Association of the United States Army
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Washington, D.C., Monday, October 05, 2009
Thank you, Secretary McHugh. John was sworn in as secretary of the army last month, and I speak for the entire Department of Defense in saying we’re glad to have him onboard. For a decade and a half, he represented the district that includes Fort Drum. His support made that installation one of the Army’s best. Through his work on the House Armed Services Committee – including as ranking member – he has been a forceful champion for all soldiers, and I know he will continue his advocacy on their behalf. Secretary McHugh, thank you once again for taking on this responsibility. Although I will tell you, I leaned over to him during the opening ceremony and said, “beats the hell out of a committee hearing doesn’t it.”
And of course my warmest thanks to AUSA for the invitation to attend your annual meeting. It’s a real honor to speak at the opening of this conference with its focus on NCOs – the steel spine of the Army. My first encounter with NCOs came back in January 1967 when I was a brand new second lieutenant with the Air Force. It took me all of about a day-and-a-half before I figured out who it was that really made the military run, or who at least made us junior officers run: the noncommissioned officers. So I did what my sergeant suggested and the two of us did my job pretty well.
Every morning, one of the first people I see when I walk in my office is an Army NCO. And, as you might expect, he’s almost always there when I leave as well: Sergeant Jason Easom, an E-5 who has been on two tours in Iraq, is here with us today. Jason, welcome. Thanks for your service.
As Secretary of Defense, I pay every bit as much attention to what NCOs say now as I did when I was a very green second lieutenant. I always make it a point to meet with and listen to NCOs around the country and in the theater – where they are serving with such honor and distinction. Last month, I had the opportunity to attend the Medal of Honor ceremony for Army Sergeant First Class Jared Monti, the second Army NCO to receive the Medal of Honor during the recent conflicts. His is a story of true valor. And there are so many others. And in fact, it is hard to believe that only six Medals of Honor have been bestowed since 2001 – all posthumously.
With all that our nation has asked of the Army in recent years – and all that troops like Sergeant Monti have given – it is important for our soldiers to know that they have such a strong advocate in this organization. For more than half a century, AUSA chapters across the country, and the headquarters here, have aided the troops and the families at home and – especially relevant today – when our soldiers are deployed. This takes many forms, from care packages to family-support conferences to scholarship donations – all unified by a single purpose: giving our soldiers and their families the support they have earned.
I spoke to this gathering in 2007, less than a year after I became secretary of defense. There’s an old saying about the one-year mark in Washington. For the first six months, you wonder how the hell you got here. For the next six months, you wonder how the hell the rest of them got here. I might add that, after nearly three years, you start wondering how the hell you’re still here.
Much has happened since I last spoke with you, from the changing nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the economic crisis facing our country. Of course, we have a new commander-in-chief. I can tell you that President Obama is committed to the well-being of every soldier and to making sure they have the tools to do their job. And the First Lady has made it a personal priority to support and champion our military families.
If you had asked me in October of 2007 if I would be addressing this forum two years later – still as secretary of defense – I would have told you you were crazy. But, when President Obama asked me to stay on, I thought about all the troops we have in combat who are serving their country far from home and often under fire. I thought especially about the soldiers who have borne the brunt of the wars with repeated and lengthy tours – who continue to re-enlist and redeploy with a great sense of purpose in their mission and a great sense of pride in their country. I thought about their sacrifices and the sacrifices of their families. I thought about all those things and knew that I could only say yes to the new president. Our troops are all doing their duty. And I had to do mine. And having the chance to serve with them is the greatest – and most humbling – experience and honor of my life.
Today, I want to talk about the Army: the current challenges we face; what the Department of Defense is doing for our soldiers right now and what it needs to do in the future; and, finally, some thoughts about where the service needs to go in the years ahead.
First, however, a few words about the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. As you know, in June, the U.S. mission in Iraq underwent a sea change as we turned security in urban areas over to the Iraqis. That was a significant step as we dramatically reduce our presence early next year following elections, and continue to shift to a purely advise and assist mission. General Odierno said last week that violence is down 85 percent over the past two years – an accomplishment made possible by the hard work and sacrifices of many thousands of U.S. soldiers.
At the same time, Afghanistan has been on a different, and worrisome, trajectory – with violence levels up some 60 percent from last year. I believe that the decisions that the president will make for the next stage of the Afghanistan campaign will be among the most important of his presidency. So it is important that we take our time do all we can to get this right. And in this process it is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations – civilian and military alike – provide our best advice to the president candidly but privately. And speaking for the Department of Defense, once the commander-in-chief makes his decisions, we will salute and execute those decisions faithfully and to the best of our ability.
