In an unusually revealing speech at West Point last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates effectively wrote off much of the country’s recent effort to prepare the weaponry and military configurations of the future; lamented that the armed forces spent too much time planning war and not enough in conducting useful activities; dismissed the possibility of war or major confrontations with other leading powers; and told the brass and officer candidates of the U.S. Army that in the next phase of American national security, most of the burden will be carried by the Navy and Air Force.
The secretary has an extensive interdisciplinary background. He was an academic Soviet and Russian expert, a long-serving intelligence professional (including service as director, and deputy director, of Central Intelligence), a memoirist, and an apparently successful university president. He has earned a reputation as a thoughtful and fearless Defense chief, completely independent both of the senior officers and the great defense contractors. He served on the Iraq Study Group, set up under former secretary of state James Baker and House foreign-affairs-committee chairman Lee Hamilton, which was essentially a bipartisan panel established to design as extensive and plausible a fig leaf as it could find to cover the retirement of the U.S. from Iraq, in tacit acknowledgement that the nation-building mission had not succeeded and would not succeed at any politically acceptable cost. It was heavily influenced by the friends of George H. W. Bush, and there were traces of family rivalry in its composition and mission statement. The ISG’s report eventually called for the accomplishment of every desirable but unattainable objective in the Middle East, including a resolution of disagreements between Israel and Palestine, as preconditions for success in Iraq, and strayed far afield from the pacification of that country then being rather indifferently pursued.
In the most creatively Machiavellian act of his career, President George W. Bush absorbed a midterm-election setback in 2006, sacked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, plucked Gates from the ISG in the latter stages of preparation of its blueprint for executing a cut-and-run in Iraq, and installed Gates at the Pentagon to do exactly the opposite of what the ISG was proposing, and supervise the surge, the insertion of two more divisions in Iraq with changed rules of engagement. It was an artistic tour of the political circle by George W., a man not much given to such nuanced policymaking: accepting the establishment of such a dovecote of a committee, enduring its deliberations, and then quietly dragooning one of its members to do exactly the opposite of the climbdown that the paternal and avuncular wiser heads were readying themselves, with unmistakable condescension, to advise. George W. doubled his Iraq bet in the face of great skepticism, and it has worked. U.S. troop withdrawals in Iraq, of about 70 percent of their high, have been accompanied by further reductions in violence and continuing economic progress, and inching progress toward better relations between the main communities of Iraq. The contemporary buildup in Afghanistan, somewhat following the Iraq model, has made very significant progress toward pacification of that country. This Secretary of Defense shares in the credit for these successes.
The era of confrontations between large armies, Mr. Gates asserts, is over, and what is more likely is the projection of powers of interdiction from the air and sea, with an amphibious-insertion capacity of more modest and less heavily armored manpower levels. This reflects the fact that the other major powers are unlikely to attack outwards with large standing armies, as was feared throughout the Cold War in central Europe and Korea, and on the Chinese periphery. Russia has no ability to threaten, much less intimidate, Western Europe; the prospects of China conducting a land invasion of its neighbors are effectively zero. Though China is the greatest military power in east Asia (other than the nuclear capabilities in that theater of the U.S.), the steady military buildup of the Japanese, Indians, and others indicate that no imbalance of force in the theater will arise that cannot be corrected by American assistance through the Seventh Fleet and other forces deployed in the area. General MacArthur famously said in his address to the Congress in 1951 that “No man in his right mind . . . would commit an army to continental China,” and Gates, invoking the same source, applied the same standard to large-scale deployments to anywhere in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa (Europe and the Americas are not under consideration under any currently believable scenario).
From 2003, when the Rumsfeld Army presented its plan to wage future wars with light, networked electric-powered combat equipment (called Future Combat Systems or FCS), and set out to arm itself accordingly at an initially estimated cost of $92 billion, the notion of war against large armies has faded and the requirements of fighting the sources of terrorism have diverged sharply from what had been planned. There have been terrible technology failures in the FCS program, the $92 billion has ballooned as it can only do in the Pentagon, to $200 billion, and the emphasis on robotics and lighter armor has been superseded by the requirements of moving personnel through areas infested with high explosive devices designed to kill American and Allied forces in transit. A few elements of FCS, such as anti-mine robots and the aerial-drone family, will be extracted from FCS, but the rest of the vastly touted and expensive program appears to be on automatic pilot to the ash heap.
