25 February 2011

Gates Wrong On Future Of Army

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, addressing West Point cadets on the future of the Army, and more broadly the U.S. Armed Services sketched a vision that, while on track for the Air Force, Navy and the Army's heavy forces, is off base when it comes to the appropriateness of a U.S. capability for handling counter-insurgency actions.

Some of his vision, I agree with:

* He made the point that there should be fewer high level officers in the military, and that more input from peers and subordinates would result in the selection of better senior officers, should not micromanage officers and should not encourage a culture that is too risk averse.

* He suggested that the Army should reduce its heavy armor forces.

* He noted 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," he said."

But, just as the military did after Vietnam, he thinks that it is good policy to try to prevent large-scale counter-insurgency wars like those in Iraq or Afghanistan by removing the capability to conduct that operation from the Army, despite the overwhelming evidence of history that the nation will call upon it again and again to carry out these missions.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates . . . envisages a future ground force that will be smaller, pack less heavy firepower and will not engage in large-scale counter-insurgency wars like those in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"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," Gates quipped.

The defense chief predicted that Army and Marine forces would increasingly be asked to focus more on short-duration counterterrorism strikes and disaster relief. As he has for the past several years, Gates called on the Army to devote more of its best personnel to training and equipping foreign militaries.

Gates said he was not advocating the Army should become a counter-insurgency or nation-building force. "By no means am I suggesting that the Army will, or should, turn into a Victorian nation-building constabulary - designed to chase guerrillas, build schools or sip tea."

Here, he is wrong. While the Navy and Air Force can take over much of the "high end" capabilities in conflicts with "near peer" opponents, at great expense, but probably with fewer soldiers as technology automates their functions, the "low end" capabilities involving asymmetric warfare and counterinsurgency are obligations that will not go away, missions that require capabilities that the U.S. Army lacks, but should have, and missions where there are no substitutes for large numbers of trained soldiers on the ground.

Indeed, Gates is himself contradictory and ambivalent on the point. He noted that "the training and equipping of foreign armies" should be a mission that the Army, despite the fact that he doesn't see that work as real soldiering, and that officers should consider the training in languages and foreign cultures that are critical to counterinsurgency operations on the ground.

Despite a big push in recent years to build the Iraqi and Afghan militaries, the U.S. Army has traditionally treated the training and equipping of foreign armies as a career backwater, and Gates's efforts to raise the importance of the mission within the U.S. military have met with mixed results.

"How do we institutionalize security force assistance into the Army's regular force structure, and make the related experience and skill set a career-enhancing pursuit? Gates asked, repeating a question he first put to the Army in 2008. "Men and women in the prime of their professional lives, who may have been responsible for the lives of scores or hundreds of troops, or millions of dollars in assistance, or engaging or reconciling warring tribes, may find themselves in a cube all day re-formatting PowerPoint slides," Gates told the West Point cadets. "The consequences of this terrify me."

To head off this malaise Gates urged the cadets to take career risks, taking assignments that in the past might have been seen by their peers as career dead-ends. "I would encourage you to become a master of other languages and cultures, a priority of mine since taking this post," he said.

The simple truth is that one can't simply outsource all counterinsurgency missions and asymmetric warfare to someone else's less loyal, less well trained and often corrupt local forces.

Even if the United States retains a Navy just as large as its current one, which is so large that it rivals the Navies of all the rest of the world's potential opponents combined, it could still reduce the number of sailors by about two-thirds by automating new ships that replace the existing fleet to the same degree as it has in the Littoral Combat Ship.

Yet, for all of the Navy's clout, it doesn't have great solutions to the vulnerabilities of its surface combatants to advanced anti-ship missiles, swarms of missile boats, mine warfare or submarines, and it hasn't figured out to deal with asymmetric conflicts like piracy.

This past week, the U.S. Navy took on seventeen pirates who were holding four Americans hostage on a captured yatch off Somalia. This was an entirely appropriate mission that is as old as the Navy. The hostages died, two pirates were killed and the rest were captured. Not the optimal result, but no one claims that a better result was possible by the time that the Navy knew of the problem.

What is outrageous about how the Navy handled the problem is the amount of resources it devoted to handling it. It deployed an aircraft carrier and three surface combatants, with several tens of thousands of sailors with twenty billion dollars of equipment, to take on seventeen pirates who probably outfitted themselves for under $100,000. Admittedly, at the moment, those ships probably had nothing better to do. We aren't fighting a major naval war right now, and we have lots of ships in the sea that are there mostly for other purposes. But, if we use that level of resources routinely to deal with such pathetic and low budget local adversaries, the Navy will lose any war of attrition it faces. It is not enough to be able to defeat pirates. We need to have the capacity to take on asymmetric naval threats in a resource efficient way.

A basic problem with the U.S. force structure is that we have too few infantry soldiers who can be deployed in places like Afghanistan or Iraq. Fighting these two small wars against vastly inferior opponents has strained the Army to its limited and required the U.S. to come just short of instituting a draft by utilizing every available Army Reserve soldier, Army National Guard solider, Marine, borrowed sailors from the Navy, and excessively long and frequent rotations for active duty soldiers. Moreover, we were stretched so thin that we could respond to no other threats in the world had they come up at that point in time.

We shouldn't need to reach that level of mobilization simply to deal with an disorganized rabble in a medium sized country, with no weapon to heavy to be stashed in the trunk of a Honda Accord, no fixed bases of operation, no aircraft, no tanks, no armored personnel carriers, no helicopters and no ships.

In the next war it may well make sense to take out opposing tanks and artillery sites with cruise missiles from ships and smart bombs. But, there is no substitute for boots on the ground in other missions. We need far more of those boots available to meet the needs of the President, we need suitable equipment for those asymmetric missions, and we need to give more of our troops skill sets, like language and cultural skills and civil affairs expertise that is needed to win those wars.

For all that Secretary Gates seems to despite the Victorians strategy of conquering the world over tea, he needs to recall that it worked. The Victorians didn't rule two-thirds of the world with unassailable air power or guided cruise missiles. They conquered the world by understanding their mission, training lightly armed soldiers in the skills needed to conduct that mission, and training gentleman officers to use their heads and recognize that the military is simply one component of a bigger picture of diplomacy and politics.

The hard reality that we are learning is that it no longer works to rely on fellow sovereign nations to take care of their own turf. Wild territory in Central Asia, or unscrupulous arms deals between distant nations with whom we are not currently at war can put the United States and its allies at grave risk. It is no longer the case that a military force in a distant land can't hurt us because we aren't close. In an area of remotely controlled weapons, dirty bombs, intermediate range rockets and trade volumes that can never be inspected in detail, any insufficiently policed state can put the U.S. at risk. We can only defend ourselves by being capable of taking on those threats before they reach our shores. And, that takes military capabilities that Secretary Gates wants to deny our Army in an ill starred effort to convince the Presidents his successors will work for to fight the kinds of wars that are at the center of what his country is calling up the Army to do right now on multiple fronts.

Yes, the heavy side of the Army, like the Air Force, like the Navy, should become more potent and less personnel intensive. But, the Army is the force that should have the primary responsibility for fighting low intensity conflicts and should have far more soldiers than it does, many with very different kinds of training, so that it is capable of addressing those threats.

No comments: