Gates tells military services to prepare for unconventional wars

Officers must “tell blunt truths” to civilian leaders, Defense secretary advises cadets at West Point.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Monday urged the military services to stop spending money on costly weapons systems designed to fight big, conventional wars and focus instead on training and preparing to better fight irregular wars and battle terrorist networks.

In a speech to cadets at West Point, N.Y., Gates said the military must better prepare to fight "brutal and adaptive insurgencies and terrorists." In "long, messy unconventional conflicts" against such enemies, he said, traditional measures of military might, such as the amount of firepower that can be directed at a target, will be less important than other elements of national power, such as economic and diplomatic might.

Gates said officers must provide civilian leaders with candid advice and "tell blunt truths." He urged the next generation of Army officers to "take on the mantle of fearless, thoughtful, but loyal dissent," and to protect junior officers who critique the military services. But he also warned officers to stop the practice of using their ties to defense contractors and Congress to do "end runs" around civilian leaders who try to cancel costly weapons programs.

The Defense secretary said that even after a drawdown of forces in Iraq, American troops will continue to battle "violent jihadist networks" in other countries. "To paraphrase the Bolshevik Leon Trotsky, we may not be interested in the long war, but the long war is interested in us," he said.

In a speech earlier in the day to students at the Air War College at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., Gates said, "Ultimate success or failure will increasingly depend more on shaping the behavior of others -- friends and adversaries, and most importantly, the people in between." Crafting a military designed for more complex wars among civilian populations demands that all the services critically examine their cultures, and discard those parts that are barriers to change, he said.

Gates said the Army that invaded Iraq in 2003 was a force still designed and equipped to fight the Cold War that had ended more than a decade earlier. Hard lessons learned battling guerrilla fighters in Iraq and Afghanistan should determine the service's future doctrine, the weapons it buys and the people it recruits, he said. Gates warned against a repeat of historical patterns where "bureaucratic nature" takes hold and the Army's "irregular [warfare] capabilities" are marginalized, an allusion to the post-Vietnam decline in counterinsurgency expertise.

Echoing a theme he has promoted over the past year, Gates told cadets at West Point that the Army should create an advisory corps of soldiers to build partnerships with foreign militaries. "From the standpoint of America's national security, the most important assignment in your military career may not necessarily be commanding U.S. soldiers, but advising or mentoring the troops of other nations as they battle forces of terror and instability within their own borders," he said.

At Maxwell Air Force Base, Gates was particularly harsh in his criticism of the Air Force, saying, for example, that convincing the service to provide more aerial drones in Iraq and Afghanistan has been "like pulling teeth." He blamed a culture that values pilots in the cockpit more than operators remotely piloting drones.

Gates said the Air Force must transform its entire organization in light of the changing nature of warfare. The aircraft the service is buying, he said, are too costly and ill-suited to battling guerrilla enemies who cannot challenge America's command of the skies. "The last time a U.S. ground force was attacked from the sky was more than half a century ago, and the last Air Force jet lost to aerial combat was in Vietnam," he said. The service, he added, must rethink "long-standing … assumptions and priorities" about which missions require "certified pilots" and which can be carried out by unmanned aircraft. He said the Air Force's officer promotion system also must reflect these new realities.

Airmen must undergo cultural and language training, Gates said, because in the future they will do less bombing and more humanitarian operations, working directly with local populations and non-governmental organizations. He said training at the Air Force's premier aerial combat center, "Red Flag," located at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., should be modified to include more nation-building tasks involving civilians and other government agencies.