Has Gates Given Up on Counterinsurgency?

The defense secretary seems to disavow America’s ground wars in the Middle East.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates speaks to United States Marines deployed in Afghanistan, March 9, 2010
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates speaks to United States Marines deployed in Afghanistan, March 9, 2010 (DoD/Cherie Cullen)

Any future American defense secretary recommending large-scale deployment of ground forces in Africa or Asia “should have his head examined,” Robert Gates told an audience of West Point cadets on Friday. Instead, they should brace for an era of air and sea wars.

The remark has been readily interpreted as a warning to future administrations not to engage in counterinsurgency operations as have been waged in Afghanistan and Iraq. Another line from the defense secretary’s speech would seem to suggest as much:

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.

Citing those particular quotes would be missing the point however as Gates’ main argument was that the United States Army will likely end up in a supportive role to the air force and navy as those engage in high end expeditionary operations.

Looking ahead […] in the competition for tight defense dollars within and between the services, the army also must confront the reality that the most plausible, high end scenarios for the American military are primarily naval and air engagements — whether in Asia, the Persian Gulf or elsewhere.

The strategic rationale for swift moving expeditionary forces, be they army or marines, airborne infantry or special operations, is self-evident given the likelihood of counterterrorism, rapid reaction, disaster response or stability or security force assistance missions.

“But,” Gates added, “as the prospects for another head on clash of large mechanized land armies seem less likely, the army will be increasingly challenged to justify the number, size and cost of its heavy formations to those in the leadership of the Pentagon, and on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, who ultimately make policy and set budgets.” That is not to say that the service will evolve into the aforementioned Victorian constabulary; rather Gates warned that it will have to make do with less as the nature of warfare is changing.

At the same time, the need for a counterinsurgency capacity remains; as Gates put it, “to prevent festering problems from growing into full-blown crises which require costly — and controversial — large-scale American military intervention.”

It is why, as defense secretary, Gates has worked to better equip the US Army and Marine Corps to make them more agile and flexible, sometimes at the expense of big and expensive air force and navy pet projects.

“But Gates also spent years quietly prepping the navy and air force to step up, once today’s land wars wound down,” David Axe writes in Wired‘s Danger Room. He curtailed the navy’s multibillion dollar stealth destroyer program in 2008 but did so in favor of a larger fleet of the more effective Burke class destroyer. Moreover, this year the secretary actually increased the navy’s overall annual shipbuilding slate to more than ten ships.

“Gates performed a similar trick with the air force,” according to Axe.

True, in 2009 he ended production of the $300 million per copy F-22 Raptor stealth fighter at just 187 copies, but only because he was committed to maintaining an air force fighter fleet that’s stealthy and numerous — and that meant funneling all resources into the potentially much cheaper F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Despite the project’s technical challenges, Gates has never wavered from his plan to build more than 1,700 F-35s.

“With his West Point speech, Gates might have been making his recent shift toward air and sea power more public, but it was a contingency he had long prepared for — and now believes is necessary.” As America is leaving Iraq and setting a timetable for gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan, it has to start thinking seriously about what sort of wars it might wage in the future. Gates is pointing in the right direction.