Air Force leaders of the 21st century must apply a view that balances traditional roles with the reality of new and emerging threats in determining their service’s needs and capabilities, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today.

In a speech during what he said would be his final visit to the U.S. Air Force Academy before he retires, Gates noted that when he took office in 2006, a 20th-century world view still existed to a great extent in all of the services.

“They were largely oriented toward winning big battles in big wars against nation-states comparably armed and equipped, even as our military was struggling to defeat insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said. “More than five years after 9/11, all the services were only then beginning to undertake the changes required to prevail in the more diverse and uncertain security environment of this century.”

Gates said a priority of his tenure as defense secretary has been to speed up institutional change to ensure that the military is responding to the urgent needs of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan while simultaneously investing in and preparing for future threats, including global terrorism, ethnic conflicts, rogue nations and rising powers with increasingly sophisticated capabilities.

“I freely acknowledge that this focus has, at various times, brushed up against the traditional preferences and bureaucratic sacred cows of all the services –- including the Air Force,” he said. “Almost three years ago, I challenged the Air Force, and indeed our entire military, to do more — much more — to get needed unmanned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets into theater, a process I compared to pulling teeth.”

Gates noted that he also questioned whether the Air Force has the right mix of platforms for the future, leading some to believe he “had it in for the Air Force.”

“But far from being a skeptic of air power,” he added, “I believe that air supremacy –- in all its components –- will be indispensable to maintaining American military strength, deterrence, and global reach for decades to come.”

The Air Force, to a degree, is a victim of its own success, Gates said, noting that air supremacy has resulted in 40 years passing since the United States lost an aircraft in combat, and that no American soldier has been attacked by enemy aircraft since the Korean War.

“American ownership of the skies has been so effortless it is taken for granted,” the secretary said. “Air supremacy in this century, however, will almost certainly mean different things, and require different systems, personnel policies, and thinking than was the case for most of the Cold War.”

Such a change can be difficult for any large, successful organization, Gates said, noting that all of the services are dealing with the fact that some of their traditional strengths have not featured prominently in the conflicts over the last decade.

“Each [service] has had a traditional orientation -– rooted originally in World War II and the Cold War, then reinforced in the 1991 Persian Gulf campaign -– that has been, to varying degrees, neglected in the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns: blue-water carrier ops in the case of the Navy, mechanized combined arms warfare for the Army, and amphibious assault for the Marine Corps,” the secretary said.

Because the Air Force’s traditional orientation has been air-to-air combat and strategic bombing, Gates said, members of that community have so dominated the service’s leadership and culture that other critical missions and new capabilities were subordinated and neglected.

“I recall in the early 1990s, when I was director of CIA, I pushed to get [unmanned aerial vehicles] into development, because they represented a less risky and far more versatile means of gathering data in the field, and other nations like Israel were using them effectively,” he said. “In 1992, however, the Air Force would not co-fund with CIA an aircraft without a pilot.”

While emphasizing that he strongly believes the United States military always will need manned flight, the secretary said he also believes remotely piloted vehicles for reconnaissance and strike missions have enormous strategic and cultural implications. But that doesn’t mean they’re the answer to every potential challenge, he added.

“Even given the potential game-changing capabilities of UAVs, we do not want to engage in the kind of techno-optimism about remote-control warfare that has muddled strategic thinking in the past,” Gates said. “The Air Force -– and all the services –- are seeking to find the right balance between preserving what is unique and valuable in their traditions while making the adjustments needed to win the wars of today and prepare for likely future threats.”

Though it’s primarily a ground engagement, the secretary said, the current campaign in Afghanistan has demonstrated the global reach, effectiveness and necessity of U.S. air power.

“The pace of air operations in support of soldiers and Marines has surged over the past year, and that has played an important role in rolling back the Taliban from their strongholds,” he said. “In 2010, the Air Force completed more than 33,000 close-air support sorties in Afghanistan, an increase of more than 20 percent compared to the year before.” Meanwhile, he added, combined intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sorties in Iraq and Afghanistan have almost doubled since 2008 and tripled since 2007.

The Air Force has 48 Predator and Reaper combat air patrols currently flying, compared to 18 in 2007, and is training more pilots for advanced UAVs than for any other single weapons system, Gates noted. “Nonetheless,” he added, “the demand from commanders for ISR continues to outpace supply, and we must press on to ensure that everything that can be done is being done to give our troops downrange what they need to survive and succeed on the battlefield.”

The work of air mobility forces has been equally important, the secretary said, pointing out that last year they airlifted nearly 300,000 short tons of cargo while accomplishing a major drawdown in Iraq and supporting the simultaneous surge in Afghanistan.

