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Posted on Oct 3, 2008 in War College

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates’ Speech, September 29, 2008

By Armchair General


As I said a moment ago, the theme of the National Defense Strategy is balance. The balance we are striving for is: 

  • 
Between doing everything we can to prevail in the conflicts we are in, and being prepared for other contingencies that might arise elsewhere, or in the future; 

  • Between institutionalizing capabilities such as counterinsurgency and stability operations, as well as helping partners build capacity, and maintaining our traditional edge – above all, the technological edge – against the military forces of other nation states; and 

  • Between retaining those cultural traits that have made the United States armed forces successful by inspiring and motivating the people within them, and shedding those cultural elements that are barriers to doing what needs to be done.


As we’ve seen in recent years, and again in recent weeks, in so many ways, the basic nature of man and the iron realities of nations have not changed, despite the fondest hopes of so many for so long, especially after the end of the Cold War. What has changed is that the international environment today is more complex and unpredictable perhaps than it has ever been.

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As we think about the security challenges on the horizon, it is important to establish upfront that America’s ability to deal with threats for years to come will depend importantly on our performance in the conflicts of today. To be blunt, to fail – or to be seen to fail – in either Iraq or Afghanistan would be a disastrous blow to our credibility, both among our friends and allies and among potential adversaries.

In Iraq, the number of U.S. combat units in country will decline over time. About the only argument you hear now is about the pacing of the drawdown. Still, no matter who is elected president in November, there will continue to be some kind of American advisory and counter-terrorism effort in Iraq for years to come.

In Afghanistan, as the president announced earlier this month, U.S. troop levels are rising, with the likelihood of more increases next year. Given its terrain, poverty, neighborhood, and tragic history, Afghanistan in many ways poses an even more complex and difficult long-term challenge than Iraq – one that, despite a large international effort, will require a significant American military and economic commitment for some time.

In the past I have expressed frustration over the defense bureaucracy’s priorities and lack of urgency when it came to the current conflicts – that for too many in the Pentagon it has been business as usual, as opposed to a wartime footing and a wartime mentality. When referring to “Next-War-itis,” I was not expressing opposition to thinking about and preparing for the future. It would be irresponsible not to do so – and the overwhelming majority of people in the Pentagon, the services, and the defense industry do just that. My point was simply that we must not be so preoccupied with preparing for future conventional and strategic conflicts that we neglect to provide both short-term and long-term all the capabilities necessary to fight and win conflicts such as we are in today. 
 Support for conventional modernization programs is deeply embedded in our budget, in our bureaucracy, in the defense industry, and in Congress. My fundamental concern is that there is not commensurate institutional support – including in the Pentagon – for the capabilities needed to win the wars we are in, and of the kinds of missions we are most likely to undertake in the future.

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4 Comments

  1. Spot on speech and would have greater impact if Gates would be around much longer than January. Very possible that by November he will know that he will be replaced. The tasks and challenges he has outlined may be just as formidible as those faced by General Abrams in Vietnam and there is no guarentee that he will succeed in changing those institutionalized systems. His comments on insurgency echo those found in the new book “Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare”. Good luck to him.

  2. Armchair General staff cannot respond here. Please read
    disclaimer just above this text box before posting.

    Secretary Gates’ speech is the best articulation of the necessary
    changes that must be made within the military to meet current
    and future challenges. It squares with my own reading and the
    stories told by my son when he returned from Afghanistan.

    I am not optimistic that whomever wins the next election will
    find a new Secretary of Defense with a similar vision.

  3. Excellent comments by Mr. Gates and I hope the next
    Adminstration and Congress take it’s message to heart. Playing
    political football with defense procurement is one of the ills of the
    system that Secretary Gates cannot easily comment on but I can
    and I urge ACG readers to help make sure that their legislators in
    the next Congress get and understand Gates message.

  4. Has Obama approach any nominees for Secretary of defense? I’m
    Doing this a project for my english class. Thanks

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