Secretary Gates’ Speech at Colorado Springs

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Crossposted from Kings of War

MEMO TO: Whoever forms the next Presidential Administration, please keep Secretary Gates in post

The Secretary of Defense just made a strong speech on a hot topic. Here’s a snip but you should read the whole thing:

There is a good deal of debate and discussion – within the military, the Congress, and elsewhere – about whether we are putting too much emphasis on current demands – in particular, Iraq. And whether this emphasis is creating too much risk in other areas, such as:

• Preparing for potential future conflicts;
• Being able to handle a contingency elsewhere in the world; and
• Over stressing the ground forces, in particular the Army.

Much of what we are talking about is a matter of balancing risk: today’s demands versus tomorrow’s contingencies; irregular and asymmetric threats versus conventional threats. As the world’s remaining superpower, we have to be able to dissuade, deter, and, if necessary, respond to challenges across the spectrum.

Nonetheless, I have noticed too much of a tendency towards what might be called “Next-War-itis” – the propensity of much of the defense establishment to be in favor of what might be needed in a future conflict. This inclination is understandable, given the dominant role the Cold War had in shaping America’s peacetime military, where the United States constantly strove to either keep up with or get ahead of another superpower adversary.

And, certainly, one cannot predict the future with any certainty. Soon after 1900, Winston Churchill said that he could not foresee any “collision of interests” with Germany. In the 1920s, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, he said that there wasn’t the “slightest chance” of war with Japan in his lifetime. Today, rising and resurgent powers with new wealth and ambition are pursuing military modernization programs. They must be watched closely and hedged against.

But in a world of finite knowledge and limited resources, where we have to make choices and set priorities, it makes sense to lean toward the most likely and lethal scenarios for our military. And 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. The record of the past quarter century is clear: the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Israelis in Lebanon, the United States in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Smaller, irregular forces – insurgents, guerrillas, terrorists – will find ways, as they always have, to frustrate and neutralize the advantages of larger, regular militaries. And even nation-states will try to exploit our perceived vulnerabilities in an asymmetric way, rather than play to our inherent strengths.

Overall, the kinds of capabilities we will most likely need in the years ahead will often resemble the kinds of capabilities we need today.

On National Public Radio there’s a good piece on the debatet that Gates is talking about: Army Focus on Counterinsurgency Debated Within

My two cents (heavily informed by a correspondent who observes Beltway politics from a closer perspective than me):

What is the future conventional threat? Not Russia and not China either for a long while yet but low-level skirmishes in which a COIN-focussed military would be a useful thing.

What is the current imperative? In a nutshell: not losing the wars we are actually in right now.

Is there really a conflict of interests between major warfighting and COIN? Possibly, but less than meets the eye. A COIN-adapted force is one with a high level of basic skills in which low-level leaders are tested for flexibility, initiative and the ability to adapt. These are good things. Anyway, we know now that the old orthodoxy is wrong. It’s harder to go from warfighter to COIN-operator (should you care to make that distinction) than it is to go the other way.

Is there a risk of overdoing COIN? In my view, not really. The real problem is overstretch of the forces. That’s what’s killing the Army and Marine Corps.

That said, call me cynical, but the real, real problem is that a COIN-focussed force really doesn’t offer a great deal of opportunity for the truly gargantuan defence contracts we’ve gotten used to over the years. It’s about the mindsets and skillsets of the force much more than it is weapons suites and materiel.

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