Even as we consider the future, I am prepared to respond to urgent needs and will keep pushing to get troops the equipment they need. IEDs remain the number-one cause of casualties in Afghanistan. And let there be no doubt that, as long as our troops are in harm’s way, the Department will do everything it can to destroy these IED networks and to protect those heroes in the fight. To accomplish this:
• I have ordered additional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities to Afghanistan – including the most advanced drones and new platforms such as the MC-12;
• Thousands of enablers, including additional EOD teams, are en route; and
• The first MRAPs designed specifically for Afghanistan’s rugged terrain – the M-ATVs – were delivered to theater last week, only three months after the initial contracts were awarded. In the next year, we will field thousands of these life-saving vehicles.
Our nation is understandably weary after six years in Iraq and eight years in Afghanistan. Of course, the challenges America faces in these campaigns are reflected back here in the demands placed on an Army under strain. Easing that strain and getting the troops what they need drove many of the changes reflected in the Fiscal Year 2010 budget. The broad goal was to improve and institutionalize support for troops and their families, rebalance the Department to address a wider range of threats, and, correspondingly, reform how and what we buy.
Let me start with some of the programs we have to support families. We all know the old saying that you recruit the soldier, but you re-enlist the family.
• The base budget we submitted earlier this year includes $9 billion for family support: child care, spousal services, and housing, among others. Perhaps more important, we shifted funds from supplemental war bills to the base budget – to ensure that these family programs won’t go away when the wars do.
• Another change is the new GI Bill – approved by Congress last year and just coming on line. The generous benefits are a just reward for our service members and a badly-needed update to the old GI Bill. Also, for the first time, troops can transfer benefits to family members – an idea I pushed at the suggestion of an Army spouse at Fort Hood. On that point, I should note that I always value meeting with Army spouses because, as you are well aware, they are never afraid to speak their minds.
• At the same time, we have added funds for the wounded, ill, and injured; traumatic brain injury; and psychological health programs to make sure our troops get the care they need when they return home. This includes a major effort by the Army to educate the force to prevent suicides and address the unseen wounds of war – to approach mental health in much the same way as physical health. The dramatic rise in suicides is a huge concern of mine – and I take heart that the Army is every bit as concerned. The vice chief of staff is spearheading the service’s effort to reduce suicide, and I can tell you that it is both General Casey’s and General Chiarelli’s personal mission to address this problem. Aside from the conflicts themselves, taking care of our wounded warriors must be our highest priority.
• The Department of Defense is doing more for military families than it ever has. And yet, when I visit bases around the country, there is often a disconnect. I believe we must do a better job delivering assistance – especially new programs – to those who need it most. We have to make it easier for them to know what’s out there so they can take advantage of these initiatives.
Strong recruiting and retention – though influenced by the economy – continue to show the willingness of young Americans to serve:
• The active Army has surpassed recruiting and retention goals recently, allowing the service to reach its goal of enlarging to 547,000 soldiers earlier this year. Considering the stress on the force, and upcoming deployment rotations, I’ve also authorized a temporary expansion of an additional 22,000 soldiers to get through this high-demand period. This temporary increase will not add new force structure but will fill out the units we already have. The goal is to end stop-loss and increase dwell time.
• The Army has eliminated most waivers, and this year will exceed 90 percent for the number of recruits with high-school diplomas.
• And finally, efforts continue to make this a single Army, with the Guard and Reserves receiving the comparable training and the same equipment as the active force. Though the pace and types of missions will change, the reserve components’ operational responsibilities will continue.
Even with all these efforts to mitigate the stress on the force, the reality is that a significant numbers of soldiers will continue to be deployed for the near- to mid-term. In fact, right now there are more soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan combined than were deployed to those two countries during the height of the Iraq surge.
America’s soldiers continue to excel on the battlefield – doing extraordinary things under incredible pressure. As we look to the future, it is the great innovation and shifts in the Army these last few years – institutionally and operationally – that must guide the service going forward. What have we learned in the last few years and how is it relevant to the potential conflicts of tomorrow?
The challenge I posed to the Army two years ago was to retain the lessons learned and capabilities gained in counterinsurgency and irregular warfare. From all I’ve seen, heard, and witnessed, that certainly has taken place. In fact, today’s Army bears but a passing resemblance to that of eight years ago – a force mostly designed to repeat another Desert Storm. The Army we have is a supremely adaptable and flexible force – able to deploy rapidly, operate with more autonomy, and slide along the scale of the conflict spectrum to confront very different types of threats.
Let me give a few examples.
First of all, on the technological side. There have been tremendous advances in our intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities – advances that have led to an unprecedented fusion of intelligence and ops on the ground. Other communications improvements have led to much greater command and control, and more tools to improve this further are getting out to the field. The Army has recognized that the most important part of its procurement strategy is the network as opposed to the platform. In coming years, there should be revolutionary breakthroughs in the ability of our troops to see themselves and other allied forces – even if the inevitable fog of war and resourceful enemies prevent us from ever achieving total situational awareness.
