By David Alexander
COLORADO SPRINGS (Reuters) - The U.S. military will face a complex array of security threats long after the Afghan conflict ends, and the Air Force cannot fall back into the habit of planning mainly for the wars of the 20th century, Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned on Friday.
In a speech that touched on some of his most difficult decisions as defense secretary, Gates bid farewell to the U.S. Air Force Academy and urged cadets to embrace "a comprehensive and integrated view of the service's future needs "with equal emphasis on all its varied missions."
"Above all, the services must not return to the last century's mind-set after Iraq and Afghanistan, but prepare and plan for a very different world than the one they left in 2001," said Gates, a former Air Force intelligence officer whose tenure as defense secretary has been marked by frictions with his former service.
Gates has announced he will step down by the end of the year but has not publicly fixed the date. He began a round of farewell addresses to the service academies with a speech last week at West Point.
He told Air Force cadets that upon taking office he found himself responsible for two wars -- Afghanistan and Iraq -- and working with a Pentagon leadership that sometimes seemed more focused on planning for future conflicts than acting aggressively to win the ones at hand.
"All of the military services -- including the Air Force -- still to a great extent viewed the world through the prism of the 20th century," he said. "They were largely oriented toward winning big battles in big wars against nation-states comparably armed and equipped, even as our military was struggling to defeat insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq."
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Gates chafed at what he said was the slow pace of ramping up use of unmanned Predator drone aircraft that have had great success in Afghanistan, complaining in early 2008 that "it's been like pulling teeth" to secure more of the planes "because people were stuck in old ways of doing business."
He also clashed with the Air Force leadership over production of the top-of-the-line, radar-evading F-22 Raptor. He said pressure to build more than twice the number of the $132 million dollar fighter jets than budgeted by the Defense Department was an example of the military's skewed priorities.
"We are fighting two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the F-22 has not performed a single mission in either theater," he told lawmakers in early 2008.
A final break occurred following two mishaps dealing with safeguarding U.S. nuclear arms. In one case an Air Force bomber wing flew nuclear warheads over the continental United States, and in another, ballistic missile fuses were mistakenly transferred to Taiwan.
After an investigation of the incidents Gates removed the secretary of the Air Force and the chief of staff, saying "the focus of the "leadership has drifted with respect to perhaps its most sensitive mission."
Gates later recommended General Norton Schwartz, the head of U.S. Transportation Command responsible for military logistics, as Air Force chief of staff. The choice of Schwartz signaled a shift of culture at the top of an Air Force whose leadership was dominated by fighter and bomber pilots.
Gates told the cadets his actions had ruffled "the traditional preferences and bureaucratic sacred cows of all the services," but he still believed air dominance was critical to future U.S. security.
"Far from being a skeptic of air power, I believe that air supremacy -- in all of its components -- will be indispensable to maintaining American military strength, deterrence, and global reach for decades to come," he said.
He noted that China, Iran and North Korea all appear to be developing weapons aimed at neutralizing the traditional U.S. advantage of being able to use its Navy and Air Force to project power to any region of the globe.
China said on Friday it will raise its military budget by 12.7 percent this year to $91.5 billion, a return to double-digit increases, though the total is a fraction of the Obama administration's request of $549 billion in military spending for the current fiscal year.
"The Air Force will play a lead role in maintaining U.S. military supremacy in the face of this anti-access, area-denial strategy," he said.
But Gates said the war in Afghanistan illustrated many of the other roles the Air Force must be ready to perform, from evacuating wounded and meeting the logistical demands of troops to flying sorties in support of ground operations.
(Reporting by David Alexander; editing by Philip Barbara)