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United States Air Force Academy Lecture (Leadership/Character)

Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Colorado Springs, CO, Friday, April 02, 2010
Thank you for that introduction.
It’s a pleasure to be back at the Air Force Academy for my first visit since 2007, when I spoke at commencement. And I’m particularly happy to be in Colorado Springs, but then I am happy to be anywhere other than Washington, D.C.
I should begin by congratulating the Class of 2013 for making it through “Recognition” and earning your props and wings. It's a great achievement and one you should be proud of. I hope you’ve had a chance to get some well-earned freedom.
I certainly did not go through anything nearly as rigorous when I was commissioned as an Air Force officer 43 years ago. I have to admit now, though, four decades plus removed from Officer Training School at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, I’m a little surprised that they even let me out.
Now, in a normal speech, I would thank you all for coming, but I know full well that this event is not exactly optional – so, my apologies -- and I’ll be content with thanking you for just staying awake after lunch, or at least trying to, with the schedule that you all have here.
Now, of course, falling asleep in a lecture or a class here is one thing. Falling asleep in a meeting with the president of the United States is another. But it happens. I was in one Cabinet meeting with President Reagan where the president and six members of the Cabinet all fell asleep.
But it was the first President Bush who created an honor to award the American official who most ostentatiously fell asleep in a meeting with the president. He was not frivolous about this. The president evaluated candidates on three criteria – first, duration – how long did they sleep? Second, the depth of the sleep; snoring always got you extra points. And third, the quality of recovery – did one just quietly open one's eyes and return to the meeting, or did they just jolt awake – and maybe spill something hot in the process? The President named the award after Air Force Lieutenant General Brent Scowcroft, who was the first President Bush's national security adviser. He was, as you might suspect, the first awardee, and, I might add, over a period of four years, he won many oak leaf clusters.
My first duty station was Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri – then home to 150 minuteman missiles. Because of my academic background and modest Russian language skills, even as a second lieutenant, I frequently was tapped to brief high-ranking officers on our missile wing’s targets in the Soviet Union.  What that means was that I was one of the few people in the entire wing and aerospace division who could actually pronounce the names of our targets.  
So, one time, I was briefing our target set with a lieutenant general, the commander of Eighth Air Force – whom I would describe as a cigar-chomping Curtis LeMay wannabe. When I told him that 120 of our 150 missiles were currently aimed at Soviet ICBMs, he exploded and, with many expletives I will delete, said it was an outrage that we would be hitting only empty silos.  When the balloon went up, he said, he wanted to kill Russians.  So he demanded that I, a second lieutenant, rewrite the nuclear targeting plan. I tried to explain that Strategic Air Command headquarters might object, but he was adamant.
Sometimes at Whiteman work and recreation overlapped.  One Friday night, we were called out of the Whiteman Officers’ Club during happy hour because there was a problem with the war plan, and SAC Headquarters had decided to urgently change the launch sequencing for all the nation’s Minuteman missiles.  We worked all night to prepare the new strike-execution checklists, ordering out for pizza to keep us going. In the days before computers, that meant wrestling with large, unwieldy sheets of clear laminating material with the consistency of flypaper.  The next morning around nine o’clock, we got a call from a major in one of the launch-control capsules.  He sounded puzzled as he examined his laminated strike-execution checklist – which now included a preserved piece of pepperoni as a major target.
Much has changed since those days – in the Air Force, in our country, and in the world. So, for the next 30 minutes, I want to talk about some of those changes, what they mean for the Air Force, and some of the expectations I have for you, the next generation of Air Force leaders.
The world you are entering is much more complicated than it was when I was a junior officer during the Cold War. From global terrorism to ethnic conflicts; from rogue nations to rising powers – the challenges we face simply cannot be overcome by traditional military means alone.
This has very real implications for the way we think about conflict. We have to recognize that the black-and-white distinction between irregular war and conventional war is an outdated model. The world we face in the 21st century is and will be far more complex than that. Our conflict will range along a broad spectrum of operations and lethality.  A world where we will need the maximum possible flexibility to deal with the widest possible range of scenarios and adversaries.
