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Gates gets chilly reception on Air Force tour

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colorado (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates stood alone on an empty stage in an Air Force auditorium, two spotlights throwing odd diminutive shadows of the Pentagon chief on the curtain draped behind him.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates departs a news briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, June 5, 2008. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Looking tired and worn out, he faced another cold crowd of officers whose force has fallen from grace and whose leaders Gates swept aside last week in a stinging rebuke of their management of nuclear weapons.

He glanced over the gathering of uniformed personnel at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, took a breath and plodded slowly into a speech explaining his actions and reiterating the Air Force’s nuclear standards had eroded.

“I assume that some of you, maybe most of you, disagree with my decision,” he conceded.

Indeed, it seemed many of the airmen did.

They respectfully sat through his speech, some nodding as he cited all of the force’s contributions to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. But others squirmed in their seats and, at some stops on Gates’ tour of bases, offered icy looks and shook their heads as he outlined the force’s failure to adequately perform its most sensitive mission of securing America’s nuclear arsenal.

The mood was only lighter at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, where Air Force personnel responsible for shuttling troops and equipment into the war zone applauded Gates’ choice of their commander to be the next Air Force chief.

The decision to force the Air Force’s top military and top civilian leaders to resign after embarrassing mistakes involving U.S. nuclear weapons and parts has been praised by many in Congress and the corridors of the Pentagon. Gates, they argue, is holding senior leaders accountable and dumping them when they do not promptly and responsibly respond to crises.

There was no similar swift action at the Pentagon when the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison was uncovered.

HARSH LIGHT ON AIR FORCE

Gates’ actions throw harsh light on an Air Force once cheered for bombing campaigns that kept the fight off the ground and stunned opponents. His decision to choose as new Air Force chief a general who flew cargo aircraft rather than bombers or fighter jets also rubbed some of the shine off the force’s often romanticized public image.

Gates’ decision, while triggered by the nuclear mistakes, highlighted other problems and opened for public debate questions about how relevant the Air Force is in the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Perhaps the greatest defect of Air Force leaders in recent times has been their failure to adapt to the changing demands of a transformed global security environment,” said Loren Thompson, defense analyst at the Lexington Institute.

While the other branches of the U.S. armed forces have taken steps to adapt to the irregular, insurgent-focused warfare they face in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Air Force has been criticized for continuing to focus on next-generation fighter jets able to defeat enemies that the United States military does not currently face.

Gates has hit that theme too. In response to pleas from commanders on the ground in the war zones, for example, Gates has called for more unmanned aircraft to conduct surveillance and intelligence missions needed to locate targets and warn troops of an approaching threat.

But he has said it was “like pulling teeth” inside the Pentagon, where Air Force leaders were reluctant to take pilots off missions.

That disagreement along with a dispute over the need for the top-of-the-line F-22 fighter jet and the Air Force’s questionable handling of a $50 million contract for its Thunderbirds stunt group created an undeniable strain between the Air Force and Pentagon, officials said.

Gates, who was a low-ranking Air Force officer in the late 1960s before going to the CIA, seemed sad as he talked over the past week about the Air Force’s current failings.

“Rededicate yourselves to the standards of excellence that have been the hallmark of the United States Air Force for more than 60 years,” he said, before asking reporters to leave the room so he could take questions from uniformed personnel.

Editing by David Alexander and Doina Chiacu

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