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National Defense University (Washington, D.C.)
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Washington, D.C., Monday, September 29, 2008

          Thank you Colonel Noto.  I appreciate this opportunity to address this class at National Defense University. I congratulate you all for being selected for the courses you are in, and thank you for your career of service to our country.
          This morning, I’d like to discuss some of the ideas and analysis, as well as points of contention, behind the National Defense Strategy – and then offer my perspective on its institutional implications. In effect, what this means for the current and future American way of war. This is going to take a little time and I hope you’ll bear with me. Just be thankful it’s not an after-dinner speech.  I also confess that I'm fighting a cold and should I literally choke up in the middle of this thing I have an able understudy who will come up and finish this thing while I sit there and grade his performance.
          The defining principle driving our strategy is balance. I note at the outset that balance is not the same as treating all challenges as having equal priority. We cannot expect to eliminate risk through higher defense budgets, to, in effect “do everything, buy everything.”
          Resources are scarce – and yes, it is a sign I’ve already been at the Pentagon for too long to say that with a straight face when talking about a half trillion dollar base budget. Nonetheless, we still must set priorities and consider inescapable tradeoffs and opportunity costs.
          So, this morning, I want to discuss the span of threats our country faces, assess the military capabilities we need, and then offer some thoughts on the shifts required for the U.S. defense establishment – in priorities, procurement, and institutional culture – as we assess and balance future risk. Lest there be any doubt, this is a speech about hard power.
          As I said a moment ago, the theme of the National Defense Strategy is balance. The balance we are striving for is: 
           • 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;
           • Between institutionalizing capabilities such as counterinsurgency and stability operations, as well as helping partners build capacity, and maintaining our traditional edge – above all, the technological edge – against the military forces of other nation states; and 
          • Between retaining those cultural traits that have made the United States armed forces successful by inspiring and motivating the people within them, and shedding those cultural elements that are barriers to doing what needs to be done.
          As we’ve seen in recent years, and again in recent weeks, in so many ways, the basic nature of man and the iron realities of nations have not changed, despite the fondest hopes of so many for so long, especially after the end of the Cold War. What has changed is that the international environment today is more complex and unpredictable perhaps than it has ever been.
          As we think about the security challenges on the horizon, it is important to establish up front that America’s ability to deal with threats for years to come will depend importantly on our performance in the conflicts of today. 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.
          In Iraq, the number of U.S. combat units in-country will decline over time. About the only argument you hear now is about the pacing of the drawdown. Still, no matter who is elected president in November, there will continue to be some kind of American advisory and counter-terrorism effort in Iraq for years to come.
          In Afghanistan, as the president announced earlier this month, U.S. troop levels are rising, with the likelihood of more increases next year. 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.
          In the past I have expressed frustration over the defense bureaucracy’s priorities and lack of urgency when it came to the current conflicts – that for too many in the Pentagon it has been business as usual, as opposed to a wartime footing and a wartime mentality. When referring to “Next-War-itis,” I was not expressing opposition to thinking about and preparing for the future. It would be irresponsible not to do so – and the overwhelming majority of people in the Pentagon, the services, and the defense industry do just that. 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 our budget, in our bureaucracy, in the defense industry, and in Congress. 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.
          What is dubbed the war on terror is, in grim reality, a prolonged, world-wide irregular campaign – a struggle between the forces of violent extremism and moderation. In the long-term effort against terrorist networks and other extremists, we know that direct military force will continue to have a role. But we also understand that over the long term, we cannot kill or capture our way to victory. 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. It will take the patient accumulation of quiet successes over a long time to discredit and defeat extremist movements and their ideology. As the National Defense Strategy puts it, success will require us to “tap the full strength of America and its people” – civilian and military, public sector and private.
          We are unlikely to repeat another Iraq or Afghanistan anytime soon – that is, forced regime change followed by nation-building under fire. But that doesn’t mean we may not face similar challenges in a variety of locales. Where possible, our strategy is to employ indirect approaches – primarily through building the capacity of partner governments and their security forces – to prevent festering problems from turning into crises that require costly and controversial American military intervention. In this kind of effort, the capabilities of our allies and partners may be as important as our own and building their capacity, is arguably as important if not more so, than the fighting we do ourselves.
