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Gates sees difficult times ahead with North Korea

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Dec. 6: Defense Secretary Robert Gates watches flight operations from 'Vulture's Row', aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in the Arabian Sea. (AP)

Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned Monday that provocative actions by North Korea signal difficult and potentially dangerous times ahead, and he said the U.S. must work with China and others to bring stability to the peninsula.

Speaking to sailors on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, Gates said no one wants to see another war, so the U.S. needs to "figure out the way ahead with North Korea."

His comments came as Washington tried to smooth over embarrassing and critical chatter about China's rulers in a number of U.S. diplomatic documents released by WikiLeaks.

The documents discuss corruption in the Chinese Communist Party and allegations China's leaders unleashed hacker attacks against Google. Their release comes as U.S. officials are pushing China to take a tougher stance on North Korea.

Gates reassured the sailors on the Lincoln, however, that "I don't think it's likely that you'll make a detour there," to North Korea.

The Monday visit to the carrier — which is deployed in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Oman — gave Gates a firsthand look at the military's stepped-up air campaign in the Afghanistan War. Standing on Vulture's Row — a catwalk on the ship — Gates watched two F/A-18 Hornets roar off the ship, headed to support battlefield operations. The observation post sits above the expansive 4.5 acre flight deck on what is called the ship's "island."

Aviators have flown nearly 3,900 missions off the Lincoln in support of the war during the carrier's deployment, and almost 1,600 of those were during November.

The military's air war has been steadily escalating, with coalition aircraft dropping 1,000 bombs and missiles in October, one of the highest monthly totals in the war. Officials have said there has been a 20 percent increase in such sorties over last year, although operations may drop off a bit as the winter closes in.

"When your aircraft come screaming, our troops hear the sound of relief and the enemy knows what's coming next. You are delivering lethal blows to them and protecting the lives of our men and women on the battlefield," Gates told the sailors gathered on the ship. He added that they also have "been extraordinarily conscious about the need to avoid civilian casualties."

Airstrikes have been blamed for a rise in civilian casualties, prompting Afghan leaders, including President Hamid Karzai, to call for the U.S. and coalition partners to scale back the operations and do more to protect innocent people.

Former NATO commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal severely limited the circumstances in which troops could call in an airstrike or fire into buildings where civilians might be inside. But when Gen. David Petraeus took command in July, the air campaign intensified while still preserving the civilian safeguards and restriction.

The increase in air missions coincides with the troop surge of roughly 30,000 that President Barack Obama ordered, which allowed coalition forces to push more aggressively into insurgent strongholds.

Gates wasn't quite as optimistic about the war effort as President George W. Bush was during his infamous 2003 speech on the Lincoln, when the words "Mission Accomplished" graced a banner on the ship. Bush at that time declared that major combat operations had ended in Iraq.

The blue banner behind Gates simply read: USS Abraham Lincoln.

He arrived on the ship shortly after 10:30 a.m., took a tour, then spoke to a gathering of many of the 5,000 crew members on the ship.

In addition to the Hornets, Gates also watched an E-2C Hawkeye surveillance aircraft and an EA-6 Prowler electronic warfare aircraft land.

Gates also told the sailors he wasn't optimistic that Congress will overturn the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the armed forces before lawmakers leave for the holidays, even though he wishes they would.

Senate Democrats want to vote this month to overturn the 1993 law, which bans gays from serving openly. But Republicans have blocked the proposal, insisting that Congress deal instead with tax cuts and spending.

Gates told reporters on the ship that during his meeting with Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said, he urged the ruler to support sanctions against Iran. Oman is an ally of both the U.S. and Iran, and at times has served as a mediator between Tehran and the West.

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Defense Department: http://www.defenselink.mil

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