WEST POINT, N.Y. — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, in one of his last addresses to the Army, said Friday that he envisages a future ground force that will be smaller, pack less heavy firepower and will not engage in large-scale counter-insurgency wars like those in Iraq or Afghanistan.
“In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it,” Gates quipped.
Gates, who is expected to leave his post later this year, predicted a greater role for the Navy and Air Force in the future and warned the Army to gird itself for a period of relative austerity compared with the gusher of defense spending that has sustained it over the past eight years. In particular, Gates suggested that the Army will have a tough time justifying its spending on heavy armor formations — which have been the core of its force for decades — to lawmakers and the White House.
“In the competition for tight defense dollars, the Army ... must confront the reality that the most plausible, high-end scenarios for the U.S. military are primarily naval and air engagements — whether in Asia, the Persian Gulf or elsewhere,” he said.
The defense chief predicted that Army and Marine forces would increasingly be asked to focus more on short-duration counterterrorism strikes and disaster relief. As he has for the past several years, Gates called on the Army to devote more of its best personnel to training and equipping foreign militaries.
Gates said he was not advocating the Army should become a counter-insurgency or nation-building force. “By no means am I suggesting that the Army will, or should, turn into a Victorian nation-building constabulary — designed to chase guerrillas, build schools or sip tea.”
Despite a big push in recent years to build the Iraqi and Afghan militaries, the U.S. Army has traditionally treated the training and equipping of foreign armies as a career backwater, and Gates’s efforts to raise the importance of the mission within the U.S. military have met with mixed results.
“How do we institutionalize security force assistance into the Army’s regular force structure, and make the related experience and skill set a career-enhancing pursuit? Gates asked, repeating a question he first put to the Army in 2008.
Much of Gates’s speech to the West Point cadets focused on his concerns that officers who have been given wide latitude to take chances and the heavy responsibility of leading their troops in combat would grow disillusioned with the risk-averse nature of military bureaucracy and leave the service.
“Men and women in the prime of their professional lives, who may have been responsible for the lives of scores or hundreds of troops, or millions of dollars in assistance, or engaging or reconciling warring tribes, may find themselves in a cube all day re-formatting PowerPoint slides,” Gates told the West Point cadets. “The consequences of this terrify me.”
To head off this malaise Gates urged the cadets to take career risks, taking assignments that in the past might have been seen by their peers as career dead-ends. “I would encourage you to become a master of other languages and cultures, a priority of mine since taking this post,” he said.
The huge growth in the Army bureaucracy over the past decade has also created an almost insatiable demand for mid-level staff officers within the Army. These days almost every major in the Army is guaranteed promotion to lieutenant colonel.
In recent months, Gates has begun an effort to trim back some of this bureaucracy by cutting as many as 100 general and admiral slots. These senior officers typically are given large staffs of young officers. As the demand for young officers decreases, the military will be able to be choosier about whom it promotes and give greater weight to opinions of peers and lower-ranking officers in choosing the next generation of Army leaders.
“It’s time that the Army’s officer evaluations also consider input from peers and subordinates — the people hardest to fool by posturing, B.S. and flattery,” Gates said. “A more merit-based, more individualized approach to officer evaluations could also do much to combat the risk-averse, zero-defect culture that can take over any large, hierarchical organization.”
Indeed, Gates envisioned a future in which one of the biggest threats to the Army would come from its own bureaucratic and, at times, rigid culture. “The tendency of any big bureaucracy is to revert to business as usual at the first opportunity — and for the military, that opportunity is, if not peacetime, then the unwinding of sustained combat,” he said.