          That these kinds of missions are more frequent does not necessarily mean, for risk assessment purposes, that they automatically should have a higher priority for the purposes of military readiness. And, it is true that many past interventions have had significant humanitarian considerations. However, the recent past vividly demonstrated the consequences of failing adequately to address the dangers posed by insurgencies and failing states. Terrorist networks can find a sanctuary within the borders of a weak nation and strength within the chaos of social breakdown. A nuclear-armed state could collapse into chaos and criminality. Let’s be honest with ourselves. 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 kind of capabilities needed to deal with these scenarios cannot be considered exotic distractions or temporary diversions. We do not have the luxury of opting out because they do not conform to preferred notions of the American way of war.
          Furthermore, even the biggest of wars will require so-called “small wars” capabilities. Ever since General Winfield Scott led his army into Mexico in the 1840s, nearly every major deployment of American forces has led to subsequently longer military presence to maintain stability. General Eisenhower, when tasked with administering North Africa in 1942, wrote, “The sooner I can get rid of these questions that are outside the military in scope, the happier I will be! Sometimes, I think I live 10 years each week, of which at least nine are absorbed in political and economic matters.” And yet, in Eisenhower, General George Marshall knew he had the “almost perfect model of a modern commander: part soldier, part diplomat, part administrator.” This model is as important and real today as it was 70 years ago.
          Whether in the midst of or in the aftermath of any major conflict, the requirement for the U.S. military to maintain security, provide aid and comfort, begin reconstruction, and stand up local government and public services will not go away. Even with a better-funded State Department and U.S.A.I.D., future military commanders will no more be able to rid themselves of these tasks than Eisenhower was. To paraphrase what a former U.N. Secretary General said about peacekeeping, it is not a soldier’s job but sometimes only a soldier can do it. To truly achieve victory as Clausewitz defined it – to attain a political objective – the U.S. military’s ability to kick down the door must be matched by our ability to clean up the mess and even rebuild the house afterward.
          Given these realities, the military has made some impressive strides in recent years:
          • Special operations have received steep increases in funding and personnel;
          • The Air Force has created a new air advisory program and two weeks ago, General Schwartz announced 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. To the traditional principles of war have been added perseverance, restraint, and legitimacy; 
          • Train and equip authorities and programs allow us to move more quickly to build the security capacity of partner nations; and
          • A variety of initiatives are underway that better integrate and coordinate U.S. military efforts with civilian agencies as well as engage the expertise of the private sector, including NGOs and academia.
          Retired Marine Colonel T.X. Hammes has noted that where past insurgencies consisted of military campaigns supported by information operations, they now often consist of strategic communications campaigns supported by military operations. In Iraq and Afghanistan, extremists have made deft use of the internet and propaganda to misinform and intimidate local populations – the swing voters, if you will, in these struggles. Many defense leaders – including myself – have bemoaned the U.S. government’s limitations in this area. Our troops have made some ingenious adaptations, such as in Iraq, for example, they set up the "voice of Ramadi" broadcast to counter what was spewing forth from extremist mosques.
          The Quadrennial Defense Review highlighted the importance of strategic communications as a vital capability, and good work has been done since. However, we can't lapse into using communications as a crutch for shortcomings in policy or execution. As Admiral Mullen has noted, in the broader battle for hearts and minds abroad, we have to be as good at listening to others as we are at telling them our story. And when it comes to perceptions at home, when all is said and done, the best way to convince the American people we're winning a war is through credible and demonstrable results, as we have done in Iraq.
          Even as we hone and institutionalize new and unconventional skills, 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 at strategic crossroads.
          The images of Russian tanks rolling into the Republic of Georgia last month was a reminder that nation-states and their militaries do still matter. 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.
          In addition, there is the potentially toxic mix of rogue nations, terrorist groups, and nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. North Korea has built several bombs, and Iran seeks to join the nuclear club. North Korea is impoverished, literally starving, while Iran sits on a sea of oil. Both have primitive ground offensive capabilities and ballistic missile programs of increasing range. Both have a record of proliferation, and ties to criminal groups or terrorist networks.
