006 was not on what he called a "war footing" and has chided other military services. He criticized the Army for its failure to send mine-resistant armored vehicles to combat zones and for its lapses at Walter Reed Medical Center.
Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said Gates' complaints over unmanned drones were aimed at all services that deploy the aircraft, which includes the Army. "The Air Force is not immune from criticism, but it certainly isn't alone in criticism," Morrell said.
But by delivering the rebuff in a speech at Maxwell Air Force Base in central Alabama - home to the Air Force's premier war college - Gates sent a clear message to that branch of the military and turned what had been a fight behind closed doors into a very public dispute.
The remarks also raised the stakes in the dispute, signaling that Gates considers the Air Force's efforts to be inadequate.
To meet Gates' demands, the Air Force has ordered pilots who operate drones to remain in current assignments and have activated all Air National Guard units that fly the aircraft.
The task force Gates officially set up Friday to deal with the issue is to come up with plans to deploy new reconnaissance planes every month for the next four months, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity when describing the group's internal tasking orders.
Gates also lauded steps by the Air Force to assist in combat. Air evacuations of wounded soldiers have helped increase survival rates, and airmen serve in Iraq and Afghanistan as heads of reconstruction teams and transport convoys, he said.
But addressing young Air Force officers in the audience, Gates said they must become unconventional thinkers, challenging the military establishment.
Peter Spiegel writes for the Los Angeles Times.