CARLISLE BARRACKS, Pa.– In his two-and-a-half years as defense secretary, Robert M. Gates has had many hard decisions to make. But none, he said here Thursday, compare to the difficulty of sending men and women into combat.

“The rest of it all pales by comparison,” Gates told students at the Army War College here. “Knowing what I have to do, but knowing the consequences.”

Approving combat deployments, he said, is not an ethical issue for him, “but it is the toughest moral issue that I face.”

Gates made the comments during a question-and-answer session with the audience following a speech he gave about his recommended fiscal 2010 Defense Budget, his third such speech at a military college this week.

Responding to an audience member’s question, Gates said the decisions get tougher the higher in government a person climbs.“If there was a good option, somebody at a lower level would have made the decision and taken credit for it,” he said. “By the time a decision gets to the president or the secretary of defense, more often than not, you’re having to choose the least bad option. And the question that is always difficult is sending people into battle and knowing the cost.”

The secretary also spoke about the need for congressional oversight in departmental decisions. As a government worker for 43 years, Gates said he has always been guided by adherence to U.S. law.

“I have always believed that, as painful and frustrating as it can be, that congressional oversight, whether it’s over intelligence or over the military, is absolutely essential to keeping us all on the right track,” he said.

In the next few weeks, Gates said he anticipates interesting conversations with Congress members on his fiscal 2010 recommendations. “I actually kind of look forward to that because I think there is, in some areas, some misunderstanding about the nature of the decisions that have been made,” he said.

Gates also discussed changes in the way that DoD civilians are trained. “One of the areas where I am working on developing human capital is on the civilian side,” he said. “For a variety of reasons, a good part of the civilian part of our business has been turned over to contractors.”

There are more contractors working for the Defense Department than there are government employees, Gates said.

“We are in much the same situation in the whole acquisition, contracting and procurement world,” he said. “We have thousands and thousands and thousands of contractors helping us manage contractors. And so first thing we’re going to do is we’re going to rebuild the professional acquisition cadre in the Department of Defense – with professional civil servants.”

In the next five years, the goal is to put in 20,000 civil servants replacing contractors, Gates said. Next year he wants to start with 4,000.

The secretary also was questioned about the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on homosexuals in the military. “We will do what the president tells us to,” Gates said.

The policy is not just a policy, it is law, and the military will uphold the law, Gates said. “If the law changes, so will our policies,” he said.

Gates said he and Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have begun a dialogue on this issue with President Barack Obama. The issue is complex and difficult, and the force is already under considerable strain from two wars, he said.

“The president has been clear about where he wants to go and what he thinks needs to be done,” Gates said. “But I think that he is approaching this in a deliberate and cautious manner, so that if we do go down that road, we do it right and we do it in a way that mitigates any down sides.”

Gates said he agrees with that approach. “I believe this is something that needs to be done very, very carefully,” he said.

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