May 16, 2008 / 1:49 AM / in 11 years

Gates names troop protection, care as top priority

By Kristin Roberts

WASHINGTON, May 15 (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Thursday he wants to see major changes in three areas before he leaves the Pentagon — unmanned aircraft, protective gear for troops and medical care for the wounded.

The Pentagon’s failure to adequately address those issues quickly once the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began reflected a "leadership shortcoming," said Gates, who replaced Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon in late 2006.

He blamed a lack of vision and urgency, and said an assumption that the wars would be short led Pentagon leaders to keep their spending focused on future weapons systems rather than technologies that could help troops in combat now.

"Preoccupied with future capabilities and procurement programs, wedded to lumbering peacetime process and procedures, stuck in bureaucratic low gear, the needs of those in combat too often were not addressed urgently or creatively," he said in remarks prepared for delivery to a group of business executives in Washington.

Gates, who has choked up when talking about troops killed in combat, last month ordered all parts of the Defense Department to find ways to speed unmanned surveillance aircraft and systems to war zones to locate targets and warn ground troops of an approaching attack.

That followed his push for a massive purchase of special armored trucks — Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs) — to protect troops from roadside bombs, the number one killer of U.S. troops in Iraq.

While Gates criticized Pentagon leadership, he did not single out any person or military branch.

His speech to the nonpartisan group Business Executives for National Security struck some of the same themes raised by Rumsfeld in a speech given the day before the Sept. 11 attacks. Rumsfeld then criticized the Pentagon’s slow-moving bureaucracy and said too few of its resources directly helped troops.

In addition to unmanned aircraft and protective equipment, Gates listed outpatient care and support for the wounded as a "top management priority" after a Washington Post investigation last year found troops facing rodent-infested housing and bureaucratic hurdles at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

"Every day, my signature on a piece of paper sends our brave men and women in harm’s way," Gates said in his prepared remarks.

"At the end of the day, I must be able to look them in the eye — be they in Kandahar or Ramadi or Walter Reed — and tell them truthfully that this wealthy and generous country has done everything possible for them."

Nearly 500 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan since that war began in 2001 and 4,080 have died in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. (Editing by Philip Barbara)

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