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Gates to Services: Shift Gear, Spend Smart

In a well timed Foreign Affairs piece on “Reprogramming the Pentagon for a New Age,” newly re-anointed SecDef Robert Gates writes that the Pentagon can’t spend its way out of the national security challenges facing the nation by buying a costly arsenal to confront every potential threat.

The time has come, Gates writes, to “set priorities and consider inescapable tradeoffs and opportunity costs.” The article is unmistakeably aimed at the services, and Gates message is that while he might not be an entirely new sheriff in town, he’s certainly got the backing of the new mayor and out of control weapons buying must end.

He has repeatedly called out the services and their powerful constituents in defense industry and Congress for their continued spending on big-ticket, conventional weapons, most of which were conceived when we faced off against the Soviet Union. “In recent years, these platforms have grown ever more baroque, have become ever more costly, are taking longer to build, and are being fielded in ever-dwindling quantities. Given that resources are not unlimited, the dynamic of exchanging numbers for capability is perhaps reaching a point of diminishing returns.”

U.S. conventional war dominance isn't going away any time soon, he says. “It is true that the United States would be hard-pressed to fight a major conventional ground war elsewhere on short notice, but as I have asked before, where on earth would we do that?” Don’t get too exercised over Russia, he says, its military is but a shadow of its former self. As for China, carrier battle groups and short range fighters won’t be of much use as the PLA builds its stocks of "anti-access" weapons of ever greater range. Maintaining a conventional edge over China will require missiles defenses -- plural -- and "shifts from short-range to longer-range systems, such as the next-generation bomber."

Giving a shout out to one of our favorite big brains, Frank Hoffman and his writings on “hybrid warfare,” Gates says future opponents will be fanatically motivated irregular fighters equipped with advanced weapons. Future warfare will no longer be characterized as high-end or low-end, but will feature a blend of both. That means there must be a better balance between the high-tech gadgets and the more utilitarian weapons such as the Browning .50 cal.

Since it looks as if we’ll be waging counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and fighting in Afghanistan for a very long time, “the time has come to consider whether the specialized, often relatively low-tech equipment well suited for stability and counterinsurgency missions is also needed. It is time to think hard about how to institutionalize the procurement of such capabilities and get them fielded quickly.”

And what will surely ease the minds of many, and give the neo-cons and most everyone at AEI and the Heritage Foundation the fidgets, Gates says enough with regime changes: “The United States is unlikely to repeat another Iraq or Afghanistan -- that is, forced regime change followed by nation building under fire -- anytime soon.”

Gates also puts a big boot on the neck of "transformation" and reveals that he knows what far too many theorists in Washington’s defense policy circles simply do not: “We should look askance at idealistic, triumphalist, or ethnocentric notions of future conflict that aspire to transcend the immutable principles and ugly realities of war, that imagine it is possible to cow, shock, or awe an enemy into submission, instead of tracking enemies down hilltop by hilltop, house by house, block by bloody block.”

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