Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Gates repudiates Rumsfeld's "army you have" doctrine

As noted in a prior post, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates' May 15 speech to defense contractors situated his immediate tactical and spending priorities within his broader strategic outlook. In brief: in a debate within the military between those who want to focus military spending and planning primarily on counterinsurgency and asymmetric warfare and those who believe that in the long term, we will face more substantial threats from emerging major powers (e.g., China, China, and China), Gates comes down strongly on the counterinsurgents' side. He cast the question as one of risk management: for the foreseeable future, we will likely face multiple challenges from "Smaller, irregular forces - insurgents, guerrillas, terrorists," whereas it's highly unlikely that we'll face a conventional military challenge from powerful nation state."

In the short term, those priorities, as well as a personal commitment to support of U.S. troops, translate into placing top priority on what troops need now - to avoid getting killed, to detect insurgent activity as it happens, and to care for wounded and psychologically damaged solders when they return. And his progress report on these fronts included a devastating if implicit indictment of Rumsfeld's leadership.

Politely, here as elsewhere Gates cast the Pentagon's "leadership shortcomings" as a product of decades of bureaucratic inertia. Nonetheless, the failures he addressed were recent and acute:
My priorities are focused on better supporting our troops in combat and include:
  • Sending more intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets to Iraq and Afghanistan;
  • Providing troops the best possible protection on dangerous roads in Iraq and Afghanistan; and
  • Improving outpatient care and support for our wounded.
These are issues I take seriously – and very personally.

Each goes directly to our profound, even sacred, obligation to do everything we can to support the men and women currently fighting on the front lines – people like the four we recognized tonight - to see that they are successful on the battlefield and properly cared for at home. These needs require the Department to focus on the reality that we are in the midst of two wars and that what we can provide our soldiers and commanders three or four years hence isn’t nearly as important as what we can provide them today or next month. In each case, there was some sort of leadership shortcoming:
  • A lack of vision or sense of urgency;
  • An unwillingness or hesitancy to upend assumptions and practices that have accumulated in a largely peacetime military establishment; and
  • An assumption that the war would soon be over and therefore we shouldn’t impinge on programs that produce the kinds of equipment and capabilities that probably would not be needed in today’s combat.
A common mantra at Defense is that the rest of the government isn't at war. Well, a lesson I learned fairly early on was that important elements of the Defense Department weren't at war. Preoccupied with future capabilities and procurement programs, wedded to lumbering peacetime process and procedures, stuck in bureaucratic low-gear. The needs of those in combat too often were not addressed urgently or creatively.
True, Rumsfeld also cast himself as a scourge of Pentagon's hide-bound thinking and bureaucratic inertia. True, too, that Rumsfeld preceded Gates in advocating increased reliance on UAVs. More broadly, though, Rumsfeld was focused on developing new IT capabilities and concentrating firepower in the hands of ever-fewer troops achieving ever-quicker victories -- as seemed at first to happen in Afghanistan. Once mired in protracted conflict, it was 'you go to war with the army you have' -- a comment that bespoke a lack of commitment to improving the capabilities of those troops mired in conflict. That lack of responsiveness to conditions on the ground is what Gates is trying to redress now.

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