Small Wars Journal

Gates Describes Vision for Military's Future

Warning Against Wars Like Iraq and Afghanistan - Thom Shanker, New York Times. BLUF: "... it would be unwise for the United States to ever fight another war like Iraq or Afghanistan, and that the chances of carrying out a change of government in that fashion again were slim."

Gates Describes Vision for Military's Future - Greg Jaffe, Washington Post. BLUF: "... a future ground force that will be smaller, pack less heavy firepower and will not engage in large-scale counter-insurgency wars like those in Iraq or Afghanistan."


Gates Challenges Cadets to Change Army Culture - AFPS

Speech Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates - Transcript


G Martin

Thu, 03/03/2011 - 2:23pm

Bill C: I'm not sure the population has bought off on all of that being the purview of their military. I'm sure some of it- especially if it is out of sight/mind, but extended and expensive campaigns with hard-to-articulate national interest connections I would argue are NOT in the military's purview due to lack of populace backing.

Politicians will always find reasons to do them, however- and although I agree with the "head examined" comment, I don't think we'll get out of doing them (unfortunately).

I think the best we in the military can do is to learn to craft campaign plans that use the least amount of force necessary, do NOT attempt culture change or occupation-types of operations, and attempt to limit objectives to ensure a short timeframe. We can, however, prepare for the worst- but our planning and recommendations shouldn't revolve around the worst-case IMO (great example is latest "no-fly" zone talk: SECDEF: "yes we can do it, HOWEVER...").

In terms of what kind of military we want, I'd argue the peacetime mindset/garrison-lethargy has to disappear. We want what the SECDEF describes. We can't expect smart guys to stay in if they come back from conducting COIN and leading troops to a power-point existence. We have to challenge them, trust them, push authority down, take risk, listen to them, and try new things.

If we don't- then in the short-term we'll lose them. In the long-term we will expose the country to threats that will take advantage of us wallowing in the delusional comfort of our bureaucratic systems and processes.

Unfortunately I see little progress towards these changes. Our garrison mentality is not just something that exists back in garrison/CONUS. It exists in the headquarters of many- if not most- of at least our division and higher headquarters IN THE WAR ZONE. In other words- it isn't tied to garrison life as much as it is tied to the way our headquarters do business no matter where they are.

Grant Martin
MAJ, US Army

The above comments are the author's own and do not reflect the position of the US Army or DoD.

Bill C. (not verified)

Thu, 03/03/2011 - 1:36am

Just a thought:

If one of the jobs of certain of America's armed forces and governmental agencies is to keep the sea lanes, the sky, the space above and the cyber environment, open and free from disruption; so as to help maintain the peace and meet the needs of America's commercial interests and those of other countries --

Then, by this same logic, is it reasonable to suggest that there is a similar job for certain of America's armed forces and government agencies to, likewise, open, order, re-configure and safeguard certain of the world's land areas, states and population groups; this, so as to (as in the case of the sea, sky, space and cyberworld above) provide for the commercial, peace and prosperity needs of the United States -- and those similar needs of the rest of the expanding, ever-more connected and increasingly interdependent world?

If so, should this line of thinking (which helps inform and shape the force structure, equipment, methods, training, personnel/promotion system, etc., of other services?); should it do this as well for the US Army?

(I understand that, for the above comparison to work, certain land areas, states and population groups must be looked at more as being part of the "global commons" [as with the sea, sky, space, etc] than as independent, sovereign entities.)

Are officers who can excel in this template and in this environent what Sec. Gates is looking for?

Bob's World

Wed, 03/02/2011 - 8:00am


JOs always feel the squeeze in periods of transition. The problem the army has is that compared to major weapons systems the ground soldier has historically been where risk is best accepted in peacetime drawdowns. Building a good infantry unit takes some time, but the procurement, design, production and fielding of the high end systems that separate the US from the rest take much more time and provide good civilian jobs and drive tech development, while not requiring very many service members to keep on the books to operate them. There is really no escaping the realities of this, nor should we try to.

We live in an era where one has to screw up in a major way to not make LTC. I had a friend and fellow platoon leader who was non-select for 1LT in 1987 because his company commander gave him a 2 for judgement on the front of his OER (ok, the co was a jackass for that); and 4 and ahalf years was the standard for promotion to Captain. Times will change, they always do.

The real question is what kind of military do we really need. For the Air Force, Navy and Marines that is a bit of a fringe discussion. Their core mission and functions don't change that much. Do pilots fly more fighters than bombers; 10 carriers or 9 carriers, etc. But for the army this will drive big decisions as the where the force is postured, how large the force is, ratios of heavy to light forces, what type of equipment is fielded, and what doctrine is written and trained to. From what I hear from Gen. Dempsey it sounds like he might also think that the four priorities in the Army posture statement are upside down. We'll see.