“And the Air Force airdropped more than 60 million pounds of supplies for Operation Enduring Freedom, almost double the total from 2009,” he said. “Our airmen, as you know, are also playing the critical role of life-savers –- completing 9,700 personnel recovery sorties in 2010 alone. All told, the expertise and courage of Air Force search and rescue teams are making the goal of the ‘golden hour’ medevac a reality in Afghanistan.”

The “golden hour” refers to the significantly higher survival rate for servicemembers who are evacuated to a medical facility within an hour after being wounded.

“Without all of the efforts and exertions of tens of thousands airmen, many of them on the ground –- including engineers, security forces, medical personnel, explosive ordnance disposal experts –- the entire U.S. war effort would simply grind to a halt,” Gates said.

But despite the versatility the Air Force has shown in recent years, the secretary said, he senses a feeling in some quarters that when he leaves office, the service can return “to what some consider to be the real Air Force normal.”

“This must not happen,” Gates said, adding that the stability and security missions, counterterrorism, the ‘train, assist and equip’ mission, persistent battlefield ISR, close-air support, search and rescue, and transport missions are here to stay beyond the current conflicts.

“Air Force leaders now and in the future must have a comprehensive and integrated view of the service’s future needs and capabilities, including the service’s important role in cyber and space –- a view that encompasses with equal emphasis all of its varied missions,” the secretary said, including the requirement for more sophisticated, high-end capabilities. Given enough time, money and technological know-how, he explained, a future adversary could threaten U.S. command of the skies.

Though he has worked to incorporate the lessons of the current conflicts, Gates noted, he has committed the Defense Department to spend $300 billion on 2,400 F-35 joint strike fighters.

“Having a robust, large quantity of fifth-generation tactical air fighters is something I view as a core requirement, and in this era of increasing budget constraints, my goal has been to ensure that core capabilities of all the services are protected,” he said. “This has meant increasing development funding for the F-35, scaling back or cutting other programs that are not as essential, and intervening directly to get the program on track, on budget, and on schedule.”

At the same time, he said, the decision was made not to buy more than the 187 F-22 fighter jets already planned.

“As I have said before, the F-22 is far and away the best air-to-air fighter ever produced, and it will ensure U.S. command of the skies for the next generation,” the secretary said. “But in assessing how many F-22s the Air Force needed, the department had to make choices and set priorities among competing demands and risks.” Buying more F-22s, he added, would have limited funds for other air power capabilities where the military was underinvested relative to the threat.

The U.S. military faces a broadening spectrum of conflict in an era of fiscal duress, Gates said, so it needs to invest its resources in capabilities that can function across the broadest possible range of scenarios.

“One of the ways that spectrum will broaden is with the emergence of high-end, asymmetric threats,” he said. “Indeed, looking at capabilities that China and others are developing -– long-range precision weapons, including anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, quieter submarines, advanced air defense missiles –- and what the Iranians and North Koreans are up to, they appear designed to neutralize the advantages the U.S. military has enjoyed since the end of the Cold War.” Those advantages, he added, include unfettered freedom of movement and the ability to project power around the globe by surging aircraft, ships, troops and supplies.

Gates said the Air Force will play a lead role in maintaining U.S. military supremacy in the face of what he called “this anti-access, area-denial strategy.”

“In fact, as you may know, the Air Force and Navy have been working together on an Air Sea Battle concept that has the potential to do for America’s military deterrent power at the beginning of the 21st century what Air Land Battle did near the end of the 20th,” he said. “The leadership of the Air Force and Navy, who are collaborating closely on this new doctrine, recognize the enormous potential in developing new joint warfighting capabilities –- think of naval forces in airfield defense, or stealth bombers augmented by Navy submarines -– and the clear benefits from this more efficient use of taxpayer dollars.”

Although program cuts and cancellations tend to make headlines, the secretary said, the Air Force actually is investing in significant new modernization programs. The budget that President Barack Obama submitted to Congress last month includes funds for a joint portfolio of long-range strike systems, including a new, optionally manned, nuclear-capable, penetrating Air Force bomber, Gates noted.

“The budget also funds F-22 modernization that leverages radar and electronic protection technologies from the F-35 program to ensure the F-22’s continued dominance,” he added. “Meanwhile, the multi-billion-dollar effort to modernize the radars of F-15s will keep this key fighter viable into the future.”

The budget request also provides for a new follow-on to the medium range air-to-air missile that will have greater range, lethality and protection against electronic jamming, Gates said.

Nuclear deterrence will remain a key aspect of the Air Force’s portfolio, the secretary said.

“America’s nuclear deterrent –- including the missile and bomber legs maintained by the Air Force -– will remain a critical guarantor of our security, even as the nation works toward the long-term goal of a world without nuclear weapons,” he said.

After his remarks, Gates –- who holds a doctorate in Soviet history from Georgetown University –- taught a seminar in political science and a class in the politics of national security to academy cadets.