Friday, February 25, 2011

SecDef Robert Gates on war: what's old is new

Andrew Bacevich is his various books has joined others in documenting how the Pentagon just kept on fighting the Cold War, long after the "Iron Curtain" had fallen and the Soviet Union had dissolved. The Iraq War and the Afghanistan War brought a new fashionability to counterinsurgency doctrine (COIN). But on closer inspection it largely comes down to using conventional forces to shoot up villages, with hit squads and mercenaries thrown into the mix.

The Cold War ended, but the Long War continues. And the military prefers to keep right on preparing to fight the Soviet Union. Republican Secretary Robert Gates, who Obama kept on as his on Secretary of Defense, expressed the Pentagon's Long War preferences in a speech at West Point today: Thom Shanker reports on it for the New York Times in Gates Warns Against Any More Wars Like Iraq or Afghanistan 02/25/2011; I say "reports", if you can call stenography reporting. The Department of Defense (DOD) Web site has its own article on it: Jim Garamone (American Forces Press Service), Gates Challenges Cadets to Change Army Culture 02/25/2011. The full text is available at Speech, United States Military Academy (West Point, NY) 02/25/2011. From the DOD text:

Which leads to the first major challenge I see facing the Army: How will it structure itself – how will it train and equip – for the extraordinarily diverse range of missions it will face in the future? ...

The need for heavy armor and firepower to survive, close with, and destroy the enemy will always be there, as veterans of Sadr City and Fallujah can no doubt attest. And one of the benefits of the drawdown in Iraq is the opportunity to conduct the kind of full-spectrum training – including mechanized combined arms exercises – that was neglected to meet the demands of the current wars. Looking ahead, though, in the competition for tight defense dollars within and between the services, the Army also must confront the reality that the most plausible, high-end scenarios for the U.S. military are primarily naval and air engagements – whether in Asia, the Persian Gulf, or elsewhere. The strategic rationale for swift-moving expeditionary forces, be they Army or Marines, airborne infantry or special operations, is self-evident given the likelihood of counterterrorism, rapid reaction, disaster response, or stability or security force assistance missions. But in my opinion, 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," as General MacArthur so delicately put it.

By no means am I suggesting that the U.S. Army will – or should – turn into a Victorian nation-building constabulary – designed to chase guerrillas, build schools, or sip tea. But as the prospects for another head-on clash of large mechanized land armies seem less likely, the Army will be increasingly challenged to justify the number, size, and cost of its heavy formations to those in the leadership of the Pentagon, and on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, who ultimately make policy and set budgets.
The "swift-moving expeditionary forces" sounds an awful lot like the now-officially-defunct "revolution in military affairs" (RMA) and the related "transformation" to which Rummy, Gates' predecessor as SecDef, embraced as his way of relying on a massive army set to fight the long-since-defunct Soviet Union but handling interventions on the side with small, technologically-sophisticated forces relying on the "networked battlefield". It was this notion that led him to insist on minimizing the number of forces assembled for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, with consequences that are all-too-well known.

Here is how Gates put it, apparently reincarnating Rummy's perspective while claiming to have learned from the recent past:

What we can expect in the future is that potential adversaries – be they terrorists, insurgents, militia groups, rogue states, or emerging powers – will seek to frustrate America’s traditional advantages, in particular our ability to shoot, move and communicate with speed and precision. From the look of things, the Army will not repeat the mistakes of the past, where irregular warfare was shunted to the side after Vietnam. The odds of repeating another Afghanistan or Iraq – invading, pacifying, and administering a large third world country – may be low. But in what General Casey has called "an era of persistent conflict," those unconventional capabilities will still be needed at various levels and in various locations. Most critically to prevent festering problems from growing into full-blown crises which require costly – and controversial – large-scale American military intervention. [my emphasis]
In other words, our we-don't-call-them-RMAed-any-more forces will handle these little constabulary actions like Iraq and Afghanistan but do so in a quick and efficient way so we won't have these big ole wars that make anyone actually watching wonder whether our mega-expensive armed forces can actually win a war larger than, say, invading the island Grenada back in the glory days of St. Reagan.

This is great:

A second challenge that I believe faces today’s and tomorrow’s Army – your Army – is whether and how the Army can adapt its practices and culture to these strategic realities. From the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our soldiers and junior- and mid-level leaders down range have been adjusting and improvising to the complex and evolving challenges on the ground – in many cases using the Internet, especially tools of social media, to share tactical lessons learned in real time with their colleagues at the front or preparing to deploy back here in the United States.
Notice that he doesn't include in adapting the Army's "practices and culture" any frivolous stuff like learning Arabic. Or Pashto or Dari or Persian or Urdu or other languages spoken in places that are or might be the scene of US wars.

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