Pentagon's Gates to Face His Air Force Critics

Under fire in Air Force circles, Defense Secretary Robert Gates isn't afraid to meet them head on.

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By Paul Bedard, Washington Whispers

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, under fire in Air Force circles for capping the F-22 fighter program and firing the top brass a year ago in a leadership coup, has decided to go into the lion's den and address his harshest critics in the Air Force Association on Wednesday. His decision to speak at the group's annual conference came as a surprise to some in the community, who expected Gates to ignore the invitation and send representatives instead. But a Pentagon official said that Gates wants to address his recent moves and also boast about the efforts of the Air Force in Afghanistan and Iraq. "It's an opportunity for him to talk about all the Air Force has done, most of it unheralded," says an associate. "He also wants to explain his decisions to those most impacted."

The association is made up in part of retired pilots and Air Force brass who were shocked when Gates last year fired the Air Force secretary and chief of staff over reports of a nuclear mishap. The defense secretary also has caught flack for limiting the F-22 program to 187 aircraft and rapping Air Force staff for focusing too much on long-term security issues and not enough on the two wars. The upcoming appearance follows a pattern by Gates of taking on his most hostile critics, something he also did this month when he spent 45 minutes being interviewed by al Jazeera.

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