          What all these potential adversaries have in common – from terrorist cells to rogue nations to rising powers – is that they have learned over time that it is not wise to confront the United States directly or on conventional military terms.
          Nonetheless, we cannot take this traditional dominance for granted. Many of America’s refueling tankers and some fighters are now older than the pilots who fly them. 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.
          But in making the risk assessment associated with near-peer competitors, in judging where we can make tradeoffs, it is important to keep some perspective. It is generally agreed, for example, that the U.S. Navy has shrunk too much since the end of the Cold War – a view I share. But it is also true that in terms of tonnage, the battle fleet of the United States Navy, by one estimate, is larger than the next 13 navies  combined – and 11 of those 13 navies are allies or partners. No other navy has anything comparable to the reach or combat power of a single American Carrier Strike Group.
          Russian tanks and artillery may have crushed Georgia’s tiny military. But before we begin rearming for another Cold War, remember that what’s driving Russia is a desire to exorcise past humiliation and dominate their near abroad – not an ideologically driven campaign to dominate the globe. As someone who used to prepare estimates of Soviet military strength for several presidents, I can say that the Russian conventional military, though vastly improved since its nadir in the late 1990s, remains a shadow of its Soviet predecessor. And Russian demographics will likely impede its numbers getting much larger. Though Russia’s recent air and naval forays into this hemisphere have grabbed headlines, it’s also worth nothing that in the last 15 years the Russian navy has launched just two new major warships. Russia does present serious challenges, but ones very different from the past.
          All told, this year’s National Defense Strategy concluded that although U.S. predominance in conventional warfare is not unchallenged, it is sustainable for the medium term given current trends. It is true that the United States would be hard pressed to fight a major conventional ground war elsewhere on short notice, but as I’ve said before, where on Earth would we do that? We have ample, untapped striking power in our air and sea forces should the need arise to deter or punish aggression – whether on the Korean Peninsula, in the Persian Gulf, or across the Taiwan Strait. So while we are knowingly assuming some additional risk in this area, that risk is, I believe, a prudent and manageable one.
          Other nations may be unwilling to challenge the United States fighter to fighter, ship to ship, tank to tank. But they are developing the disruptive means to blunt the impact of American power, narrow our military options, and deny us freedom of movement and action.
          In the case of China, investments in cyber-and anti-satellite warfare, anti-air and anti-ship weaponry, submarines, and ballistic missiles could threaten America’s primary means to project power and help allies in the Pacific: our bases, air and sea assets, and the networks that support them. This will put a premium on America’s ability to strike from over the horizon, employ missile defenses, and will require shifts from short-range to longer-range systems such as the Next Generation Bomber.
          And even though the days of hair-trigger superpower confrontation are over, as long as other nations possess the bomb and the means to deliver it, the United States must maintain a credible strategic deterrent. Towards this end, the Department of Defense and the Air Force have taken firm steps to return excellence and accountability to our nuclear stewardship. We also need the Congress to fund the Reliable Replacement Warhead Program – for safety, for security, and for a more reliable deterrent.
         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. In reality, as professor Colin Gray has noted, the categories of warfare are blurring and do not fit into neat, tidy boxes. 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.
         Russia’s relatively crude – though brutally effective – conventional offensive in Georgia was augmented with a sophisticated cyber attack and a well coordinated propaganda campaign. We saw a different version during the invasion of Iraq, where Saddam Hussein dispatched his swarming, paramilitary Fedayeen along with the T-72s of the Republican Guard.
          Conversely, militias, insurgent groups, other non-state 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. Hezbollah’s restocked arsenal of rockets and missiles now dwarfs the inventory of many nation-states. Furthermore, Russian and Chinese arms sales are putting advanced capabilities – both offensive and defensive – in the hands of more countries and groups.
          As defense scholars have noted, these hybrid scenarios combine the “lethality of state conflict with the fanatical and protracted fervor of irregular warfare.” Where “Microsoft coexists with machetes, and stealth … is met by suicide bombers.”
          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.
          When it comes to procurement, for the better part of five decades, the trend has gone towards lower numbers as technology gains made each system more capable. In recent years these platforms have grown ever more baroque, ever more costly, are taking longer to build, and are being fielded in ever dwindling quantities.
