Small Wars Journal

Secretary Gates at National Defense University

Secretary Gates at National Defense University (Full Transcript). Highlight excerpts follow.


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."

The War We Are In

As we think about the security challenges on the horizon, it is important to establish upfront that America's ability to deal with threats for years to come will depend importantly on our performance in the conflicts of today... 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.

COIN and Stability Operations

... the recent past vividly demonstrated the consequences of failing adequately to address the dangers posed by insurgencies or failing states. Terrorist networks can find 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 kinds 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.

Strategic Communications

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 our story to them. 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 been able to do in Iraq.


Other nations may be un—to challenge the United States fighter to fighter, ship to ship, tank to tank. But they are developing other disruptive means to blunt the impact of American power, narrow our military options, and deny 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.

Conventional Dominance

...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 seriously 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.


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 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...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.

The key is to make sure that the strategy and risk assessment drives the procurement, rather than the other way around.


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 going back to your 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.

Constituencies and Institutions

...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 request 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...

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.

Limits and Modesty

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.


Secretary of Defense Robert Gates speaks to students at the National Defense University on 29 September 2008.

Gates Criticizes Conventional Focus At Start of Iraq War - Washington Post

Defense Chief Criticizes Bureaucracy at the Pentagon - New York Times

Gates: Military Force, Technology Have Limits - Los Angeles Times

Balance at Heart of National Defense Strategy, Gates Says - AFPS

US Defense Chief Calls for a Balanced US Military Strategy - Voice of America

Iran Remains Unyielding, Gates Says - AFPS

Balance at Heart of National Defense Strategy, Gates Says - AFPS

US Defense Chief Calls for a Balanced US Military Strategy - Voice of America

Gates Calls for a Balanced Military - Associated Press

Gates Predicts No Sharp Cuts in US Defense Budgets - Reuters

Gates Warns of the Limits of US Military Power - Agence France-Presse

Gates: US Troops Likely to Stay in Iraq - United Press International

Technology is No Cure-all, Gates Tells Military - Reuters