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WASHINGTON, Sept. 16, 2009 – The foundation of America’s air power rests on a broad and versatile mix of capabilities, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today.

Speaking at the Air Force Association’s Air and Space Conference, Gates addressed the range of things the Air Force must be able to do in the future to protect America against an array of lethal and complex threats.

“At the high end of the spectrum is the F-22. It is far and away the best air-to-air fighter ever produced, and will ensure U.S. command of the skies for the next generation,” Gates said. “Our commitment to this aircraft is underscored by the 6 and-a half billion dollars provided over the next few years to upgrade the existing F-22 fleet to be fully mission-capable.”

The Defense Department is slated to purchase 187 F-22 Raptors, which Gates called “a great airplane” during a recent tour of two major defense contractors’ plants. Finite defense resources compelled the Pentagon to favor the F-35 Lightning II, an all-purpose aircraft that will cost less than half as much as the F-22, he said during that same trip.

The F-35, which Gates described today as the largest piece of the “U.S. air-dominance portfolio,” will be used by the Air Force, the Marine Corps and the Navy. The F-22 Raptor fighter is slated for exclusive use by the Air Force.

Though the F-35 lacks some of the high-end, air-to-air attributes of the F-22, the fifth-generation stealth aircraft spans a wide range of the conflict spectrum, he said, with cutting-edge capabilities in electronic warfare and suppressing enemy air defenses.

“Without question, the F-35 program represents an ambitious effort,” Gates said. “[It involves] more than 3,000 aircraft, counting all military services and foreign partners, 22 million lines of code [and] over $46 billion for development, plus an estimated $300 billion total in acquisition costs — a truly massive investment in the future of U.S. air power.”

The F-35 program has seen its share of rising costs, delays and other development issues, and likely will face more challenges, Gates acknowledged. The manufacturers recently assured the secretary that problems are being aggressively addressed, he added.

Joining the F-22 and the F-35 as a major player in the Air Force fleet is the unmanned aerial vehicle.

“The director of the Air Force’s unmanned task force has compared … UAV potential based on today’s systems to judging manned aircraft based on the Wright Brothers Flyer,” Gates said. “Large numbers of increasingly capable UAVs – when integrated with our fifth-generation fighters – potentially give the United States the ability to disrupt and overwhelm an adversary using mass and swarming tactics, adding a new dimension to the American way of war.

“In future years, these remotely piloted aircraft will get more numerous and more advanced, with great range and the ability to fight as well as survive,” he added.

This new century brings with it a “fiendish and complex” array of threats, Gates said.

“To overcome these challenges, we’ll call on all elements of America’s defense establishment – military, civilian, Congress, and industry, retired flag officers, veterans’ groups and military service organizations – to step up and be part of the solution,” he said, adding they’ll be asked to stretch their comfort zones and rethink long-standing assumptions. “I believe this is happening in the United States Air Force.”

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