Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates implored the U.S. military Tuesday to prepare more for fighting future wars against insurgents and militias such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than spending so much time and money preparing for conventional conflicts.
In unusually strong language, Gates warned against what he described as a tendency in the Pentagon to fall back on Cold War mentalities and said he feared that lessons from the U.S. struggle against insurgencies in Iraq could fade unless military commanders understand that today's enemies are the foes of the future.
Gates said there must be a balance between meeting today's demands and tomorrow's contingencies, but he expressed concern that the defense establishment is not concentrating hard enough on what might be needed in future conflicts. He said the armed services and their corporate counterparts should steer technology and resources toward battling insurgencies.
"Overall, the kinds of capabilities we will most likely need in the years ahead will often resemble the kinds of capabilities we need today," Gates said at a Heritage Foundation conference in the shadow of the North American Aerospace Defense Command's (NORAD) Cheyenne Mountain compound. "What we must guard against is the kind of backsliding that has occurred in the past, where if nature takes its course, these kinds of capabilities -- that is, counterinsurgency -- tend to wither on the vine."
Gates also criticized the tendency of armed services to fund technologies that could deal with future threats while current needs go unmet. He pointed to the lapses at Walter Reed Army Medical Center -- where the reluctance to spend money on a facility slated to close led to substandard conditions for service members returning from war.
He also mentioned the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected truck, a $1 million vehicle designed to protect U.S. troops from improvised bombs that Gates said met resistance because some officials said it would not be useful after the war in Iraq. He said that in more than 150 attacks on MRAPs, only six soldiers died, citing it as an example of a system that troops need now but that is "competing with the funding for future weapons systems with strong constituencies inside and outside the Pentagon."
Gates has raised this issue before, particularly in discussions of the Air Force's F-22 fighter jet, which that service covets for its speed, agility and ability to battle advanced fighters from countries such as China, but which has not made a single combat sortie over Iraq or Afghanistan.
"I believe that any major weapons program, in order to remain viable, will have to show some utility and relevance to the kind of irregular campaigns that, as I mentioned, are most likely to engage America's military in coming decades," Gates said. "Without a fundamental change to this dynamic, it will be difficult to sustain support for these kinds of weapons programs in the future."
He also criticized the Pentagon's procurement cycle, which, he said, adds cost and complexity.
Gates said the wars of the past quarter-century point to a need for counterinsurgency strength, including conflicts involving the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Israelis in Lebanon and Americans 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," Gates said. "And even nation-states will try to exploit our perceived vulnerabilities in an asymmetric way, rather than play to our inherent strengths."
Gates said the U.S. military "would be hard-pressed to launch a major conventional ground operation elsewhere in the world at this time," but he added: "Where would we sensibly do that? The United States has ample and untapped combat power in our naval and air forces, with the capacity to defeat any, repeat any, adversary who committed an act of aggression, whether in the Persian Gulf, on the Korean Peninsula, or in the Straits of Taiwan. There is a risk, but it is a prudent and manageable one."
But Gates said that if the U.S. were to give up on Iraq -- to lose there -- it would send a message that the Army is broken, and that such a failure could cripple the all-volunteer force as an institution.
"That is the war we are in," Gates said. "That is the war we must win."