These new realities – and their attendant requirements – have meant a wrenching set of changes over the last few years for a military establishment that was, until recently, almost completely oriented toward winning the big battles in the big wars.  The Air Force, like our other services, is confronted with the question of how to achieve a proper balance between the irregular and the conventional – the high end and the low end – and all the institutional implications those choices entail.
This has forced fundamental reconsiderations of what kind of capabilities the Air Force needs going forward as it is called to perform a wider range of missions in a rapidly-shifting strategic environment. Even as the F-35 becomes the biggest single Defense procurement program, there are open-ended questions about other future weapons systems – from the next generation bomber to relatively low-cost, low-tech solutions like the Reapers, Predators, and MC-12 King Airs being employed in Afghanistan. And there are questions about what criteria should drive promotions and assignments in a service that is becoming, quite frankly, less fighter-centric with each passing year.
And that brings me to my principal topic today: you. What are the qualities necessary for you to be successful as military leaders going forward? I know that leadership is a topic you have studied extensively. My perspective is shaped by my experience working for eight presidents and leading three very diffenent but huge public institutions: the CIA and the U.S. intelligence community with more than 100,000 plus people, Texas A&M University with some 50,000 students, and the Department of Defense with 3 million employees in and out of uniform. But my views are particularly informed by what I have seen the last few years – especially in my meetings with troops on the battlefield, from the lowest ranks to the highest.
In order to succeed in the asymmetric battlefields of the 21st century – the dominant combat environment in the decades to come, in my view – the Air Force will require leaders of great flexibility, agility, resourcefulness, and imagination; leaders willing and able to think and act creatively and decisively in different kinds of conflict than we have prepared for during the last six decades.
One thing that will not change, however, is that we still need men and women in uniform who are willing to demonstrate uncommon courage – both on the battlefield and off.
We see this at work in Iraq and Afghanistan – on the ground when airmen have been called on to perform tasks far different from what they signed up for, from convoy security to bomb clearance and IED disposal to search and rescue. I seriously doubt anyone would have believed that America’s first 21st century war would begin with airmen on horseback directing B-52s to provide close air support for cavalry charges in Afghanistan – ironic, considering that early doubters of aviation’s military value feared that the airplanes would frighten the army’s horses.
The Afghan campaign -- waged in a landlocked country with few passable roads -- has put new demands on the Air Force as the priority has shifted from the Iraq theater.  I am told that since 2007, the daily traffic at Bagram Air Field has nearly doubled to roughly 900 aircraft operations each day.  The surge of troops and operations associated with the president's new strategy will require yet more work, more dedications, and more sacrifice from America's airmen.
But there is another kind of courage beyond the battlefield I want to focus on today and that is the willingness for you to challenge conventional wisdom and call things as you see them to subordinates and superiors alike.
Curtis LeMay’s biography, Iron Eagle, recounts a story about one of his best pilots, Lieutenant Russell Schleeh. During World War II, LeMay and Schleeh were taxiing out in the pre-dawn murk to attack targets in German-occupied Europe. The fog was so thick they could only see a few feet in any direction. LeMay told Schleeh, who was in the co-pilot’s seat, to keep his flashlight trained on the right-hand edge of the taxi strip. LeMay had made it clear that if any crew were to go off a runway, they’d catch hell from him personally. Alas, the plane suddenly rolled off the pavement and sank struts deep in the mud. LeMay, in a seething fury, turned to his co-pilot. But before he had time to say anything, Schleeh said to him, “Damn it all Colonel, you ran off on your side.” So remember, regardless of their rank, all officers are human and fallible, even the ones wearing eagles and stars.
If as an officer you don’t tell blunt truths or create an environment where candor is encouraged, then you’ve done yourself and the institution a disservice. Make no mistake, the kind of candor and intellectual independence I’m referring to – and the willingness to stick to your guns under pressure – takes courage. Let me offer a few examples to illustrate the point, some historical, others more contemporary.
As you know, during the early days of flight, a hell of a man named Billy Mitchell had to fight against the conventional wisdom about the future of air power.  He did so with great fervor – and little tact. Senior officers took to calling him the “Kookaburra,” an Australian bird more commonly known as the “laughing jackass.” One secretary of war said that Mitchell’s idea of using airplanes to sink a ship was, quote, “so damned nonsensical and impossible that I’m willing to stand on the bridge . . . while that nitwit tries to hit [it].” It must have been very tempting.
