The former Eagle Scout, 1961 East High School graduate and ex-CIA director and defense secretary under both Democratic and Republican presidents came home for a visit Wednesday.
Officially, Robert M. Gates was in town to be honored at McConnell Air Force Base where the Kansas Air National Guard’s 184th Intelligence Wing’s new complex was being named after him.
That made perfect sense because Gates’ 45-year government career was intertwined with military intelligence gathering and pushing for greater support for the National Guard and the use of unmanned aircraft.
He took time to interject humor and wit. Now living with his wife, Becky, about 90 miles north of Seattle and in the process of writing two books, he said it was great to be out of the nation’s capital.
“Washington is the only place you can see some prominent person walking down lover’s lane holding his own hand,” he told an audience that included his 98-year-old mother, some former high school classmates, Gov. Sam Brownback, U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, state legislators, Mayor Carl Brewer and plenty of Air Force brass and senior enlisted ranks.
But Gates also used the opportunity to remind everyone that the needs he fought for while heading up the CIA in the early 1990s and serving as defense secretary from 2006 to 2011 continue.
“The remarkable fusion of intelligence and operations has been a game changer for our deployed forces,” he said. “It has taken hundreds of the world’s most dangerous killers off the battlefield, including Osama bin Laden.”
He also said America can’t “let budget pressures and parochial squabbles push the Guard back to pre-9/11 levels and second-class status.” Gates noted that since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Guard has moved from a strategic reserve force to a fully operational reserve and an “integral and indispensable part of America’s deployable forces.” 184th’s evolution
The 184th’s evolution from a flying unit for most of its 70-year history to an intelligence wing has been part of the changing face of the U.S. military. That transformation began in 2002 when 68 airmen in the wing were assigned to the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance side.
As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq continued, a full squadron from the wing switched to intelligence gathering in 2006. Two years later, it was designated the 184th Intelligence Wing.
About 375 of the wing’s 600 members stationed full time at McConnell now take part in intelligence work. They occupy three buildings totaling 60,000 square feet, including a remodeled facility once used as an engine shop for B-1 bombers.
Members of the 184th’s operations side sit in front of computer screens around the clock, seven days a week, grabbing information from unmanned aircraft, analyzing the data and feeding reports to the defense department and troops on the ground.
Those needs will continue.
“This is still a dangerous and complex world,” Gates said during a news conference before the ceremony. He said the U.S.’s track record over the past 35 years for predicting where the country’s military forces would be needed next has been “perfect.”
“We’ve never once gotten it right,” he said.
“So having the flexibility that is provided by these (intelligence) capabilities is vital. The benefit of this capability being in a Guard unit is the continuity of the men and women in this mission.”
While active Air Force members get moved to a different unit every two or three years, he noted that people in the Guard will be in the same unit for 10 to 15 years.
“You can build really deep expertise,” Gates said.
Nonetheless, defense budget cuts took a slice earlier this year out of the Guard across the country, including eliminating 23 full-time and two part-time jobs for the 184th at McConnell.
Gates reflected before the audience on some of the battles he fought over the years to get unmanned aircraft recognized as an important part of military missions.
The Air Force balked at helping fund the drones in 1992 because the aircraft didn’t have a pilot, Gates said. As defense secretary, he said it was like “pulling teeth” to get the Air Force to support intelligence gathering, so he formed a task force to “light a fire under Pentagon bureaucracy.” “But the Air Force rose to the challenge,” he said.
Over his time as defense secretary, he said the number of combat patrols flown by two unmanned aircraft – Predator and Reaper – quadrupled. Praise for Gates
In lauding Gates efforts in his various government roles, Brownback told the gathering that the Wichita native worked with a “steady hand.”
“We need to learn from that,” Brownback told the gathering.
After Brownback, Roberts and other speakers heaped on the praise, Gates responded by saying, “For someone who has spent a lot of his life in Washington, D.C., you have to be dead to have so many people say nice things about you.”
Gates credited his Kansas upbringing for his optimism, idealism and love of country.
“I will always consider myself first and foremost as kid from Kansas who got lucky,” he said.