Sunday, May 18, 2008

GooGoo under Gates

There is a little-noticed goo-goo (good government) success story in the spending priorities that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is ramming through the Pentagon bureaucracy.

In a series of recent speeches, Gates has articulated in detail both an overarching strategy and particular immediate priorities that fit the strategy. Broadly, he has argued that the U.S. military needs to focus more on the kind of struggle it is in now - counterinsurgency, asymmetrical warfare, nation-building -- than in the kind it is oriented toward fighting -- gearing up for an emerging superpower rival or a conventional land war. In a 5/13 speech to the Heritage Foundation, he cast this as a risk management strategy:
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.
The strategic priority Gates places on equipping the military to fight the kind of struggle they're currently engaged in meshes with a massive reform effort to give soldiers what they need now -- in life-saving equipment and in medical and mental health care. In short, his efforts are aimed at redressing the most egregious failures exposed over the last few years: inadequately armored vehicles, medical care of the wounded, and the network of services that are supposed to aid soldiers in the transition to civilian life, including mental health care for those suffering from PTSD. Gates has also himself exposed and worked to redress what he sees as another major failing: under-use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) -which, he says, "give troops the tremendous advantage of seeing full-motion, real-time, streaming video over a target – such as an insurgent planting an IED on a street corner.

In a 5/15 speech to a group of defense industry executives, Gates, laid out these priorities and recent efforts to address them. Throughout, he stressed the difficulty of getting the Pentagon to break with old ways of doing things and move on his initiatives. Here are the main elements of his progress report:

1. UAVs:
Commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan have understandably clamored for more of this capability – more sorties, more video, more potential to save American and Iraqi lives. There have been improvements, to be sure. Since 2001, the total number of UAVs has increased 25-fold to more than 5,000. Over the past few months, the Air Force doubled the number of Predators supporting combat operations. But that’s still not enough to meet the demand from commanders in the field.
In a speech at Maxwell Air Force Base last month, I made news by saying that ramping up these assets for field commanders was like “pulling teeth.” It was reported in some outlets as scolding the Air Force. It really wasn’t. The problem was a bureaucratic culture within all the Services and within the Pentagon itself that did not encourage out-of-the-box thinking and that did not encourage every employee to come to work in the morning thinking about “what can I do today to help those in combat?”
To get even more of this critical resource into the right hands faster, I launched an effort to scour the world for additional ISR assets that can be sent to theater, and to ensure we are getting maximum utility out of the assets already there. The task force will report back to me 90 days from its inception, and every two weeks between now and then. One thing I’ve learned in the Pentagon is that the best way to get results is to set short deadlines and enforce them.

2. MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles): million-dollar vehicles in which soldiers'
casualty rate is less than one – third that of Humvees and less than half that of an Abrams tank. Gates:
In May 2007, I directed the Department to make MRAPs our top acquisition priority. I issued instructions to identify urgently any constraint – funding, material, program, legal, or otherwise – that might inhibit this effort. In under a year, production has soared from 10 vehicles per month to over 1,200. I was particularly impressed by how quickly industry responded once the Pentagon made MRAPs a priority. In fact, the last time American industry moved from concept to full-rate military production of a major piece of equipment in less than a year was World War II. Today, there are more than 4,500 MRAPs in Iraq and Afghanistan and thousands more on the way.
3. Care of the wounded, including those suffering psychologically:
Perhaps the most important change has been the new way our injured receive medical treatment through “Warrior Transition Units.” These units are responsible for shepherding injured Service members back to their units or helping them transition to veteran status. Thus far, the Army has created 35 new Warrior Transition Units caring for over 10,000 soldiers...

Another change is to streamline the Disability Evaluation System. In the past, Service members received two separate disability ratings from DoD and the VA. We are now converting the disability evaluation system into a single and transparent process in which one disability rating would be legally binding by both organizations. One Service member. One exam. One rating. ...

The Department has also placed great emphasis on caring for those with post-traumatic stress. As we all know, not every soldier returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is getting the treatment he or she needs. We are actively working to eliminate any stigma associated with PTSD. Over 900,000 soldiers have been trained in recent months about symptoms of PTSD and the need to seek assistance. Another important element of removing the stigma and encouraging people to get help has been changing the question about mental-health on the security-clearance application. Too often, troops have avoided seeking help because they were worried it would affect their security clearance, and perhaps their career.
I announced at Fort Bliss two weeks ago that the question about mental health, as a general matter, will now exclude counseling related to service in combat – post-traumatic stress in particular. We hope this will encourage more men and women in uniform to seek help if they need it.
Of course we're listening to the reformer reporting on his own reforms. But Gates is as likely to publicly expose failures in an effort to spur action as he is to boast about successes. Thee is no doubt that Gates is giving everything he's got to improve the conditions under which soldiers in the field operate and the care they receive when they come home.

In a previous post, I noted several strategic congruences between Gates and Obama. These include: an emphasis on success in Afghanistan/Pakistan and acknowledgment that the Iraq War is draining resources from that crucial struggle; a recommendation that the U.S. commit more resources to developing its 'soft power,' including allocating more resources to the State Department to support foreign service personnel; acknowledgment that talk of troop withdrawal in the U.S. puts useful pressure on the Iraqi government; and advocacy for more intense diplomatic efforts, including a recommendation just days ago that the U.S. negotiate with Iran.

There are major differences, too. Gates is arguably closer to McCain in insistence that we cannot afford to fail in Iraq (though his definition of success there might be more minimalist and closer to Obama's). Still, should Obama be elected, he ought to do everything he can to convince Gates to stay on. Gates has indicated quite clearly that he intends to retire when his
"250 days, 14 hours, and 45 minutes" (as of May 15) are up. But then, he's also fond of recounting the multiple times that Brent Scowcroft lured him into difficult new jobs. Perhaps Obama could match Scowcroft's persuasive powers.

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