Small Wars

This Week at War: Rumsfeld’s Revenge

Robert Gates was certainly more popular, but his predecessor was far more influential.


Rumsfeld wins the doctrine war

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s retirement last week was accompanied by warm praise for his leadership style, his political acumen, and his judgment on critical policy issues. Gates left office widely regarded as one of the most effective defense secretaries since the office was created in 1947. This repute is in sharp contrast to that of his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, who left the Pentagon in 2006 under a cloud of scorn from Capitol Hill, the media, and inside the department he ran. Indeed, Gates was brought in specifically to reverse many of Rumsfeld’s policies, which many believed were causing the United States to lose the war in Iraq. Gates restored collegial harmony and got the Pentagon through a dark period.

But Gates’s departure, the wide-ranging overhaul of Barack Obama’s national security team, and, most importantly, the president’s decision to withdraw 33,000 soldiers from Afghanistan by next summer shows that the "Rumsfeld Doctrine" is now the accepted standard operating procedure for current and future policymakers. In the end, Rumsfeld won the Doctrine War.

During the first Bush term, and even before the 9/11 attacks, Rumsfeld struggled with the Pentagon, and especially the Army, to create faster, lighter, more flexible, and more expeditionary military forces. Planning for the Iraq campaign in 2002 exposed the rift between Rumsfeld and Army planners, who preferred to replicate the slow massive buildup of armored divisions that had crushed the Iraqi army in the Desert Storm campaign in 1991. Buoyed by the success a handful of intelligence operators, special operations soldiers, and precision air power achieved in Afghanistan, Rumsfeld forced Central Command planners to rip up their Desert Storm-inspired war plan and opt instead for a much smaller force that would be supported by precision firepower and special operations forces.

Even as the Iraqi insurgency negated the campaign’s initial success, Rumsfeld persisted in institutionalizing the "faster, lighter" expeditionary doctrine. In 2003, Rumsfeld brought Gen. Peter Schoomaker, who had spent most of his career in special operations, out of retirement to be Army chief of staff. Charged with implementing Rumsfeld’s vision, Schoomaker’s most notable innovation was the Army’s conversion from the large division as the basic deploying unit to the smaller and easier-to-deploy brigade. As the insurgency worsened in Iraq, Rumsfeld resisted pressure to build up a larger and heavier U.S. ground commitment. He also resisted pressure to add to the Army and Marine Corps headcounts to relieve the strain on deploying soldiers, preferring that Pentagon funding remain committed to research and equipment modernization rather than be diverted to personnel accounts. The Iraq campaign had become a distraction to Rumsfeld’s transformation agenda and, in his view, feeding more resources into it would only create Iraqi dependency.

Immediately upon entering office, Gates directed the Pentagon to focus on the present crisis in Iraq rather than Rumsfeld’s goals of transformation for the future. Reversing long-held Rumsfeld positions, Gates ordered increases in headcounts for the Army and Marine Corps and implemented the troop surge and a protect-the-population counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq.

But the setback for the Rumsfeld Doctrine was only temporary. Obama now seems to agree with Rumsfeld that the long U.S. campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in an unhealthy dependency by the hosts — Obama’s speeches on Iraq and Afghanistan have always included his insistence that these countries take responsibility for their security within explicit deadlines.

Rumsfeld’s and Schoomaker’s redesign of the Army into a lighter, more mobile, and more expeditionary force seems permanent. Gone is the Cold War and Desert Storm concept of the long buildup of armor as prelude to a massive decisive battle. Instead, globally mobile brigade combat teams will provide deterrence, respond to crises, and sustain expeditionary campaigns. Gen. Martin Dempsey, the current Army chief of staff (and soon to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) recently described a sustainable brigade rotation system, an expeditionary adaptation that the Navy and Marine Corps have employed for decades. In addition, both the Army and Marine Corps have drawn up plans to shrink their headcounts back near the Rumsfeld-era levels. Rumsfeld’s concerns about personnel costs sapping modernization are now coming to pass.