Mitchell was eventually court-martialed, and one of his protégés took over the cause within the military.  For his determination, that young man was finally given the choice of resigning from the services or being court-martialed.  He chose the court-martial, but was instead sent into exile.  He eventually returned in good favor and ended up making something of a name for himself.  Some of you may have heard of him. His name was “Hap” Arnold.
Those were the hurdles also faced by the officer known as the father of the ICBM. As a new brigadier general in the 1950s, Bernard Schriever overcame numerous technology failures, massive Pentagon red-tape, and, most daunting of all, the service’s Bomber Barons led by Curtis LeMay himself, who believed that nuclear weapons had no business being carried by anything without a pilot.  The ICBM force would become the backbone of America’s strategic deterrent for more than a generation, and was critical to holding off the Soviets long enough for their empire to collapse.
In 1967, we officers at Minuteman bases speculated whether an unrated missileer could ever make flag rank.  And, I have to tell you that as director of the CIA in 1992, I tried to get the Air Force to partner in developing advanced long range UAVs. No pilot equaled no interest on the part of the Air Force.
There is also the story of John Boyd – a brilliant, eccentric, stubborn, and frequently profane character who was the bane of the Air Force establishment for decades.  As with Mitchell, tact wasn’t Boyd’s strong suit – and he certainly shouldn’t be used as a model for military bearing or courtesy. After all, this is a guy who once lit a general on fire with his cigar.
As a 30-year-old captain, he rewrote the manual for air-to-air combat and earned the nickname “40-second” Boyd for the time it took him to win a dogfight. Boyd and the reformers he inspired would later go on to design and advocate for the F-16 and the A-10.  After retiring, he developed the principals of maneuver warfare that were credited by a former Marine Corps commandant and a secretary of defense for the lightning victory of the first Gulf War.
It strikes me that the significance of Mitchell, Arnold, Schreiver, and Boyd and their travails was not that they were always right. What strikes me is that they had the vision and insight to see that the world and technology had changed.  They understood the implications of that change, and they pressed ahead in the face of incredibly fierce institutional resistance. 
One of the reasons they were successful at championing their ideas is that they were always willing to speak truth to power. And, here, I hope you’ll allow me to cite a towering figure from another service.  George Marshall – architect of victory in World War II, Army chief of staff, secretary of state, creator of the Marshall Plan for Europe, and secretary of defense.  He is widely heralded for embodying this quality, even at the earliest stages of his career.
In late 1917, during World War I, U.S. military staff in France was conducting a combat exercise for the American Expeditionary Force. General Pershing was in a foul mood. He dismissed critiques from one subordinate officer after another and stalked off. But then-Captain Marshall took the arm of the four-star general, turned him around and told him how the problems they were having, were the results of not having the necessary manual from the American headquarters – Pershing’s headquarters. 
The commander said, “Well, you know, we have our problems.” And Marshall replied directly, “Yes, I know you do, General . . . but ours are immediate and everyday and have to be solved before night.”
After the meeting, Marshall was approached by other officers offering condolences for the fact he was sure to be fired. Instead Marshall became a valued adviser to Pershing, and Pershing a valued mentor to Marshall.
Twenty years later, then-General Marshall was sitting in the White House with President Roosevelt and all of his top advisors and Cabinet secretaries. War in Europe was looming, but still a distant possibility for an isolated America. In that meeting, Roosevelt proposed that the U.S. Army – which at that time ranked in size somewhere between that of Switzerland and Portugal – should be at lowest priority for the funding and industry. FDR’s advisors nodded. Building an Army could wait.
Then FDR, looking for the military’s imprimatur to his decision, said: “Don’t you think so George?” Marshall, who hated being called by his first name, said: “Sorry, Mr. President, but I don’t agree with that at all.” The room went silent. The Treasury Secretary told Marshall after the meeting: “Well, it’s been nice knowing you.” But, not too much later, Marshall became Army chief of staff.
