Gates Praises USS Lincoln’s Crew for War Contributions

MUSCAT, Oman, Dec. 6, 2010 — Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates today praised the crew of the USS Abra­ham Lin­coln for its sup­port of the war effort in Afghanistan.
Gates arrived aboard the Nimitz-class super­car­ri­er off the coast of Oman this morn­ing, and in addi­tion to tour­ing the ship, observ­ing oper­a­tions and meet­ing with small groups of crew mem­bers, he held an “all hands call” with hun­dreds of sailors.

USS Abraham Lincoln
Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates is briefed in the Com­bat Direc­tion Cen­ter while onboard the USS Abra­ham Lin­coln in the Gulf of Oman, Dec. 6, 2010.
DOD pho­to by Air Force Mas­ter Sgt. Jer­ry Mor­ri­son
Click to enlarge

“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.

Gates will remain aboard the car­ri­er overnight.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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