Strong Stuff from U.S. Defense Secretary Gates

In replacing Donald Rumsfeld, who as defense secretary often seemed to embrace the bull-in-a-china-shop style of leadership, Defense Secretary Robert Gates no doubt has been a more calming presence for the Pentagon’s military and civilian employees.

While Gates may be a less confrontational and unassuming leader than the brash, often arrogant, suffer-no-fools Rumsfeld, however, he has proven that he is no less of an iconoclastic thinker. While Rumsfeld’s ideas about transforming the military to a lighter, quicker, more expeditionary force did not serve him well in specific application to post-invasion Iraq, however, Gates has had the benefit of the lessons of the Iraq war to inform his strategic direction for the Pentagon — and, perhaps unlike Rumsfeld in his later years in office, the good sense to recognize mistakes for what they were.

The first evidence for Gates willingness to think in new ways about the challenges of American national security was his November 2007 speech about soft power, which World Politics Review contributor Sam Brannen wrote at the time “may be the most important national security legacy speech by any member of the Bush administration.”

This week in the great state of Alabama, at Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base in Montgomery, Gates delivered another speech that revealed his penchant for refreshing thinking. This time, he turned his critical gaze on the Air Force in particular, though some of his remarks were aimed at the military in general.

He urged young officers to be “unconventional thinkers” when considering how to integrate “all elements of national power” and how to shape “the behavior of others, friends and adversaries, and most importantly, the people in between.” Quoting approvingly the late Air Force fighter pilot and famously iconoclastic air power strategist Col. John Boyd, Gates even seemed to encourage airmen, soldiers, sailors and Marines to view the military bureaucracy as an enemy of innovation and progress. Saying that the armed forces need men and women who “want to do something, not be somebody,” he seemed to explicitly acknowledge that the military, like most bureaucracies, is a flawed meritocracy.

In comments specific to the Air Force, he noted that the service had not been a large part of the recent Marine Corps and Army-dominated debate about counterinsurgency strategy. “The counterinsurgency manual issued by the Army and Marines is over 200 pages long and yet only four pages are dedicated to air, space and cyberspace,” he said. “Not long ago, the Air Force published a doctrine document on irregular warfare, but as future leaders of air power, you should consider whether there is more the service might do to articulate and codify the unique role of air power in instability operations.”

Gates was most critical of the Air Force when he talked about adapting procurement priorities to current needs. He chastised the Air Force for being initially slow to jump on the unmanned aerial vehicle bandwagon, refusing in 1992, when Gates was CIA director, to co-fund a UAV with the intelligence agency.

The service is still not doing enough to quickly adopt this cheap and effective alternative to a number of manned capabilities, Gates said:

Today, we now have more than 5,000 UAVs, a 25-fold increase since 2001. But in my view, we can do and we should do more to meet the needs of men and women fighting in the current conflicts while their outcome may still be in doubt. My concern is that our services are still not moving aggressively in wartime to provide resources needed now on the battlefield. I’ve been wrestling for months to get more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets into the theater. Because people were stuck in old ways of doing business, it’s been like pulling teeth.

All this is unusually bracing and candid stuff coming from a defense secretary, or any cabinet-level official, and Gates should be commended.

Of course, no matter how well the military adapts to current challenges, it probably can’t continue to bear such a heavy responsibility for U.S. national security. I would agree with Judah that “The problem is not so much that we haven’t given [the military] what it needs to accomplish the task . . . but that we’ve asked it to do too much to begin with” (although whether “liberal internationalism” holds the answer is another question). And Gates speech on soft power seemed to recognize this reality.

Still, no matter who sits in the oval office next, or how fortunate the United States manages to be regarding the outcomes of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the future military will have to learn how to do much more with less. To that end, Gates’ advice is a good start.