Gates on Defense


GATES ON DEFENSE….In Foreign Affairs, once and future Defense Secretary Robert Gates writes about the need for a greater focus within the Pentagon on counterinsurgency and prosecution of small wars:

One of the enduring issues the military struggles with is whether personnel and promotions systems designed to reward the command of American troops will be able to reflect the importance of advising, training, and equipping foreign troops — something still not considered a career-enhancing path for the best and brightest officers.

….As secretary of defense, I have repeatedly made the argument in favor of institutionalizing counterinsurgency skills and the ability to conduct stability and support operations. I have done so not because I fail to appreciate the importance of maintaining the United States’ current advantage in conventional war fighting but rather because conventional and strategic force modernization programs are already strongly supported in the services, in Congress, and by the defense industry. The base budget for fiscal year 2009, for example, contains more than $180 billion for procurement, research, and development, the overwhelming preponderance of which is for conventional systems.

….There is no doubt in my mind that conventional modernization programs will continue to have, and deserve, strong institutional and congressional support. I just want to make sure that the capabilities needed for the complex conflicts the United States is actually in and most likely to face in the foreseeable future also have strong and sustained institutional support over the long term. And I want to see a defense establishment that can make and implement decisions quickly in support of those on the battlefield.

In the end, the military capabilities needed cannot be separated from the cultural traits and the reward structure of the institutions the United States has: the signals sent by what gets funded, who gets promoted, what is taught in the academies and staff colleges, and how personnel are trained.

Gates’ full piece doesn’t contain any startling insights or bold new directions, but it certainly suggests that his basic sensibilities are fairly sound. The big question is whether he can do anything about it. He understands the obvious, namely that big weapons systems are so entrenched in the Iron Triangle of Pentagon procurement that they aren’t going away no matter what he does, so he’s set his sights fairly modestly. He just wants to redirect funding a bit and change the military personnel structure to reward counterinsurgency and nation building. It’s a limited vision, but as he says, funding and promotions are where the rubber meets the road. It’s the right place to start.

Fred Kaplan has more here, including a few specific suggestions for how Gates might turn his concept into reality. Also this: “My guess is that Obama said that he’ll back him up on this — not because I have inside information (I don’t), but because I doubt that Gates, who has been desperate to leave Washington and retire to his lakeside home in the Pacific Northwest practically since he arrived at the Pentagon, would have agreed to stay without Obama’s backing.”

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