By John D. Banusiewicz
American Forces Press Service
MUSCAT, Oman : Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today praised the crew of the USS Abraham Lincoln for its support of the war effort in Afghanistan.
"This visit gives me the opportunity to thank all of you for your service, personally and on behalf of the American people," he told the Lincoln's crew. "I want you to know that the entire nation is praying for you and for the success of your mission."
Though they're hundreds of miles from Afghanistan, the secretary said, their efforts are making an important impact for ground forces there.
"When your aircraft come screaming, our troops hear the sound of relief and the enemy knows what's coming next," Gates said. "You are delivering lethal blows to them and protecting the lives of our men and women on the battlefield. Still, recognizing the complexities of this battle environment, you have been extraordinarily conscious about the need to avoid civilian casualties."
The secretary invited questions from the crew, and their topics included the defense budget, the prospects for repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law, and North Korean provocation.
In response to a sailor who asked whether defense budget cuts might affect the Navy's ability to buy ships, Gates said that while the country is facing a $1.3 trillion deficit, the defense budget should not be a target.
"People are going to look to us to be responsible and to contribute to addressing these problems," he said. "My view is that we don't address those problems by cutting the defense budget. We address those problems by making sure that every dollar spent for defense is spent wisely and intelligently. It means cutting wasteful programs and overhead and excess staff, and investing that in force structure and capabilities.
"I don't see the world getting safer over the next 10 years; there will continue to be significant challenges even after Iraq and Afghanistan," he continued. "And so my hope is that the Congress will work with us, recognize the efforts that we have made to rid the defense budget of waste and abuse and allow us to use the monies we've identified in overhead and apply them against capabilities."
Failing that, he added, the military's ability to sustain its force structure, including the number of ships, "will be seriously in jeopardy, in my view."
Another sailor asked whether, in light of recent North Korean provocation, the Lincoln crew might head to that region next. Gates replied that it's not likely.
"I think the general feeling is that what we are seeing in these provocations in North Korea is a part of the succession, as Kim Jong-Il prepares for his son to take his place," he explained.
The sinking of a South Korean ship earlier this year, the revelation of a North Korean nuclear enrichment facility and the recent artillery attack on a South Korean island seem to be designed to show the North Korean people, and most importantly, its military, that the ailing leader's son and heir apparent is tough and strong enough to take leadership, Gates said.
"I think this is a difficult and potentially dangerous time," the secretary added. "The North Koreans have engaged in some very provocative actions. They get everyone upset, then they volunteer to come back to talks, and we basically end up buying the same horse twice.
"So I think we need to figure out the way ahead with North Korea," he continued. "Nobody wants a war on the Korean peninsula. And I think we just have to work with the Chinese and with others to see if we can't bring some greater stability, some greater predictability to the regime in Pyongyang."
Another crew member wanted to know whether Gates thinks the current Congress will repeal the law that bans gays from serving openly in the military after a Defense Department working group that studied the issue released its report last week.
"I'd have to say I'm not particularly optimistic that they're going to get this done," he said, noting that Congress has only two weeks remaining in the current session. "I would hope that they would," he added.
Gates reiterated his concern that if Congress doesn't act on the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" legislation - which would repeal the law once he certifies, along with the president and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the military can handle it -- the courts might overturn the policy on their own.
"My greatest fear is that we will be told that this law will be overturned by a court and we will be told to implement it without any time for preparation for training [or] any of the other efforts that need to be undertaken to prepare us for such a change," he said. By contrast, he added, the legislative repeal route gives the Pentagon "enormous latitude" to prepare for such a change.
The service chiefs provided testimony on the matter before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, and some said that while they believe the law eventually will be repealed, now may not be the right time for that to happen.
"I agree with the service chiefs," Gates said today. "A change in this law is inevitable. Their concern is whether it ought to be done now, while the force is under such stress, with such continuing rotations, or deployments, still having the war in Afghanistan, and still having 50,000 troops in Iraq.
"Their view is, by and large, that it should come, but not now," he continued. "And we'll see where the Congress goes with it."
If Congress does repeal the law, Gates told the group, he would put a lot of stock in the service chiefs' views in terms of when to certify the military is ready to implement repeal.
Robert M. Gates
USS Abraham Lincoln
Special Report: Travels With Gates
|Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates observes launches and recoveries while onboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in the Gulf of Oman, Dec. 6, 2010. DOD photo by Air Force Master Sgt. Jerry Morrison |