Defense secretary lets Air Force run tanker contest

Defense Secretary Robert Gates won over an audience of Air Force personnel and supporters, many of whom were angry about his painful budget cuts, by announcing Wednesday that management of the troubled KC-X tanker procurement was being returned to Air Force leaders and that he was committed to buying a next-generation long-range strike aircraft.

In a speech to the Air Force Association conference at the National Harbor convention center in Maryland, Gates previewed findings of the ongoing Nuclear Posture Review by endorsing the need to sustain and modernize the nation's stockpile of nuclear weapons, including a new warhead design.

That appears to mean support for the reliable replacement warhead program proposed by former President George W. Bush but strongly opposed by arms control advocates and congressional Democrats.

Gates strongly defended his fiscal 2010 budget decision that stopped production of the F-22 fighter at less than half of what the Air Force wanted, reduced funding for development of a new bomber and cut other key Air Force programs.

Although he did not mention his firing of the previous Air Force secretary and chief of staff, Gates praised the current leaders for their efforts to restore control and expertise in the strategic nuclear force of bombers and missiles, the rapid increase in unmanned reconnaissance aircraft in Iraq and Afghanistan - which he had demanded -- and other Air Force contributions to the irregular warfare currently occupying the U.S. military.

But he noted that only a small share of the total U.S. and Air Force budgets were going to the unconventional capabilities, and insisted that the 187 F-22s, the emerging F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and current fighters will ensure U.S. air dominance well into the future.

Gates won a burst of applause when he announced that "source-selection authority is returning to the Air Force for procurement of the KC-X tanker, with the draft request for proposals to follow shortly."

"I don't need to belabor the importance of getting this done soon and getting it done properly," he said, a reference to the past failed attempts to replace the badly aged KC-135 tanker fleet.

On Capitol Hill, at least one Boeing supporter, Rep. Norman Dicks, D-Wash., has requested a Pentagon briefing on Gates' decision to put the Air Force back in charge of the program, a spokesman said.

In his remarks, Gates assured the audience he is "committed to seeing that the United States has an airborne, long-range strike capability." But he warned that the new effort cannot repeat the mistakes of the B-2, which became so expensive that only 21 of the 132 planned were built.

Responding to a question from the audience, Gates said the preliminary nuclear review results showed the need for "large investments" in modernizing nuclear weapons production facilities and retaining weapons development expertise and, "in one or two cases, probably new designs that would be safer and more reliable."

Bush's own effort to develop new nuclear weapons was repeatedly blocked by Congress and a new warhead appeared to conflict with President Obama's support for reducing the nuclear stockpile.

But, Gates said: "We have no desire for new capabilities. We are concerned about modernizing and keeping safe the capability that everyone acknowledges we will need for some considerable period into the future."

"I also believe that these capabilities are enablers of arms control and our ability to reduce the size of our nuclear stockpile, when we have more confidence in the reliability of our weapons systems," he said.

Megan Scully contributed to this report.

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