Secretary Gates Declares War on the Army Brass
Unfortunately, he doesn't have time to fight that battle.
On Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave a speech that suggested what an interesting—perhaps even great—secretary of defense he might have become, if only he had more time and a less dreadful mess to clean up.
The speech was delivered to the Association of the United States Army, an organization that's happy to hear applause lines and boilerplate; but Gates used the occasion to call for a radical restructuring of the Army—its training, personnel policies, basic strategy, and missions.
He issued the call about halfway into the speech, when he noted that future wars will be more like Iraq and Afghanistan—"asymmetric" conflicts that don't play into the American military's traditional prowess for large-scale, head-to-head combat.
It is hard to conceive of any country challenging the United States directly on the ground, at least for some years to come. Indeed, history shows us that smaller, irregular forces—insurgents, guerrillas, terrorists—have for centuries found ways to harass and frustrate larger, regular armies and sow chaos. … We can expect that asymmetric warfare will remain the mainstay of the contemporary battlefield for some time. These conflicts will be fundamentally political in nature and require the application of all elements of national power. Success will be less a matter of imposing one's will and more a function of shaping behavior—of friends, adversaries, and, most importantly, the people in between.
To the civilian newspaper reader, this may seem a passage of dry common sense. But to an Army insider, it's practically a declaration of bureaucratic war.
The heart of the establishment Army is the tank and infantry corps. Its key mission is high-intensity, open-field combat against an enemy army of comparable capability.
Yet here was the secretary of defense saying that this kind of warfare isn't likely to recur any time soon. More than that, he was proposing that the Army move away from the mission of fighting any kind of war. Here was the hair-raising line:
[A]rguably the most important military component in the War on Terror is not the fighting we do ourselves, but how well we enable and empower our partners to defend and govern their own countries. The standing up and mentoring of indigenous armies and police—once the province of Special Forces—is now a key mission for the military as a whole. [Italics added.]
Granted, Gates did not say "the War on Terror" is the only war that the Army has to gear up for. One of the Army's "principal challenges," he said, "is to regain its traditional edge of fighting conventional wars while retaining what it has learned and relearned about unconventional wars." But then, he added that these unconventional wars are "the ones most likely to be fought in the years ahead."
The implication was clear: The Army's primary mission—which drives its weapons procurement, its force structure, its culture, everything about it—is to be relegated to secondary status and supplanted by a focus on counterinsurgency, training, and advising.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates by Alex Wong/Getty Images.