There have also been entirely new concepts from the war zones. One of the most important is the Advise and Assist Brigade – the AAB – that has three main functions: traditional strike capabilities, advisory roles, and the enablers and command and control to support both functions. In July, I visited the first AAB deployed to Iraq. I was impressed with the ability to retool a standard brigade combat team in only a few months and with relatively small force augmentation. By the end of next year, we plan for the Iraq mission to be composed almost entirely of AABs, and the expectation is that, some time down the road, the same will be true in Afghanistan.
There is, unfortunately, still a lingering view that advisory positions are second-tier jobs – an assumption that needs to be addressed through assignments and promotions. The advisory, train, and equip mission is a key role for the Army going forward, given that America’s security will increasingly depend on our ability to build the capabilities of other nations. These capabilities are all the more necessary considering the steep human, political, and financial costs of direct U.S. military intervention.
Under the leadership of General Dempsey, the Army has also put its training and doctrine process on a war footing. At the Combined Arms Center, the doctrinal cycle has been reduced dramatically. For example, the AAB doctrine was developed and fielded in only a couple of months – proof that the Army has accelerated its ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. This is a key advantage not just in a counterinsurgency, but in any type of conflict, where the 75 percent solution fielded in months is often far better than a 99 percent solution that might take years. We cannot allow the Army’s ability to swiftly adapt at the institutional level to become ossified down the line.
Perhaps the greatest change, however, is on the ground level with the men and women on the front lines. Young officers and NCOs at the front have always had to make profound life-and-death decisions. In today’s conflicts, their responsibilities are even greater and more complex: playing the roles of warrior, diplomat, mayor, economist, city engineer, and tribal liaison – all often at the same time. We must ensure that the kind of mental agility, entrepreneurial spirit, and independent judgment required to be effective downrange carries over into future assignments. It’s a safe bet that a leader who thrives in an environment of this complexity can adapt quickly to other missions and other forms of war. But, looking forward, we must find a way to retain seasoned young officers and NCOs and give them opportunities to use these same talents when they move on from combat positions of momentous responsibility to more mundane assignments in the bureaucracy. Their battlefield experience must form the core of an Army prepared to fight wars in the future.
That brings me to a larger point. For the last few years, there has been a concern that our force is too focused on counterinsurgency, and has lost its edge for complex, conventional operations involving multiple brigades or divisions. The experiences of the British colonial army before World War One and the Israeli military in Lebanon have even been cited.
This is a legitimate concern, and we continue to work toward finding the right balance. But the notion that the changes we have seen amount to turning the Army into some sort of counterinsurgency constabulary that is losing its core competencies – above all, to shoot, move, and communicate – does not reflect the realities of the current campaigns. Take, for example, the battle of Sadr City last year. In that campaign, U.S. troops had to synchronize air power, artillery, and ISR, all while maneuvering through an incredibly complex urban environment and coordinating with numerous dispersed units.
And let there be no doubt that modernization plans for the full spectrum of warfare continue. The Army is accelerating the development of the Warfighter Information Network and will field it – and proven FCS spinoffs – across the entire force. I remain committed to the Army’s ground-vehicle modernization program – but it has to be done in a way that reflects the lessons we’ve learned the last few years about war in the 21st century, and that incorporates the Department of Defense’s nearly $30 billion investment in MRAPs.
We have to recognize that the black-and-white distinction between conventional war and irregular war is an outdated model. Simply possessing the ability to annihilate other militaries in a conventional fight in no way insures we can achieve our strategic goals – a point driven home in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In reality, the future will be more complex. Where all conflict will range across a broad spectrum of operations and lethality. Where even near-peer competitors will use irregular or asymmetric tactics and non-state actors may have weapons of mass destruction or sophisticated missiles.
Even as we prepare for the future and pursue modernization plans, we must always recognize the limits of technology – and be modest about what military force alone can accomplish. Advances in precision, sensor information, and satellite technologies have led to extraordinary gains that will continue to give the U.S. military an edge over its adversaries. But no one should ever neglect the psychological, cultural, political, and human dimensions of war or succumb to the techno-optimism that has muddled strategic thinking in the past. That is especially true for the ground services, which will be in the lead for – and bear the brunt of – irregular and hybrid campaigns in the future.
Let me close with a final thought. For eight years now, the Army has been in a constant state of war. Our soldiers have been deployed over and over again, and taken the fight to increasingly battle-hardened and lethal enemies. The stakes have been enormous; the tales of heroism and sacrifice extraordinary. Hundreds of thousands of brave warriors have volunteered to serve their country knowing they probably would go to war. They have endured time away from family and friends. And they have risked their lives for their fellow soldiers.
There is no way to overstate the challenges facing our Army. But when I think about the individual soldiers – their honor and their courage – I am confident that the United States Army will continue to meet those challenges and – as always – exceed every expectation in the years ahead.