Balance at Heart of National Defense Strategy, Gates Says
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
FORT LESLEY J. McNAIR, D.C., Sept. 29, 2008 Noting that balance is at the center of the national defense strategy, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today he wants department personnel to look to the future, but not lose sight of what needs to be done now to win today’s wars.
Gates spoke to the students and faculty of the National Defense University here.
Balance is the key word in a number of areas, the secretary said. Balance is needed “between doing everything we can to prevail in the conflicts we are in and being prepared for other contingencies that might arise elsewhere or in the future,” he said.
It also is key to institutionalizing capabilities such as counterinsurgency and stability operations, helping nations build their own capacities, and maintaining the U.S. military advantage against the military forces of other nation states, the secretary said.
Finally, balance is needed between the traditional way of doing things and “shedding those cultural elements that are barriers to doing what needs to get done,” Gates said.
And all this needs to be done at a time when defense budgets will be constrained, he said. The secretary said he hopes the floor for the national defense funding will be 4 percent of gross domestic product. While this is more than 500 billion dollars, he said, “we still must set priorities and consider inescapable tradeoffs and opportunity costs.”
The international environment today is more complex and unpredictable than ever, Gates said, as security challenges run the gamut of threats.
“It is important to establish upfront that America’s ability to deal with threats for years to come will depend importantly on our performance in the conflicts of today,” he said. “To be blunt, to fail – or to be seen to fail – in either Iraq or Afghanistan would be a disastrous blow to our credibility, both among our friends and allies and among potential adversaries.”
Both Iraq and Afghanistan will continue to be important in the military’s future, the secretary said.
“In Afghanistan, as the president announced earlier this month, U.S. troop levels are rising, with the likelihood of more increases next year,” he said. “Given its terrain, poverty, neighborhood and tragic history, Afghanistan in many ways poses an even more complex and difficult long-term challenge than Iraq – one that, despite a large international effort, will require a significant American military and economic commitment for some time.”
The defense bureaucracy needs to pay attention to these current wars, Gates told the audience.
“For too many in the Pentagon, it has been business as usual, as opposed to a wartime footing and a wartime mentality,” he said. “When referring to ‘next-war-itis,’ I was not expressing opposition to thinking about and preparing for the future. … My point was simply that we must not be so preoccupied with preparing for future conventional and strategic conflicts that we neglect to provide both short-term and long-term all the capabilities necessary to fight and win conflicts such as we are in today.”
Support for conventional modernization programs is deeply embedded in the defense budget and bureaucracy, the secretary acknowledged.
“My fundamental concern is that there is not commensurate institutional support – including in the Pentagon – for the capabilities needed to win the wars we are in, and of the kinds of missions we are most likely to undertake in the future,” Gates said.
Although long-term efforts against terrorists and other extremists will require military force, “we also understand that over the long term, we cannot kill or capture our way to success,” Gates said.
“Where possible, kinetic operations should be subordinate to measures to promote better governance, economic programs to spur development, and efforts to address the grievances among the discontented from which the terrorists recruit,” he said.
The recent past has demonstrated vividly the consequences of failing to address adequately the dangers posed by insurgencies or failing states, Gates said.
“Terrorist networks can find sanctuary within the borders of a weak nation and strength within the chaos of social breakdown,” he said. “A nuclear-armed state could collapse into chaos and criminality.
“Let’s be honest with ourselves,” he continued. “The most likely catastrophic threats to our homeland – for example, an American city poisoned or reduced to rubble by a terrorist attack – are more likely to emanate from failing states than from aggressor states.”
The capabilities needed to deal with these scenarios cannot be considered exotic distractions or temporary diversions, the secretary said.
“We do not have the luxury of opting out because they do not conform to preferred notions of the American way of war,” he said.
Indeed, the military has made some impressive strides in recent years, Gates said, including steep increases in special operations forces. The Air Force has created a new air advisory program and a new career track for unmanned aerial operations. The Navy stood up a new expeditionary combat command and brought back its riverine units.
“New counterinsurgency and Army operations manuals, plus a new maritime strategy, have incorporated the lessons of recent years in service doctrine,” he added.
A variety of initiatives are under way that better integrate and coordinate U.S. military efforts with civilian agencies and engage the expertise of the private sector, including nongovernmental organizations and academia, Gates pointed out. But the need for “hard power” – traditional military force – still exists, he said.