Hap Arnold, similarly, never shied away from telling it how he saw it.  Arnold recalled a time when he said some things in congressional testimony that were none too pleasing to then-President Roosevelt.  Shortly after, FDR looked pointedly at Arnold and observed that military officers who were unable to “play ball” with his administration might be found available for duty in Guam.
But, later that year, General Arnold was invited to another White House gathering – a small dinner.  He arrived to discover that Roosevelt awaited him with a tray of cocktail mixings.  “Good evening, Hap,” said the president, as if nothing had happened.  “How about me fixing you an Old Fashioned?”  Of course, General Arnold, went on to lead America’s air forces in WWII.
There are other, more recent examples of senior officers speaking frankly to their civilian seniors. Just before the ground war started against Iraq in 1991, General Colin Powell, then-chairman of the joint chiefs, met with the first President Bush. I was there in the Oval Office. Colin looked the president in the eye and said words to this effect: “We are about to go to war. We may suffer thousands of casualties. If we do, are you prepared to drive on to victory?”  Colin wanted the president to face reality. The president gave the right answer. 
Having sat in on similar discussions with Presidents Bush and Obama about the troop surges in Iraq and Afghanistan, respectively, I can tell you that the same spirit of candor suffused those conversations – and again, both presidents gave the right answer.
I should add that, in most of these cases, integrity and courage were ultimately rewarded professionally.  In a perfect world, that should always happen.  But, sadly, in the real world it does not, and I will not pretend there is not risk.  You will all, at some point or another, work for a jackass. We all have.  That is why speaking up often requires courage. But that does not make taking a stand any less necessary for the sake of our country.
Earlier I mentioned that leaders also have to encourage candor in those around them. That applies especially to those below you in rank. When I was a second lieutenant, it took me all of about a day-and-a-half before I figured out who it was that really made the military run, or who at least made we junior officers run.  It was the noncommissioned officers. After that, I did what my sergeant told me, and we did my job pretty well.
On trips to the front lines, I have made it a priority to meet with and hear from small groups of troops ranging from junior enlisted to field-grade officers. Their candid observations have been invaluable and shaped my thinking and decisions. All those in senior positions would be well-advised to listen to enlisted troops, NCOs, and company and field-grade officers. Of course, that requires you to be open and honest when asked for advice from above. You will be the ones on the front line, and you will know the real story – whether the issue is equipment needed for the mission, stress on families back home, or, as I learned last month in Afghanistan, problems with combat uniforms.
In that case, having lunch in a combat outpost in Now Zad, Afghanistan with a dozen young enlisted guys, I was told that the crotch of the Army’s camouflage pants is ill-equipped to deal with jumping over walls and fences…they tear out easily. As one of the specialists helpfully explained, "it’s a welcome feature in the summer – but it gets pretty chilly in the winter." Now that’s a perspective I would never have gotten in my Pentagon office, and I do have to wonder what the command sergeant major of the Army thought a week or so later when I started asking him about weak combat uniform crotches.
On a larger scale, the need for candor is not just an abstract notion. It has very real effects on the perception of the military and of the wars themselves – as well as an operational impact.
World War II was America’s last straightforward conventional war that ended in the unconditional surrender of the other side. The military campaigns since – from Korea to Vietnam, Somalia, the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan – have been frustrating, controversial efforts for the American public and our American armed forces. Each conflict has prompted debates over whether senior military officers were being too deferential or not deferential enough to civilians, and whether civilians, in turn, were too receptive or not receptive enough to military advice.
Here, again, I’d reference Marshall, who has been recognized as a textbook model for the way military officers should handle disagreements with superiors and particularly with the civilians vested with control of the armed forces under our Constitution. A model that has relevance to this very day on the most controversial issues we face.
Consider the situation in mid-1940. The Germans had just overrun France and the battle of Britain was about to begin. FDR believed that rushing arms and equipment to Britain, including half of America’s bomber production, should be the top priority in order to save our ally. Marshall believed that rearming America should come first. Roosevelt overruled Marshall and others, and made what most historians believe was the correct decision – to do what was necessary to keep England alive.
