The Associated Press reports, “In unusually blunt terms, Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Monday challenged the Air Force, whose leaders are under fire on several fronts, to contribute more to immediate wartime needs and to promote new thinking.”

The secretary made the remarks at the Air Force’s Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala. On the one hand, Gates’ concern is understandable. Losing in Iraq is not an option, and bringing stability and security to that nation  is not just the Army’s job.

The Air Force’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), for example, are used to patrol Iraqi streets for tell-tale signs of terrorist activities, such as placing Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Not surprisingly, those most skilled at directing and maneuvering UAVs are trained pilots.

The demand for pilots to guide UAVs competes with the demand to put pilots in planes. When pilots sit in remote-control rooms, they aren’t flying their planes — and their combat readiness to do their day jobs suffers.

So the Air Force is caught between demands to: 1) fight today’s fight; 2) maintain a trained and ready force for the next conflict; and 3) modernize for the future.

Harping on the Air Force for being stretched thin, however, is not the answer. What we need is an adequately funded military with the resources to do all three missions well.

Rather than pick on the Air Force, Secretary Gates would do better to join Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in ratcheting up the message to Congress that it needs to commit to sustained, adequate defense spending.

In a recent speech at The Heritage Foundation, Mullen again recommended a sustained commitment to spending at least 4 percent of GDP a year on national defense. This is a position advocated by Heritage and discussed in depth in the recent paper  “Providing for the Common Defense: Why 4 Percent?

Chairman Mullen attacked the claim that the war in Iraq  is bankrupting the economy. The war, of course, is not bringing on recession. Defense spending is actually low by historical measures. The Pentagon leadership should talking with a strong, united voice on this issue — rather pushing the services to make impossible choices.