U.S. Must Win in Iraq, Focus on Asymmetric Threats, Gates Says
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo., May 13, 2008 Concerns that the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are distracting the military from preparing for future conflicts are unfounded, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today. Rather, he said, the military must heed the lessons of today's wars to prepare for the future.
The military must balance "today's demands versus tomorrow's contingencies; irregular and assymetric threats versus conventional threats," Gates said in a keynote speech before a Heritage Foundation-sponsored seminar titled, “The Military Beyond Iraq,” held at the Broadmoor resort here.
"As the world's remaining superpower, we have to be able to dissuade, deter, and if necessary, respond to challenges across the spectrum." he said.
Gates noted that "there is a good deal of debate" about whether the military is overemphasizing current demands, particularly in Iraq, to the deteriment of preparing for other potential risks.
Some people believe the resources expended and attention paid to operations in Iraq adversely affect U.S. military planning for potential different threats, compromises the ability to confront a contingency elsewhere in the world, and over-stresses U.S. ground troops, particularly the Army’s, Gates said.
The defense secretary described the concern as “Next-War-itis.”
It is difficult to predict future threats, Gates said. But he acknowledged, without naming countries, that today some “rising and resurgent powers with new wealth and ambition are pursuing military modernization programs. They must be watched closely and hedged against.”
Yet, finite knowledge and limited resources compel the United States to make choices and set priorities for its national security planning, Gates said.
“It is hard to conceive of any country confronting the United States directly in conventional terms -- ship to ship, fighter to fighter, tank to tank -- for some time to come,” he said.
But he added that "asymmetrical" warfare has confronted the United States and other nations for a quarter of a century now, and it likely will continue to be a pressing security issue in coming years. Guerilla fighters confronted the then-Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the late 1970s through the 1980s, and the United States fought guerrillas in Somalia in 1993, Gates noted.
Today, the Israelis are fighting guerillas in Lebanon, he said, while the United States is engaged in asymmetric battles against terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Smaller, irregular forces -- insurgents, guerillas, terrorists -- will find ways, as they always have, to frustrate and neutralize the advantages of larger, regular militaries,” Gates told the audience. “And even nation-states will try to exploit our perceived vulnerabilities in an asymmetric way, rather than play to our inherent strengths.”
Consequently, the United States probably will be fighting irregular, terrorist forces across the globe for some time to come, Gates predicted. Therefore, the capabilities the U.S. military will require in the years ahead, he said, “will often resemble the kinds of capabilities we need today.”
That’s why it is imperative that the U.S. military institutionalize the counterinsurgency capabilities it has gained from its experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, Gates said.
“What we must guard against is the kind of backsliding that has occurred in the past, where if nature takes its course, these kinds of capacities, that is, counterinsurgency, tend to wither on the vine,” Gates explained.
Today’s procurement programs should be able to support conventional warfare missions as well as operations in the asymmetrical realm, Gates said, noting he’s pleased with the performance of the mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles used in overseas theaters of operation. The MRAP casualty rate is one-third that of armored Humvees, he noted.
“These vehicles are saving lives,” Gates emphasized. Extremists in Afghanistan and Iraq have increasingly employed powerful improvised explosive devices and suicide-bomb attacks as their chief weapons, he said.
“There is a strong case to be made that IEDs and suicide bombings have become the weapons of choice for America’s most dangerous and likely adversaries, and the need to have a vehicle of this kind won’t go away,” Gates pointed out.
Gates acknowledged that U.S. ground forces are stretched tight with current deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, but he questioned critics who say the United States military needs the capability to launch another major ground operation elsewhere in the world.
The U.S. military has ample, untapped air and sea power “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,” Gates said.
Meanwhile, the Army is in the process of adding 65,000 additional soldiers, while the Marines are signing up another 27,000 troops, Gates noted. Morale is good across the armed services, he said, and the services’ recruiting and retention missions are exceeding goals.
Gates rejected claims that the Army is broken.
“Soldier for soldier, unit for unit, the Army is the best-trained, best-led, best-equipped it has ever been -- skilled and experienced in the arduous complexities of irregular warfare,” he pointed out.
The additional soldiers and Marines will produce shorter overseas tours, and improved programs will improve quality of life for soldiers and their families, Gates said.
“U.S. force levels in Iraq will decline over time; the debate taking place is mostly over the pacing,” Gates said.
The risk of overextending the Army is real, Gates said, noting that senior defense officials are closely monitoring statistics that indicate the stress soldiers are experiencing.
“But, I believe the risk is far greater -– to that institution, as well as to our country -- if we were to fail in Iraq,” the defense secretary emphasized.
“That is the war we are in; that is the war we must win,” Gates said.
Taking care of those serving in the military today is key to ensuring the nation has the quality of force it needs in the future, he noted.
"America's key asymmetric advantage is our people. And getting the present right when it comes to taking care of our men and women in uniform will go along way toward making sure we have the kind of force we need in the future," Gates said.
The secretary said he has spent much of this year focusing on the current needs and conflicts, to ensure that "all parts of the Defense Department is at war."
Gates cited correcting recent problems with some living conditions in Army barracks at Fort Bragg, N.C., fixing neglected outpatient facilities at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and spending $20 billion dollars on mine-resistance, ambush-protected vehicles to help save lives in Iraq.
"Young men and women who step forward and join this country's armed forces
must have confidence that they and their families will be taken care of if something happens on the battlefield," Gates said.
After his Heritage Foundation speech, Gates traveled to nearby Peterson Air Force Base to join Canadian Defense Minister Peter Gordon MacKay and Air Force Gen. Victor E. Renuart Jr., commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony that opened NORAD’s new command center.