“The United States still has to contend with the security challenges posed by the military forces of other countries – from those actively hostile to those that are at strategic crossroads,” the secretary said.
Russian tanks rolling into Georgia provided a reminder that nations and traditional military power still matter, he said.
“Both Russia and China have increased their defense spending and modernization programs, to include air defense and fighter capabilities that in some cases approach our own,” Gates said. “In addition, there is the potentially toxic mix of rogue nations, terrorist groups, and nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.”
North Korea, Iran and terrorist networks all seek an asymmetric advantage, the secretary told the audience, and the United States cannot take traditional dominance for granted.
“Many of America’s refueling tankers and some fighters are now older than the pilots who fly them,” he said. “As a result of the demands of Afghanistan and Iraq, the ground forces have not been able to stay proficient in specialties such as field artillery in the Army and amphibious operations in the Marine Corps. We must remedy this as soon as we can through growing the ground forces, and increasing dwell time and opportunities for full-spectrum training.”
Though the Navy has shrunk too much, Gates said, it is important to remember that in terms of tonnage, its battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies of the world combined – and 11 of those 13 navies are allies or partners, he noted.
“No other navy has anything comparable to the reach or combat power of a single American carrier strike group,” Gates said.
The latest national defense strategy concluded that although U.S. predominance in conventional warfare is not unchallenged, it is sustainable given current trends.
“As we think about this range of threats, it is common to define and divide the so-called ‘high end’ from the ‘low end,’ the conventional from the irregular -- armored divisions on one side, guerrillas toting AK-47s on the other,” the secretary said. “We can expect to see more tools and tactics of destruction – from the sophisticated to the simple – being employed simultaneously in hybrid and more complex forms of warfare.”
For example, Russia augmented its conventional offensive in Georgia with a sophisticated cyber attack, and a well-coordinated propaganda campaign.
“Conversely, militias, insurgent groups, other nonstate actors and third-world militaries are increasingly acquiring more technology, lethality, and sophistication – as illustrated by the losses and propaganda victory that Hezbollah was able to inflict on Israel two years ago,” Gates said.
“As we can expect a blended, high-low mix of adversaries and types of conflict, so too should America seek a better balance in the portfolio of capabilities we have – the types of units we field, the weapons we buy, the training we do,” he said.
Conventional American military programs seek a 99 percent solution over several years, Gates said. But current stability and counterinsurgency missions – those in Iraq and Afghanistan -- require 75 percent solutions delivered in months.
“The challenge is whether in our bureaucracy and in our minds these two different paradigms can be made to coexist,” he said.
The key is to make sure that strategy and risk assessment drive procurement, rather than the other way around, he said. “The two models can – and do – coexist,” he said. “Being able to fight and adapt to a diverse range of conflicts … lands squarely in the long history and finest traditions of the American practice of arms.”
Gates noted that the Defense Department’s transformation has played out in full view in Iraq, sometimes hampered by entrenched practices and bureaucracy.
“In Iraq, we’ve seen how an army that was basically a smaller version of the Cold War force can become an effective instrument of counterinsurgency,” he said. “But that came at a frightful human, financial and political cost. For every heroic and resourceful innovation by troops and commanders on the battlefield, there was some institutional shortcoming they had to overcome at the Pentagon.”
One of the enduring issues the U.S. military struggles with is whether personnel and promotions systems designed to reward command of American troops will be able to reflect the importance of advising, training and equipping foreign troops, the secretary said.
“In the end, the military capabilities we need cannot be separated from the cultural traits and reward structure of the institutions we have: the signals sent by what gets funded, who gets promoted, what is taught in the academies and staff colleges and how we train,” he said.
Gates cautioned the audience that military action isn’t always appropriate when a crisis arises.
“The power of our military’s global reach has been an indispensable contributor to world peace – and must remain so,” he said. “But not every outrage, every act of aggression, every crisis can or should elicit an American military response, and we should acknowledge such.”
Though military might quickly toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan and drove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, Gates said, officials need to be modest about what military force and technology can accomplish.
“The advances in precision, sensor, information and satellite technology have led to extraordinary gains in what the U.S. military can do,” Gates said. “The Taliban were dispatched within three months; Saddam’s regime toppled in three weeks.
“But also never neglect the psychological, cultural, political and human dimensions of warfare, which is inevitably tragic, inefficient and uncertain. Be skeptical of systems analysis, computer models, game theories or doctrines that suggest otherwise.”