By Lisa Daniel
American Forces Press Service
May 21, 2010 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates returned to his career roots here tonight to accept a lifetime achievement award for his four decades of public service in U.S. intelligence and national security.
The Intelligence and National Security Alliance honored Gates and his wife, Becky, for their dedication to public service, and presented Gates with its William Oliver Baker Award for exceptional achievement in intelligence and national security. Recent past recipients include former U.S. Sen. John Warner, and James R. Clapper Jr., undersecretary of defense for intelligence.
Gates, a career CIA officer who served as director of the agency from 1991-1993, used the occasion to highlight progress and challenges in the intelligence community, and to honor its unsung heroes.
One of the most important and encouraging developments, the secretary said, is the growing collaboration among intelligence agencies and between intelligence and battlefield operations, primarily from the expanded use of unmanned aerial vehicles. There has been dramatic progress in the number, type and capabilities of UAVs and "commanders in the field have clamored for more because they are ideal for many of the tasks in today's wars," he said.
UAVs allow troops "the tremendous advantage" of seeing full-motion, real-time streaming video over a target – such as an insurgent planting a roadside bomb, Gates said. "These systems have been real game-changers, but their potential is just being tapped."
The secretary noted that the Israeli military began using UAVs long before the U.S. military, and that he, as CIA director, tried to get the Air Force to invest in the systems in the early 1990s, to no avail.
"As secretary of defense, I have a bit more say in what the military buys," Gates said, prompting laughter throughout the audience. "Today, we are pushing out as many UAVs as industry can produce. The Air Force is now training more pilots to fly unmanned systems than to fly fighters and bombers."
In the increased collaboration between agencies for intelligence sharing, Gates said, "fusion has become the watchword of intelligence operations in the post 9/11 world, and represents, in my opinion, one of our greatest accomplishments."
Still, Gates said, challenges remain in the intelligence community, namely using UAVs and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to their full potential, and ensuring that critical information reaches the widest appropriate audience. Despite improvements at the tactical and operations levels, he said, "I remain concerned about the quality of our intelligence at the political and strategic level. Knowing what other governments are capable of and, more importantly, what they intend, has always been a serious challenge for American intelligence, and it will remain so."
The secretary also paid tribute to intelligence professionals. "Their work is sometimes thankless, always dangerous, and utterly vital to our national security," he said, adding that the secrecy of their work keeps them out of public view.
"We all know that some of the greatest successes and victories of the intelligence community – based on extraordinary technical and human intelligence collection achievements and brilliant analysis – will never be known by your fellow Americans: attacks, plots and schemes that died anonymous, quiet, deserved deaths," Gates said. "These victories are celebrated with perhaps a raised coffee cup – or a glass of something stronger – in salute, or a quiet 'well done,' behind closed doors. Then, without fanfare, the silent, unending work of keeping our country safe begins again."