Big picture though, the success of America is not going to be shaped by our ability to force or "hold" some political situation on some populace somewhere. It will be through our ability to dominate the sea in a manner that keeps US commerce flowing and in dominating the sky and space above. Backing this up must be an army that is the right force to keep rising powers deterred from taking opportunities to grab some series of small advantages that ultimately add up to a major shift of strategic balance. MRAPs and a force trained to pull security for USAID will not deter such events.

BL, we do not need a colonial army, but that is what we have built. We need an empirical army, and that is a difference we need to put some thought against. The US has built a colony-free empire and the history books are largely silent as to what types of challenges that brings. Future historians will write those books, and the decisions we make today will be the ones held up to the hard light of such analysis and assessment.

K L (not verified)

Wed, 03/02/2011 - 3:36am

As a Company level officer in the Army, I can't help but feel, at a personal level, that many of my peers and I are about to feel the pain of a peacetime restructuring. It's hard to be objective and avoid a negative view on this proposal, as many of us are very emotionally invested (after multiple combat tours) in our military lifestyles.

It will leave a very bad taste in my mouth if those of us bearing the brunt of the current conflicts will also end up being the ones getting the shaft from DOD once we draw down in our overseas contingency operations.

All of these personal feelings are, of course, subordinate to the needs of the United States. We will, as we always have, salute and execute, even if it's in response to the order to take off the uniform and go forth into the civilian world.

I caution the thinking, however, that we can grow land forces if the need arises. Massive reductions in our current ground combat force would be more than a reduction in personnel. We'd be losing irreplaceable combat experience that can only be re-earned through bloodshed and loss of life.

Didn't the "Mission Accomplished" statement in 2003 regarding OIF teach us that even if we shock and awe our enemy with our high speed strategic assets, the ground occupation force is essential to achieving regional stability? I'm interested to see if anyone has any examples of potential conflicts where we'll be able to employ strategic strikes against the enemy without following up with some sort of "hold" strategy. Isn't the heavy reliance on missiles and jets (what the SECDEF seems to be implying we should go back to if I read his speech correctly) what got us in trouble at the mid-points of our two current conflicts?

Bob's World

Mon, 02/28/2011 - 6:26pm

Personally, I think the Army discounts its role in deterrence. It is not that someone is so apt to attack the US, but rather to attack some smaller country within thier sphere of influence that was counting on the US to help prevent such an occurence. We can logically expect Russia to begin flexing her muscles a bit to begin reestablishing her regional influence. Georgia was a bit of a test of that. Not unlike what Germany did in the late 30s.

An American Army that has been overly postured for irregular activiites and that is tapped out trying to force US designed solutions where local solutions are just as acceptable to our interests, is not much of a deterrent. The Army 2010 Posture Statement places "Deter and defeat hybrid threats and hostile state actors" 4th in priority. I would argue that this is the top priority mission for the Army.

One through three?
1. prevail in protracted counter-insurgency (COIN) operations.

2. engage to help other nations build capacity;and

3. provide support to civil authorities at home and abroad.

I would allow that that list is upside down. But as I read through the posture statement…

the entire document seemed to be upside down in terms of its priorities. I have stated that we live in an age of strategic uncertainty, and that affects the Army most of all. For the Navy and Air Force life if pretty stable, so too for the Marines in large part, adjusting tactics more than structure and posture. But for the Army? The army is always the one that has to chase whatever the threat or issue of the day is. This is why the Army is so flexible. It's also why our uniforms, tactics, and general posture are always just a little bit out of date.

Current positions on COIN, capacity building and development all put far too much burden and the Army and are inflated and shaped by some misguided concepts of what our current threats are and how best to deal with them.

My recommendation? Ignore the fads to the degree possible and error toward deterrence and warfighting. Who knows? Maybe we'll bring back Armor, Artillery and Pinks and Greens...

We have a SECDEF who truly emphasizes with the challenges our true Soldiers must contend with in our overly bureaucratic Army, where all too often the weak get ahead by being timid yes boys, and the true warriors are labeled unprofessional because they refuse to abide by the rules that have no relevance in any Army (other than CYA), especially a wartime Army. Perhaps I shouldn't be, but I'm surprised that a SECDEF can actually see this from his perch. It speaks highly of the man in the position, because it clearly indicates he is listening to the men and women in the force. Furthermore, he disagreed, as do I, that we're competing with the Googles of the world for the best and brightest. Those who join the ranks of the Armed Forces for the right cause didn't toss a coin to see if they would go to Google or the Army, instead they made a commitment to serve, not pursue personal riches.

