Robert Gates: On his way out, the defense secretary gives the military some refreshingly frank advice.

Military analysis.
March 4 2011 6:14 PM

Not Mincing Words

On his way out the door, Robert Gates gives the military some refreshingly frank advice.

Robert Gates. Click image to expand.
Robert Gates

And so it seems, Robert Gates really will be leaving the Pentagon soon.

He's been going around to the military academies—West Point last week, the Air Force Academy today, Annapolis sometime soon—bidding farewell to the cadets, pointedly noting at the start of each speech that it will be his "final" address to them as secretary of defense. But Gates is not indulging in valedictory bromides. He's using the occasions to lay out his vision of what each branch—and each future officer—of the U.S. armed forces must do, and not do, to meet the threats of the 21st century.

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He's given bits and pieces of these speeches before: The Army needs to shift from a garrison peacetime force that's preparing for a possible head-on armored clash against a foe of comparable strength to a mobile force that's fighting actual "asymmetric" wars against rogue states and insurgents. The Air Force needs to pull back from its traditional obsession with high-tech air-to-air combat and focus more on joint operations—surveillance, precise air strikes, cargo transport, and rapid rescue—that help the troops on the ground. The Navy needs to focus less on aircraft carriers and more on vessels that can maneuver in coastal waters.

In short, as he put it in these most recent speeches, the "defense bureaucracy," with its "parochial tendencies" and "institutional constipation," must abandon its "nostalgia" for Cold War ways and adapt to the modern, messy world. The Pentagon has to learn the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, and incorporate those lessons into its culture.

Gates has spent much of these past two years force-feeding these lessons to the Pentagon bureaucracy, and his big worry is that—once he's gone and, especially, once the current wars wind down and thus the urgency dissipates—things will revert to form. The bureaucrats will heave a sigh of relief and go back to doing what they've long thought a "normal" Army, Air Force, and Navy should be doing.

His still bigger fear is that, as the restoration sets in, the most creative and capable junior officers will leave the military out of frustration and boredom. These officers have led men and women in multiple combat tours, charted the boldest innovations, taken the most extraordinary risks, accepted the responsibilities and rewards.  Yet when they're rotated into a staff job, often in the prime of their professional lives, they find themselves trapped in a cubicle, reformatting PowerPoint slides and preparing quarterly readiness reports. "The consequences of this terrify me," Gates said in his West Point speech.

Gates urged the cadets to take adventurous detours in their careers—go to graduate school, teach for a few years, become foreign-area specialists: in short, to broaden their perspectives, diversify their talents. Some of the most prominent officers of the past decade—Gen. David Petraeus among them—have done just that.

In 2007, soon after Petraeus took over the command in Iraq and shifted to a counterinsurgency strategy, Gates brought him to Washington to chair the Army's annual promotion board. Several of the most creative colonels, who had adapted to the new strategy in Iraq with greatest success and innovation, were seeing their careers blocked by the traditionally minded generals who usually ran the promotion board (and who had no experience in this style of combat).

The Petraeus-run board (which was packed with other like-minded generals) rammed through the creative colonels' promotion—and thus took the first steps at fomenting a cultural revolution within the Army.

On another front, Gates rammed through several weapons systems that he saw as vital to the war effort but that the defense bureaucrats were resisting. The systems included, most notably, new "unmanned aerial vehicles" (popularly known as "drones") and a new armored troop-carrier, the MRAP, which provided more protection against the roadside bombs that were beginning to kill so many U.S. soldiers and Marines.

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