Small Wars

This Week at War: Gates’s Preemptive Damage Control

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal


Gates tries to get a grip on McChrystal

After appointing Gen. Stanley McChrystal the new commander in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates gave him two months to write an analysis of the situation there in yet another review of U.S. strategy. But after rumors leaked out that McChrystal would ask for another increase in U.S. troops, it appears that Gates decided he would not wait for McChrystal’s finished report. On Aug. 2, he summoned McChrystal and his deputy, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, to a hastily arranged meeting in Belgium which also included Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, NATO commander Admiral James Stavridis, McChrystal’s direct boss Gen. David Petraeus, and under secretary of defense for policy Michele Flournoy.

On Aug. 5, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell briefed reporters on the results of the unusual Sunday meeting. According to Morrell, Gates instructed McChrystal to consider a few additional, and unspecified, issues in his report. Gates also instructed McChrystal to take more time, likely postponing the delivery of the report into September.

Finally, Morrell explained that McChrystal’s report will not include any discussion or request for additional "resources" (meaning U.S. troops and money) for Afghanistan. If McChrystal wants to make such a request, Morrell said, he will do so separately and at a later time.

What accounts for Gates’s preemptive meeting with McChrystal? It is possible that Gates (or someone else in the administration) feared that McChrystal’s report would take on a life of its own, perhaps compelling Gates and President Barack Obama into decisions they would prefer not to make. If true, the meeting in Belgium was an attempt to minimize the report’s impact by redefining its purpose, reducing its prominence, and controlling the timing of its release. We will see in September whether Gates accomplished these goals.

Yet regardless of how he manages McChrystal, the general’s implicit message will be the need for more U.S. troops in Afghanistan, either in direct combat to suppress the Taliban or serving as trainers and advisors to an expanding Afghan army.

With  this year’s doubling of the U.S. troop level in Afghanistan, Gates and his commanders expected more casualties, and indeed, July was the deadliest month of the war for the United States and 2009 will certainly be the deadliest year of the Afghan war. But Gates was also hoping for signs that the situation would visibly stabilize during 2010. A request by McChrystal for even more U.S. troops would mean a deeper U.S. commitment, not to mention even more combat deaths.

One can hardly blame Gates for intervening before the final report took on a life of its own. He’s still hoping for a quiet landing. But McChrystal’s report will very likely arrive with a loud bang.

Shrinking Arctic ice will stretch a shrinking U.S. Navy

Climate change and reduced sea ice cover may result in opening up the Arctic to vastly increased resource development and commercial traffic. These trends will inevitably spark international conflicts and create a need for more military forces to provide security and protect interests in the Arctic region. This is bad news for the U.S. Navy, already hard-pressed by shrinking fleets and rising challenges elsewhere.

Rear Adm. David Titley, the U.S. Navy’s top oceanographer, was recently in Barrow, Alaska supervising a global warming research expedition. According to Titley, changes in Arctic sea ice cover will require a new assessment of the Navy’s maritime strategy. Such an assessment will likely recommend changes to military infrastructure in the Arctic, military force structure deployed to the Arctic, and new capabilities to respond to a changing Arctic climate.

The June 2006 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings journal (registration required) contained an article by Lt. Magda Hanna that described the looming implications of Arctic climate change for resource development, commercial activity, and clashing national interests. Hanna discussed competing subsurface territorial claims, Arctic oil and natural gas potential, sovereignty disputes over Arctic shipping routes, China’s interests in the Arctic; and U.S. Navy and Coast Guard capabilities in the Arctic region. Her conclusion is that significant growth in Arctic commerce, opened up by reduced sea ice, will result in the need for a larger U.S. naval presence in the region.

This added requirement couldn’t come at a more stressful time for the U.S. Navy. The U.S. Navy is down to 285 deployable battle force ships from nearly 600 during the 1980s. Although the U.S. Navy is without question far more powerful than any other navy and will be for many years, it also has global responsibilities, requiring patrolling in many corners of the oceans. Reduced sea ice in the Arctic will add more corners to patrol.

Meanwhile, Navy shipbuilders remain incapable of building new surface warships on time and on budget. In April, Gates terminated the Navy’s next-generation destroyer program and delayed decisions about the next-generation cruiser and amphibious assault ships until after the next Quadrennial Defense Review arrives. Gates ordered an acceleration of Littoral Combat Ship purchases, but that program is plagued with severe cost overruns and contractor problems.

Thus, the Navy faces the prospect of an expanded list of tasks just when it is having the most difficulty getting enough ships to go out on patrol. There is a real risk that an adversary may be able to achieve local superiority over a Navy stretched by these new responsibilities. Climate change is forcing adaptation all around the world, not least inside the Pentagon.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.