Gates and the Future of the Military

Iraq, it has been noted, has been a strategic disaster for America. We have, in five short years, handed Iran pocket aces, depleted our military deployment capability, destroyed our popular and diplomatic reputation around the world, and cost ourselves the chance to catch Bin Laden. And that’s just the beginning.

The many lessons to be learned from Iraq will be studied by historians and scholars for decades. It is my strong belief that the neocon armchair warriors who cooked up the Iraq plan will be excoriated in perpetuity (and, I hope, charged with war crimes). But that is for another post. This post is about planning for the post-Iraq War world.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, an old school realist in the mold of Brent Scowcroft and George H.W. Bush, took over for the inept Donald Rumsfeld on December 18, 2006. He has recently given a couple of speeches reflecting his perception of the issues that will face the military in the future (the recent shake-up of the Air Force command was, in part, a response to his sense that procurement priorities are often out-of-whack).

Gates outlines a role for the military that is two-pronged. The first prong involves, of course, continuing to be prepared to fight wars against the rising conventional powers around the globe. The second prong, however, and this was the point of emphasis in these two speeches, was to prepare for asymmetrical warfare against terrorists and rogue nations.

From his speech to young Air Force officers at the Air War College (Maxwell, AL) on April 21, 2008:

“In an era when we are most likely to be challenged in asymmetric ways, I would ask you to think through how we can build the kinds of air capabilities most likely to be needed while continuing to offer a strategic hedge against rising powers.”

“Protecting the 21st Century’s “global commons” – in particular, space and cyberspace – has been identified and adopted as a key task.”

“These new realities and missions should be reflected in our training and doctrine. The Air Force will be increasingly called on to conduct civil-military or humanitarian operations with interagency and non-governmental partners, and deal directly with local populations. This will put a premium on foreign language and cultural expertise.”

“Furthermore, the counterinsurgency manual issued by the Army and Marines is over 200-pages long – and yet only 4 pages are dedicated to air, space, and cyberspace. Not long ago, the Air Force published a doctrine document on irregular warfare. But, as future leaders of air power, you should consider whether there is more the service might do to articulate and codify the unique role of airpower in stability operations.”

He goes on to question (and this in my mind is key) the bureaucracy and procurement policies at the Pentagon.

“Other questions I would ask you to consider go to the heart of how the service is organized, manned, and equipped. What new priorities should drive procurement and what new criteria should drive promotions?”

He quotes John Boyd, “a brilliant, eccentric, and stubborn” former Air Force colonel who “had to overcome a large measure of bureaucratic resistance and institutional hostility. He had some advice that he used to pass on to his colleagues and subordinates that is worth sharing with you. Boyd would say, and I quote: ‘one day you will take a fork in the road, and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. If you go [one] way, you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and get good assignments. Or you can go [the other] way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself … If you decide to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself … To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you have to make a decision. To be or to do?'”

Gates suggests Boyd as a role model for these young officers.

In the other speech, given on May 13, 2008, to the Heritage Foundation, Gates again addresses the procurement issue:

“First, I believe that any major weapons program, in order to remain viable, will have to show some utility and relevance to the kind of irregular campaigns that, as I mentioned, are most likely to engage America’s military in the coming decades.”

“Second, I would stress that the perennial procurement cycle – going back many decades – of adding layer upon layer of cost and complexity onto fewer and fewer platforms that take longer and longer to build must come to an end.”

He also addressed the stress on our ground forces:

“It is true that we would be hard-pressed to launch a major conventional ground operation elsewhere in the world at this time – but where would we sensibly do that? The United States has ample and untapped combat power in our naval and air forces, with the capacity to defeat any – repeat, any – adversary who committed an act of aggression – whether in the Persian Gulf, on the Korean Peninsula, or in the Straits of Taiwan. There is a risk – but a prudent and manageable one.”

The takeaway from these two speeches?

The American military has its work cut out for it. In addition to preparing for the rising threat of China (a future threat, not a present one) and whomever else, America must learn the key lesson of Iraq: that the enemy will choose the type of war we will fight, not Lockheed Martin or Paul Wolfowitz.

From Gates: “As I’ve told Army gatherings, the lessons learned and capabilities built from the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns need to be institutionalized into the service’s core doctrine, funding priorities, and personnel policies. And that is taking place, though we must always guard against falling into past historical patterns where, if bureaucratic nature takes its course, these kinds of irregular capabilities tend to slide to the margins.

From his mouth to God’s ears.


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