Saturday, March 5, 2011

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ greatest fear is his greatest weakness

Massive land armies facing each other on the battlefield has been in existence for some four thousand seven hundred and eleven years. [1]

On Friday, February 25, 2011, two months into the eleventh year of our third millennium AD, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates delivered a speech to West Point cadets gathered at Eisenhower Hall. Now you would think in better than four millenniums that the world would have made significant progress toward solving differences non-violently with greater strides into achieving a lasting world peace. But, in looking for signs of a world with the promise of less conflict, Secretary Gate’s speech was not optimistic.

Instead of optimism, our Secretary of Defense claims that we are in what Army Chief of Staff General William Casey calls “an era of persistent conflict.” Gates predicts that potential adversaries will seek to “frustrate” the Army’s “ability to shoot, move and communicate with speed and precision” in an asymmetrical/irregular warfare environment, with an Army of smaller forces brought on by necessity because of budget reductions.

And, at first, it might sound encouraging when the Secretary said, “…any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.” But, he qualified that by saying, “… potential conflicts in places like Asia or the Persian Gulf were more likely to be fought with air and sea power, rather than with conventional ground forces.” So, in essence, there is no recognition that those wars were a mistake, but that sending a land army instead of air and sea power was a mistake.

In relationship to reduced dependency on Army firepower, his words where disappointing. He said, “By no means am I suggesting that the U.S. Army will – or should – turn into a Victorian nation-building constabulary [a reference to ideals of morality regarded as characteristic of the Victorian era] – designed to chase guerrillas, build schools, or sip tea [a reference to Greg Mortenson's heroic efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan].” Disappointing because that precisely should be our military mission: greater reliance on soft power and humanitarian aid as opposed to the hard power of a “shock and awe” blitzkrieg from air and sea that increases civilian casualties and does not win hearts and minds.

It’s not that the Secretary does not recognize the benefits of soft power; he doesn’t recognize that the Department of Defense should serve a central role in its execution. In 2007 at Kansas State University Gates spoke of the need to enhance American soft power wherein he called for, “… a dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security -- diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action and economic reconstruction and development.” [2]

One of Gates greatest fears is that returning warrior officers at war’s end from Iraq and Afghanistan “may find themselves in a cube all day re-formatting PowerPoint slides, preparing quarterly training briefs, or assigned an ever-expanding array of clerical duties,” concluding, “The consequences of this terrify me.” His words reflect a lack of forward thinking and thinking outside the box. His fear is his greatest weakness. The Army, and all of the armed services, should expect to have a greater participatory role with the Coast Guard, assisting with rapid reaction disaster planning, homeland security assignments, and humanitarian assistance, and with development and deployment of soft power peacetime missions.

Secretary of Defense Gates has expressed his intent to leave office sometime this year, so perhaps our new Secretary will not stovepipe thinking that would keep the Department of Defense from solving its problem, but rather be more creative and innovative in its solution.


[1] Richard A. Gabriel and Karen S. Metz, Chapter 1 - The Origins of War form A Short History of War: The Evolution of Warfare and Weapons, Strategic Studies Institute. U.S. Army War College (Online version by Air War College)

[2] Thom Shanker, Defense Secretary Urges More Spending for U.S. Diplomacy, New York Times