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Gates Criticizes Conventional Focus At Start of Iraq War

Defense Secretary Robert Gates called for a shift in priorities.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates called for a shift in priorities. (By Haraz N. Ghanbari -- Associated Press)
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By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates yesterday criticized the shock-and-awe strategy of the 2003 Iraq invasion and said the Pentagon's narrow focus on conventional combat operations proved costly when U.S. ground troops had to switch gears to try to stabilize that country.

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The Pentagon bureaucracy failed to respond quickly enough to the military's need for innovative counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates said, and he called for reforms to make the institution more agile and flexible.

The military's struggle to adjust to the counterinsurgency mission in Iraq "came at a frightful human, financial and political cost," Gates told an audience of military officers at the National Defense University here. "For every heroic and resourceful innovation by troops and commanders on the battlefield, there was some institutional shortcoming at the Pentagon that they had to overcome," he said.

While having a military skilled in fighting major conventional ground wars is essential, Gates said, such a war is unlikely in the near future. Yet the Pentagon has placed comparatively too much emphasis on developing high-technology weapon systems aimed at potential state adversaries such as China or Russia that take years to develop, he said, noting that the 2009 budget contains more than $180 billion for such conventional systems.

Such weapons often envision a computerized, idealized version of warfare that Gates suggested is unrealistic.

"Be skeptical of systems analysis, computer models, game theories," he warned, adding that officers should "look askance" at notions of future conflict that imply "adversaries can be cowed, shocked or awed into submission, instead of being tracked down, hilltop by hilltop, house by house."

Instead, Gates said, the Pentagon needs to be able to rapidly purchase and field more low-tech capabilities. "Our conventional modernization programs seek a 99 percent solution in years. Stability and counterinsurgency missions -- the wars we are in -- require 75 percent solutions in months," he said.

For example, Gates said, the Defense Department took too long to develop up-armored Humvees, mine-resistant vehicles, jammers and other gear to counter roadside bombs, as well as new intelligence technologies needed for Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Why did we have to bypass existing institutions and procedures to get the capabilities we need to protect our troops and pursue the wars we are in?" he said.

Gates said that given U.S. military dominance in air, land and sea power, the Pentagon can safely shift away from building small numbers of highly advanced ships, aircraft, and other systems and instead purchase larger quantities of simpler, cheaper equipment -- potentially for use by foreign military partners. For instance, he said that in Iraq a task force has expanded its surveillance capabilities by using turboprop aircraft coupled with advanced sensors, he said.

Gates predicted that in coming years the main threat faced by the U.S. military overseas will be a complex hybrid of conventional and unconverntional conflicts, waged by "militias, insurgent groups, other non-state actors and Third World militaries."

"However," he said, "apart from the Special Forces community and some dissident colonels, for decades there has been no strong, deeply rooted constituency inside the Pentagon . . . for institutionalizing our capabilities to wage . . . irregular conflict."


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