          Given that resources are not unlimited, the dynamic of exchanging numbers for capability is perhaps reaching a point of diminishing returns. A given ship or aircraft – no matter how capable, or well-equipped – can only be in one place at one time – and, to state the obvious, when one is sunk or shot down, there is one less of them.
          In addition, the prevailing view for decades was that weapons and units designed for the so-called high-end could also be used for the low. And it has worked to some extent: Strategic bombers designed to obliterate cities have been used as close air support for riflemen on horseback. M-1 tanks designed to plug the Fulda Gap routed insurgents in Fallujah and Najaf. Billion dollar ships are employed to track pirates and deliver humanitarian aid. And the Army is spinning out parts of the Future Combat Systems – as they move from drawing board to reality – so they could be available and usable for our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
          The need for the state-of-the-art systems – particularly longer range capabilities – will never go away, as we strive to offset the countermeasures being developed by other nations. But at a certain point, given the types of situations we are likely to face – and given, for example, the struggles to field up-armored HUMVEES, MRAPs, and ISR in Iraq – it begs the question whether specialized, often relatively low-tech equipment for stability and counterinsurgency missions is also needed.
          And how do we institutionalize procurement of such capabilities – and the ability to get them fielded quickly? Why did we have to go outside the normal bureaucratic process to develop counter-IED technologies, to build MRAPs, and to quickly expand our ISR capability? In short, why did we have to bypass existing institutions and procedures to get the capabilities we need to protect our troops and pursue the wars we are in?
          Our conventional modernization programs seek a 99 percent solution in years. Stability and counterinsurgency missions – the wars we are in – require 75 percent solutions in months. The challenge is whether in our bureaucracy and in our minds these two different paradigms can be made to coexist.
          At the Air War College earlier this year, I asked whether it made sense in situations where we have total air dominance to employ lower-cost, lower-tech aircraft that can be employed in large quantities and used by our partners. This is already happening now in the field with Task Force Odin in Iraq, where advanced sensors were mated with turboprop aircraft to produce a massive increase in the amount of surveillance and reconnaissance coverage. The issue then becomes how we build this kind of innovative thinking and flexibility into our rigid procurement processes here at home. The key is to make sure that the strategy and risk assessment drives the procurement, rather than the other way around.
          I believe we must do this. The two models can – and do – coexist. Being able to fight and adapt to a diverse range of conflicts – sometimes all at once – lands squarely in the long history and finest traditions of the American practice of arms. In the Revolutionary War, tight formations drilled by Baron Von Steuben fought Redcoats in the north, while guerrillas led by Francis Marion harassed them in the South. During the 1920s and 30s, the Marine Corps conducted what we would call now stability operations in the Caribbean, wrote the Small Wars Manual, and at the same time developed the amphibious landing techniques that would help liberate Europe and the Pacific in the following decade.
          And then consider General “Black Jack” Pershing, behind whose desk I sit. Before commanding the American Expeditionary Force in Europe, Pershing led a platoon of Sioux Indian scouts, rode with Buffalo soldiers up San Juan Hill, won the respect of the Moros in the Philippines, and chased Pancho Villa in Mexico.
          In Iraq, we’ve seen how an army that was basically a smaller version of the Cold War force can over time become an effective instrument of counterinsurgency. 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 at the Pentagon they had to overcome. Your task, particularly for those of you going back to the services, is to support the institutional changes necessary so the next set of colonels, captains, and sergeants will not have to be quite so heroic or quite so resourceful.
          One of the enduring issues our 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 – which is still not considered a career-enhancing path for our best and brightest officers. Or whether formations and units organized, trained, and equipped to destroy enemies can be adapted well enough, and fast enough, to dissuade or co-opt them – or, more significantly, to build the capacity of local security forces to do the dissuading and destroying.
          As you know, I’ve spent much of the last year making the argument in favor of institutionalizing counterinsurgency skills, and our ability to conduct stability and support operations. This begs a fair question: If balance between high- and low-end capabilities is so important, and we cannot lose our conventional edge, why spend so much time talking about irregular or asymmetric warfare?
