Former defense secretary Gates warns against lure of drone warfare

October 23, 2013

Former defense secretary Robert M. Gates warned Wednesday that the seductive power and precision of armed drones had led many in the White House and Congress to view war as a “bloodless, painless and odorless” affair.

“Remarkable advances in precision munitions, sensors, information and satellite technology and more can make us overly enamored with the ability of technology to transform the traditional laws and limits of war,” Gates said in a speech to a group of current and former soldiers, according to a copy of his prepared remarks. “A button is pushed in Nevada and seconds later a pickup truck explodes in Kandahar.”

Too often, Gates said, U.S. defense experts have come to view war as a “kind of video game or action movie. . . . In reality, war is inevitably tragic, inefficient and uncertain.”

The former defense secretary, speaking at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference in Washington, suggested that the infatuation with technology had led some politicians and defense experts to believe that the military’s budget can be cut deeply with little harm. He called on Republicans and Democrats to put aside partisan fighting to solve the budget crisis and reverse plans to reduce defense spending by almost $1 trillion over the next decade.

Gates was especially harsh in his critique of the political climate, saying that “the biggest threat to U.S. national security is the political dysfunction within two square miles of Washington, D.C.”

“My hope — and it is a faint hope — is that the remaining adults in the two political parties will make the compromises necessary to put this country’s finances back in order, end the sequestration of military dollars, and protect military capabilities that are as necessary today as they have been through the last century,” he said.

Gates’s remarks were certain to be warmly received in the Army, which faces the deepest cuts of all the military services. Leaders in both Congress and the White House have spoken of the need to reduce ground troops and shift the focus to Asia, where air and sea power are thought to be more important.

The former defense secretary also called on the military to hold on to the hard lessons it had learned during the long stretch of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially lessons involving how to fight low-tech, guerrilla wars. “It is too easy to forget that there are still tens of thousands of soldiers serving in Afghanistan; too easy to forget the tremendous sacrifices that led to the security progress of recent years,” he said.

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