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Gates: U.S. Needs New Ways to Buy

Refining his warning about next war-itis, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told students at the National Defense University today that the U.S. needs a "parallel" acquisition system to get weapons to the battlefield much more nimbly than does the current system.

In a wide-ranging speech, Gates pointed to the examples of MRAPs, the anti-IED effort and uparmored Humvees as proof that the current system really doesn't do a very good job of anticipating needs for assymetric warfare or for counterinsurgencies. "When it comes to procurement, for the better part of five decades, the trend has gone towards lower numbers as technology gains made each system more capable. In recent years these platforms have grown ever more baroque, ever more costly, are taking longer to build, and are being fielded in ever dwindling quantities," Gates told an attentive audience or more than 500 hundred students at the National Defense University.

"In addition, the prevailing view for decades was that weapons and units designed for the so-called high-end could also be used for the low...The need for the state of the art systems - particularly longer range capabilities - will never go away, as we strive to offset the countermeasures being developed by other nations," he said. "But at a certain point, given the types of situations we are likely to face - and given, for example, the struggles to field up-armored Humvees, MRAPs, and ISR in Iraq - it begs the question whether specialized, often relatively low-tech equipment for stability and counterinsurgency missions is also needed."

Gates noted that weapons for counterinsurgency and many niche capabilities lack their own support network. The problem is that, "apart from the special forces community and some dissident colonels, for decades there has been no strong, deeply rooted constituency inside the Pentagon or elsewhere for institutionalizing our capabilities to wage asymmetric or irregular conflict - and to quickly meet the ever-changing needs of our forces engaged in these conflicts."

Why did the American military "have to bypass existing institutions and procedures to get the capabilities we need to protect our troops and pursue the wars we are in? 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. The challenge is whether in our bureaucracy and in our minds these two different paradigms can be made to coexist."

Musing aloud during an answer to a question from the students, Gates posed the question: "does there need to be a parallel procurement program?" He answered his own question, admitting that he thought something is needed but: "I'm not sure what that structure looks like." But it is needed, he said, and it must be institutionalized.

That looks a job for the next administration.

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