         As I suggested earlier in my remarks, the reality is that conventional and strategic force modernization programs are strongly supported in the services, in the Congress, and by the defense industry. For reasons laid out today, I also support them. For example, this year’s base budget for FY09 contains more than $180 billion in procurement, research and development, the overwhelming preponderance of which is for conventional systems.
          However, apart from the special forces community and some dissident colonels, for decades there has been no strong, deeply rooted constituency inside the Pentagon or elsewhere for institutionalizing our capabilities to wage asymmetric or irregular conflict – and to quickly meet the ever-changing needs of our forces engaged in these conflicts.
          Think of where our forces have been sent and have been engaged over the last 40-plus years: Vietnam, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa, and more. In fact, the first Gulf War stands alone in over two generations of constant military engagement as a more or less traditional conventional conflict from beginning to end. As then-Marine Commandant Charles Krulak predicted 10 years ago today, instead of the beloved “son of Desert Storm,” western militaries are confronted with the unwanted “step child of Chechnya.”
          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 we need for the complex conflicts we're actually in and most likely to face in the foreseeable future also have strong institutional support and are sustained long-term. And I want to see an institution that can make and implement decisions quickly in support of those on the battlefield.
          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.
      Thirty-six years ago, my old CIA colleague Bob Komer, who led the pacification campaign in Vietnam, published his classic study of organizational behavior called Bureaucracy Does Its Thing. Looking at the performance of the U.S. national security apparatus during that conflict – military and civilian – he identified a number of tendencies that prevented institutions from adapting long after problems had been identified and solutions were proposed:
          • The reluctance to change preferred ways of functioning, and when faced with lack of results, to do more of the same;
          • Trying to run a war with peacetime management structure and practices;
          • A belief that the current set of problems were either an aberration or would soon be over; and
          • Where because a certain problem – in that case, counterinsurgency – did not fit the inherited structure and preferences of organizations – it simultaneously became everybody’s business and no one’s business.
          I cite that study not to re-litigate that war, or suggest that the institutional military hasn’t made enormous strides in recent years. It is, however, a cautionary reminder that these tendencies are always present in any large, hierarchical organization, and we must consistently strive to overcome them.
          As you look forward to your next assignments, be they in the services, the theater, command or staff, I would also ask that you take away my remarks this morning, the national defense strategy that informed them, and personal lessons I have learned from service in this arena that began 42 years ago, two things: a sense of humility and an appreciation of limits.
      First, limits about what the United States – still the strongest and greatest nation on earth – can do. The power of our military’s global reach has been an indispensable contributor to world peace – and must remain so. But not every outrage, every act of aggression, every crisis can or should elicit an American military response, and we should acknowledge such.
          Be modest about what military force can accomplish, and what 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: The Taliban dispatched within three months, Saddam’s regime toppled in three weeks. Where a button is pushed in Nevada and seconds later a pickup truck explodes in Mosul. Where a bomb destroys the targeted house on the right, leaving intact the one on the left.
          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. Look askance at idealized, triumphalist, or ethnocentric notions of future conflict that aspire to upend the immutable principles of war: where the enemy is killed, but our troops and innocent civilians are spared. Where adversaries can be cowed, shocked, or awed into submission, instead of being tracked down, hilltop by hilltop, house by house, block by bloody block. As General Sherman said, “Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster.” Or, as General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell said, “No matter how a war starts, it ends in mud. It has to be slugged out – there are no trick solutions or cheap shortcuts.”
      Now, on the heels of that sunny and upbeat assessment, I’d like to finish with an anecdote told by an old boss of mine, President Ronald Reagan. A businessman once sent flowers to the grand opening of a friend’s new branch office. Unfortunately, there was a mix-up with the delivery and the flowers arrived with a card that read, “Rest in Peace.” The businessman was none too pleased and contacted the florist to demand an explanation. The florist replied, “Just think of it this way. Today someone was buried in this city beneath a flower arrangement with the inscription, ‘Good luck in your new location.’”
          As you each go up to your new duties and new responsibilities, good luck in your new location, and pass along my personal thanks to your troops and their families for the sacrifices they make every day. Without your and their dedication and courage, without the support of your and their families, nothing would be possible. The security of our beloved country is in your and their hands. And we are tremendously grateful to you.
          Thank you.