On the other hand, I think he might be too quick to dismiss the requirement for a large Army and armored forces. We have emerging powers that also have a vote if "they" decide to declare war on us, and as powerful as the SECDEF is, we may have yet another President who disregards the lessons of quagmires and commits the Army to conflicts very similiar to Afghanistan and Iraq. And of course there is no guaruntee we'll always have a level headed SECDEF in the future. As for Naval and Air power, they're amazing, but I lose sleep at night waiting for one of our foes to develop a weapon system that could make them irrelevant. As Grant stated, guessing what the future will bring is tricky business.

G Martin

Mon, 02/28/2011 - 1:02am

I cringe when our leaders utter absolutes. In my limited experience it would seem that whatever people think will happen doesn't happen. We keep beating ourselves up for not knowing Egypt was going to happen. In the 80s no-one I knew saw the collapse of the Soviet Union coming. In 1998 a Special Forces colonel told a class of future SF officers that we would never do Unconventional Warfare ever again. I think the only thing we can say for sure is that no prognosticators today will be right about the challenges the US Army will face in the future- even in the near-term.

That, in my opinion, makes changing the bureaucratic culture that Secretary Gates describes even more important- we absolutely have to have leaders and a culture that can handle the unknown- the missions our politicians will order us to do in the future- regardless of what we think they will be now or what lessons we've supposedly "learned" today.

To do that, in my opinion, requires an adaptive force- one that prioritizes learning over process and doctrine, that promotes mission accomplishment over career protection (and thus risk-averseness), and that supports questioning over good order, discipline and tradition.

But these requirements have been echoed for some time now. It has been posted on this website before by a scholar of the past that the peacetime Army- and another poster remarked that we are at a peacetime footing today- will always be risk-averse and attractive to careerists. Actual concrete steps to make the transformation that the SECDEF describes happen are themselves probably too risky for sitting bureaucrats to actually initiate.

Grant Martin
MAJ, US Army

The above comments are the author's own and do not constitute the position of the US Army or DoD.

Anonymous (not verified)

Sun, 02/27/2011 - 11:47pm

Is there one pundit who informs all of the other pundits what the takeaway is? I only ask because everybody has gotten it wrong. The bottom line of this speech was not that "it would be unwise for the United States to ever fight another war like Iraq or Afghanistan." This was a speech about (quoting the transcript!)...
<blockquote><em>"* The future of conflict, and the implications for the Army;<br />
How best to institutionalize the diverse capabilities that will be required; and<br /> The kinds of officers the Army will need for the 21st Century, and how the service must change to retain and empower those leaders."</em></blockquote>
In particular, note that halfway through the speech, he states...
<blockquote><em>"Which brings me to the third and greatest challenge facing your Army, and frankly, my main worry. How can the Army can break-up the institutional concrete, its bureaucratic rigidity in its assignments and promotion processes, in order to retain, challenge, and inspire its best, brightest, and most-battled tested young officers to lead the service in the future? After the major Afghan troop deployments end in 2014, how do we keep you and those 5 or 10 years older than you in our Army?"</em></blockquote>

Anonymous (not verified)

Sun, 02/27/2011 - 9:57pm

The biggest culture change I see the Army requiring is its institutional one. From what I've seen our culture -the one that runs through both our civilian and our uniform sides is our biggest impediment to doing what needs to be done in a manner that accomplishes what is required. It seems impossible minus some sort of overhead forcing function from the SECDEF to overcome the resistance and inertia that stem from political infighting, rice bowls and the perception of losing individual power.

Nowhere is it more true than in our Army that Culture eats Strategy for lunch.

Gates will be missed for his willingness to hold subordinates accountable while providing them the opportunity to succeed or fail. I hope the next SECDEF can hold the line.

Brett Patron

Sun, 02/27/2011 - 9:21am

Considering the big deal everyone is making of it, I'm surprised there is no mention of "cyberspace" as a warfighting domain.

Secretary Gates remarks on Army force structure do not serve the Army or the nation well.

The premise that we should be cautious about considering a large stability operation is obvious -- these are extraordinarily difficult, dangerous and expensive operations. But his comments imply that such a scenario is therefore unlikely or should not be a core element of defense planning. As events in the Middle East this month demonstrate, we cannot control the disintegration of regimes or the intersection of such tragedies with critical national interests. One almost asks what he would have done in Afghanistan in 2001 after the Taliban fell -- let Afghanistan fall into civil war? The hard truth is that we find ourselves returning to these complex fights and we must be prepared for them. Any attempt to dismiss such preparation with a comment "we shouldn't get involved in them" is wishful thinking and recipe for future disaster.

Secretary Gates also suggests that the Navy and Air Force will carry the water in future high end scenarios. That neglects the reality that the enemy gets a vote and they will seek to carry the fight into urban areas and through civilians to avoid the American technological advantage.

Gates has been a champion of the Army and of the need to transform the force for small wars. His remarks echoed some of those themes in calling for the Army to institutionalize the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan. I also applaud his thoughts on the need to retain and reward innovative Army officers. But we cannot wish away the need to be prepared for a large ground engagement.