Defense Secretary Robert Gates unveiled the new National Defense Strategy this week. To anybody who has been following Gate’s various public comments over the past year or so there is not a lot new here. But Gate’s strategy for dealing with the myriad security challenges confronting the U.S. can be summed up in one word: partnerships.
Gates outlines what he calls the “indirect” approach to countering everything from global terrorism to regional conflicts to the potential rise of threatening powers. The new strategy is a rather explicit rejection of the direct approach, which is understood to be the unilateral invasion and occupation of a foreign country. With all of the new strategy’s talk of alliances, partnerships and collaboration, it also signals a break with the “you’re either with us or against us” approach that characterized Bush administration policy in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks.
Not surprisingly, being that Gates was once a cold warrior, his model for dealing with today’s rapidly changing and complex world is the system of alliances and coalitions the U.S. built during the Cold War years, when it relied on a robust deterrence and the use of diplomatic and economic leverage to shape state behavior. So in the new strategy you see the following: “our strategy seeks to build the capacity of fragile or vulnerable partners to withstand internal threats and external aggression.” It talks about beefing up the international system to better counter rogue states or potential hegemons.
Take his prescription for what he sees as the “central objective” of the U.S. in the foreseeable future: defeating Al Qaeda and other extremist groups. Victory, the strategy says, requires using all elements of national power “in partnership with old allies and new partners.” The document lays out Gates’ notion of the indirect approach where the U.S. military moves into a supporting role in the fight against terrorism: “the most important military component of the struggle against violent extremists is not the fighting we do ourselves, but how we help prepare our partners to defend and govern themselves.” Those partners understand their own country, culture and social structures better than the U.S. ever will.
When it comes to dealing with regional conflicts and rising powers, Gates again goes with the partnerships: “our strategy emphasizes the capacities of a broad spectrum of partners”; “we must also seek to strengthen the resiliency of the international system”; “helping others to police themselves and their regions”; “cooperative relationships.” The strategy calls out China and Russia as potential mischief makers, but its pretty tame stuff. Both are viewed as “important partners for the future.” The favored approach to dealing with the two, the rise of which many in the U.S. defense industry see as their sole salvation, is “strategic dialogue with China to build understanding,” and as for Russia, we can “collaborate” on a variety of commonly shared interests. The strategy aims to “anchor China and Russia as stakeholders in the system.”
Pakistan gets its own section in the strategy, though it’s not mentioned by name. I’m pretty sure this refers to Pakistan: “of concern is the potential for severe instability in WMD states and resulting loss of control of these weapons.” I’ve long heard the military has contingency plans to go after Pakistan’s nukes if things there spin totally out of control, and the strategy says as much: “We must be prepared to act quickly to secure those weapons and materials in cases where a state loses control of its weapons, especially nuclear devices.”
It’s when the strategy discusses irregular warfare that you really see Gates’ imprimatur. The Pentagon’s top priority, it says, is improving the military’s “proficiency in irregular warfare.” This isn’t really new as the 2006 QDR codified the shift in department emphasis from conventional to irregular conflict.
But Gates is trying to get at something bigger here. He knows which direction the services want to go, they want to prepare for big wars that require costly weapons systems rather than master irregular warfare that demands a subtle, and in Gates’ view, minimal, boots-on-the-ground presence to foster personal relationships, gain cultural understanding and gather human intelligence. He doesn't want the hard learned experience of the last seven years to disappear.
The document states: “U.S. predominance in traditional warfare is not unchallenged, but it is sustainable for the medium term given current trends.” In this vein, perhaps more important than the document itself, which reads like it’s been watered down by too many editors, is what Gates said in a statement to reporters when it was released on Thursday. He pointed out that the vast bulk of R&D and modernization money goes to conventional weapons systems. “There is no doubt in my mind that the modernization programs will continue to have strong institutional and congressional support. I just want to make sure that the capabilities we need for the conflicts we're in and most likely to face in the foreseeable future also are sustained long term.”
Gates knows full well how the Washington game is played. He clearly lays out the problem in trying to improve irregular warfare competency among the services: “there has been no strong constituency inside or, for that matter, outside the Pentagon for a long-term resourcing of capabilities for irregular conflict.” That’s it in a nutshell. Irregular warfare is not material intensive, more important are the human elements: language and cultural experts, intelligence specialists. There are no big weapons systems tied to irregular warfare.
Those who talk about the rise to prominence of the counterinsurgents inside and outside of the military do not understand how Washington works. Those experts will never find a home inside the military. They may land in Washington think tanks who will give them a place to elaborate on their theories. But the military, particularly the Army, is set to purge counterinsurgency from its ranks with all the speed it did after Vietnam. And Gates knows its coming. Look at the names most associated with counterinsurgency, Lt. Col. John Nagl left the Army for a think tank. It took Gen. Dave Petraeus’ direct intervention to get H.R. McMaster his general’s star.
I fully expect the various Iraqi towns and villages that sprung up in the deserts at the National Training Center at Ft. Irwin to be torn down, the role playing Iraqis to be sent home and large scale mechanized warfare to return to the Army’s premier training ground. There is little support for embracing counterinsurgency among the officer corps, who knew all too well that the metrics of success in conflicts of that type are either too difficult to measure or the conflicts themselves so protracted that mastering the subject is not a career enhancer.
I have yet to meet an armor officer who joined the armor branch to go refurbish schools in developing world countries. They want to command tanks and master armored warfare. The same goes for the artillery and infantry branches. People don’t typically join the Army or Marines to be the beat cop on the streets of Baghdad or Fallujah. The Marines briefly embraced irregular warfare in 2006, after the QDR came out, until they realized there’s no money in it for the big programs they want such as the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. So, now they’re emphasizing their “core competencies,” such as amphibious warfare.
As for Gates new strategy, much like the President’s budgets submitted to Congress, I think its dead on arrival. Too bad, because the man knows of what he speaks. As he told reporters: “There is no doubt in my mind that the modernization programs will continue to have strong institutional and congressional support. I just want to make sure that the capabilities we need for the conflicts we're in and most likely to face in the foreseeable future also are sustained long term. And that is the essence of the new National Defense Strategy.”
But there is a uniformed military and defense industry consortium in this country that runs the show when it comes to where the money goes, and they want big costly weapons systems, so that’s exactly what they’re going to get.