Gates fights the last war

Gates fights the last war

By Kori Schake

There is an interesting, if unsurprising bit of news in today’s Post:

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is expected to announce on Monday the restructuring of several dozen major defense programs as part of the Obama administration’s bid to shift military spending from preparations for large-scale war against traditional rivals to the counterinsurgency programs that Gates and others consider likely to dominate U.S. conflicts in coming decades.

Gates is setting a course to focus on counterinsurgency that will likely come at the expense of other military capabilities when budget trade-offs need to be made. The wars we are fighting do not refute transformation. Much of what Rumsfeld identified as the central advantages and central weaknesses of our military actually have been validated: our space infrastructure is too weak for the increasing demands we place on it; integrating battlefield information with long-distance precision strike allows U.S. forces to react with a dominating speed; and persistent surveillance is revolutionizing our operations.

Gates’s emphasis on institutionalizing counterinsurgency sounds remarkably like fighting the last war, and too little effort has been directed toward redressing those vulnerabilities in U.S. military power most likely to produce losses in future wars. The United States is already reasonably good at counterinsurgency, as a result of the Iraq war, and the equipment has adapted relatively quickly despite a balky Pentagon bureaucracy. Gates is adopting a conservative approach that will make other, harder adaptations — like handling cyber attacks — more difficult in the future.  

All of this comes at a time when, despite two years at the helm of the Defense Department, Gates did not put his stamp on the medium-term spending plans that shape America’s defense effort. With the important exception of his emphasis on Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle acquisition, he submitted two budgets and several supplemental spending requests that did not make hard choices. While questioning the need for some systems, Gates has continued to fund them. Indeed, he developed a FY2010 budget last fall — after the election of his current boss — that would have increased annual defense spending to $584 billion, a significant jump over even the Bush administration’s sustained seven percent yearly spending increases. 

These budgetary issues are important in their own right, but they also serve as a reminder that Gates’s strategy for this year’s Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) is focused on the wrong set of questions for defining U.S. defense policy. Last year, just as Obama was being inaugurated, Gates preempted the new administration’s defense program by publishing a National Defense Strategy and excerpting it in Foreign Affairs. His strategy is a paean to "balance," but it and Monday’s likely announcement will set a course for the QDR strongly weighted toward counterinsurgency. In judging that "the most likely catastrophic threats to the U.S. homeland … are more likely to emanate from failing states than from aggressor states," Gates has set in motion a substantial revision to U.S. defense strategy that goes much further than institutionalizing counterinsurgency warfare capabilities or wrestling with the means of fighting and winning hybrid wars. 

No president can relegate catastrophic threats to the homeland to second place in the hierarchy of defending our national interests. In determining that failing states are the major threat to the U.S. homeland, Gates has said the military means to prevent them from affecting our security is job number one. This will require a much different emphasis in the number and type of our military forces, and in the balance between them and the civilian agencies.

Gates’s approach is likely to perfect our counterinsurgency capabilities, but seeing the excellence we have developed because of the wars we are fighting, even insurgents will surely probe for other vulnerabilities. And our future wars will not be waged exclusively against insurgents. Nor will they focused merely on stabilizing weak and failing states.

Rumsfeld denigrated the human element of warfare to focus on high-tech innovation. His successor is about to make the reverse mistake.