Gates has expressed suspicion of what he calls “next-waritis” — which is certainly preferable to refighting the last war — but he thinks the present pattern of irregular war, where the opponent tries to avoid the confrontations where the U.S. is inherently strong, will continue; the future is the present. The emphasis will be on “swift-moving expeditionary forces, be they army or Marines, airborne infantry or special operations . . . given the likelihood of counter-terrorism, rapid reaction, disaster-response or stability or security-force assistance missions.” Tanks, artillery, and armored fighting vehicles are likely to be less in demand.
Potential rival powers, still generally Russia and China, are emphasizing submarines and stealth aircraft rather than heavy land armor. Gates is pledged to acquire a new stealth bomber, and 1,700 of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; and also to double the number of attack nuclear submarines. He emphasizes that heavy forces cannot be disbanded, as their hour can always return and they are often needed to smash things open for lighter irregular forces, just as he resisted the excessive reduction of naval-projection capability in a previous phase.
He favors expanding the number of ships in the fleet, whose numbers, he says, have reached their lowest point since the Thirties. Not so clear is the status of the giant fleet carrier, of which 17 are now active, though several are always under refit. These behemoths carry a hundred aircraft and 6,000 men, and have an immense nuclear capability. But the latest Chinese surface-to-surface theater missiles indicate a potential American vulnerability; those large carriers represent an immense commitment of resources in this era the secretary limns of decentralized and unforeseeable counter-war. (A small note on the personal bugbear of nomenclature of the great carriers: No one could object to naming the ships after Admiral Nimitz or distinguished deceased presidents, but naming them after former congressional armed-forces chairmen and the senior President Bush, by order of his son when the nominee is in a fit state to attend the launch ceremony, ties the name of the ship too closely to the authorization of the vessel. This is no rap on Messrs. Vinson and Stennis, and the Bushes, but it is creeping monarchism, if not a descent toward naming these magnificent vessels after the defense contractors themselves. Those ships should have been named after such figures as Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin, George Marshall, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.)
There has been too little sharing of penetrating strategic thinking in major addresses by qualified officials, on the model of Washington’s farewell address warning of permanent alliances, and Eisenhower’s, warning of the military-industrial complex. Secretary Gates opened the kimono on some of the Pentagon’s misdirections, and rightly shared, with a nation that generously provides volunteers to its armed forces, a thoughtful prognosis of the nation’s strategic challenges from an unusually well-qualified expert in a key position at a watershed time.
CORRECTION: Thanks to Patrick Bechet, Max Jenkins, and Capt. Lee A. Steele, who have written to tell me that the United States Navy has only 11 fleet aircraft carriers, instead of the 17 I wrote. The ships at issue are the last six built before the nuclear-powered carriers were introduced: CV 61 to 64 and 66 and 67, Ranger, Independence, Kitty Hawk, Constellation, America, and John F. Kennedy. I was referring to active carriers or carriers that could be relatively quickly reintroduced into service if needed, and read from an obsolete source that was mistakenly dated and appeared reliable. America was sunk after use as a target ship in 2005 (determining just the questions raised, of the vulnerability to various forms of attack of large aircraft carriers). Independence was struck in 2004 and though still afloat, has been severely stripped for newer ships. Ranger and Constellation are in the Inactive Ship Maintenance Program and could theoretically be reactivated. John F. Kennedy is in the naval reserve fleet and Kitty Hawk is in the Ready Reserve Fleet, and both ships could be refitted to service. I had understood three of these vessels were among the four out of service, and that the other three could be brought back if necessary. There are eleven active fleet carriers and in the circumstances none of these vessels should be considered, as there is no present thought of returning them to service. I was also challenged on the number of aircraft per ship, which I accept is usually less than 100, but this depends on what types of aircraft are allotted and whether any spares are carried. And I was challenged on the vulnerability of seaborne carriers to surface-to-surface missile fire. I only stated that that was a matter of concern and it is. I apologize for my reliance on an out-of-date source and confusing summary of available carrier forces. My errors, though unseemly, do not alter the points I was attempting to make.