There now seems to be a near-consensus inside Washington that the large open-ended ground campaigns that Rumsfeld resisted are no longer sustainable. The former defense secretary’s preference for special operations forces, air power, networked intelligence, and indigenous allies is now back in vogue. Even Gen. David Petraeus, who burnished his reputation by reversing Rumsfeld’s policies in Iraq, will now implement Rumsfeld’s doctrine in eastern Afghanistan. According to the New York Times, the U.S. will counter the deteriorating situation there not by shifting in conventional ground troops for pacification, but with "more special forces, intelligence, surveillance, air power … [and] substantially more Afghan boots on the ground."

Gates no doubt deserves the praise he has received. He came to the Pentagon during a dark moment and restored respect for the Pentagon’s civilian leadership. If the battle is over management style, Gates wins in a knockout. But events, combined with experience gained through trial-and-error, have given the ultimate victory to Rumsfeld’s military doctrine.

Taiwan needs missile engineers, not more F-16s

According to the Washington Post, the Obama administration is receiving pressure from some members of Congress to sell more arms to Taiwan, a subject the White House undoubtedly prefers would disappear. In play are proposals to either upgrade Taiwan’s current fleet of aging F-16 fighters or replace them new models fresh from Lockheed Martin’s assembly line in Texas. The Washington Post reports that Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) is holding up a confirmation vote for deputy secretary of state nominee William Burns until Secretary of State Hillary Clinton affirms that the administration will grant Taiwan improved F-16s. Forty-seven senators signed a letter urging Obama to grant the request.

Cornyn and his colleagues intervened because the administration has already preemptively rejected the F-16 request. Last month, Taiwan’s de facto embassy in Washington was preparing a formal request for the F-16 upgrade but was discreetly informed by the White House not to bother. Meanwhile, the clock ticks down for Taiwan’s elderly jets, 70 percent of which will likely be retired over the next decade. And with no more orders from the U.S. Air Force and few prospects for additional foreign sales, the F-16 assembly line in Texas could close in 2013.

The Obama administration’s January 2010 package for Taiwan, which consisted of exclusively defensive equipment, blew up the Pentagon’s relationship with Beijing for over a year. An F-16 deal would undoubtedly be even more explosive.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations have demurred on Taiwan’s F-16 request and for good reason. As the Pentagon’s annual report on Chinese military power explains, China’s ballistic and cruise missile force, which the report terms "most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile program in the world," is more than capable of crushing Taiwan’s airfields, rendering Taiwan’s fixed-wing air power nearly useless. Anticipating this, Taiwan has plans to fly its fighters from highways. But this is no way to generate enough sorties to confront a high-intensity attack from China; fighter aircraft need maintenance, fuel, ordnance, and much other support, all of which are efficiently located at modern airbases, not by the side of a highway.

What Taiwan needs instead is to mimic mainland China’s missile program. Mobile launchers, which unlike airfields could evade detection and targeting, could support both battlefield and strategic missiles that could hold targets on the mainland at risk. Such a program could do a better job of restoring a military balance across the Taiwan Strait than would fixed-wing aircraft operating from vulnerable bases.

Taiwan has, in fact, long been pursuing a variety of indigenous missile types. However, the engineers have yet to get all of the bugs out — a test last week of a new supersonic anti-ship cruise missile failed to find its target. This followed two more failed tests earlier this year of other missile designs.

The jockeying over the F-16 sale is about more than practical military utility. It also involves issues of symbolism and attempts to preserve the defense industrial base inside the United States. But Taiwan’s struggle to adapt to the immense missile threat from the mainland — over a thousand ballistic missiles are now aimed at Taiwan and a hundred more are added every year — also applies to U.S. military strategy in the region. United States military plans can no more rely on fixed bases and concentrated surface naval forces than Taiwan can. In the meantime, Taiwan could use some missile engineers instead of more F-16s.

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.