The significant thing is what did not happen next. There was a powerful domestic constituency for Marshall’s position among a whole host of newspapers and congressmen and lobbies, and yet Marshall did not go to them or use them. There were no overtures to friendly congressional committee chairmen, no leaks to sympathetic reporters, no ghostwritten editorials in newspapers, no coalition-building with advocacy groups. Marshall and his colleagues saluted, made the policy work, and saved England.
In the decades after World War II, a large permanent military establishment emerged as a result of the Cold War – an establishment that forged deep ties among the military, Congress and industry. Over the years, senior officers have from time to time been tempted to use these ties to do end runs around the civilian leadership, particularly during disputes over purchase of large major weapons systems. This temptation should and must be resisted.
This is particularly important with today’s conflicts, where the American people have relied especially on the candor and the credibility of military officers in order to judge how well the campaigns are going and whether the efforts should continue. Considering that, you have an awesome responsibility to the American people, whom you ultimately serve.
I’m sure you have gone over scenarios in ethics classes or heard accounts from returning veterans.  Perhaps the most salient for you right now is the situation with civilian casualties in Afghanistan. For a variety of reasons – cultural, georgraphic, historic – civilian casualties have become a defining feature of the Afghan war, one that has the potential to offset any and all momentum we and our allies make.
The dilemmas posed by this reality are especially profound since the enemy purposefully uses civilians as cover – and since troops in combat often rely on air close air support. In these situations, it may be unclear where fire is coming from, and whether civilians are in the area. On the one hand, American troops may be under fire – but on the other, the commanding general has, for strategic reasons, limited the circumstances under which airpower may be applied. What will you do in that situation? How will you react in the heat of the moment when you are faced with conflicting priorities – when both American and Afghan lives may be on the line?
Whether in those moments where you must make that split-second, singular decision, or over the longer-term as you build your career, I'd return to something John Boyd used said to his colleagues and subordinates that is worth sharing with you.  He said that one day you will come to a fork in the road.  “You’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.  If you go one way, you can be somebody.  You'll have to make compromises and you'll have to turn your back on your friends.  But you'll be a member of the club and you will get promoted and get good assignments.  Or you can go the other way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself . . . If you decide to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get good assignments and you certainly won't be a favorite of your superiors.  But you won’t have to compromise yourself . . . To be somebody or to do something.  In life there is often a roll call.  That’s when you have to make a decision.  To be or to do?”
Here at the Air Force Academy, as with every university and company in America, there’s a focus on teamwork, consensus-building, and collaboration. Yet make no mistake, the time will come for each of you when you must stand alone in making a difficult, unpopular decision; when you must challenge the opinion of superiors or tell them that you can’t get the job done with the time and resources available; or when you will know that what superiors are telling the press or the Congress or the American people is inaccurate. There will be moments when your entire career is at risk – where you will face Boyd’s proverbial fork in the road. To be or to do.
To be ready for that moment, you must have the discipline to cultivate integrity and moral courage from here at the Academy, and then from your earliest days as a commissioned officer. Those qualities do not suddenly emerge fully developed overnight or as a revelation after you have assumed important responsibilities. These qualities have their roots in the small decisions you will make here and early in your career and must be strengthened all along the way to allow you to resist the temptation of self before service. And you must always ensure that your moral courage serves the greater good: that it serves what is best for the nation and our highest values – not a particular program nor pride nor parochialism.
For the good of the Air Force, for the good of the armed services, and for the good of our country, I urge you to reject convention and careerism.  I urge you instead to be principled, creative, and reform-minded – to be leaders of integrity who, as Boyd put it, want to do something, not be somebody.
A final thought. You all entered military service in a time of war, knowing you would be at war. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “The trumpet call is the most inspiring of all sounds, because it summons men to spurn needs and self-indulgence and bids them forth to the field where they must dare and do and die if need.” All of you have answered the trumpet call, and the whole of America is grateful and filled with admiration.
The Air Force has been continuously in combat operations – at war – since 1991, 19 years as of last January: longer than most of you 1st and 2nd year cadets have been alive. I salute you and I thank you for your service. For my part, I consider myself personally responsible for each and every one of you as though you were my own sons and daughters. And, when I send you into harm’s way, I will do everything in my power to see that you can accomplish your mission – and come home safely. That’s a promise, from one airman to another.
Thank you.

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