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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

What all these potential adversaries have in common – from terrorist cells to rogue nations to rising powers – is that they have learned over time that it is not wise to confront the United States directly or on conventional military terms. 
 Nonetheless, we cannot take this traditional dominance for granted. Many of America’s refueling tankers and some fighters are now older than the pilots who fly them. As a result of the demands of Afghanistan and Iraq, the ground forces have not been able to stay proficient in specialties such as field artillery in the Army, and amphibious operations in the Marine Corps. We must remedy this as soon as we can through growing the ground forces, and increasing dwell time and opportunities for full spectrum training.


But in making the risk assessment associated with near-peer competitors, in judging where we can make tradeoffs, it is important to keep some perspective. It is generally agreed, for example, that the U.S. Navy has shrunk too much since the end of the Cold War – a view I share. But it is also true that in terms of tonnage, the battle fleet of the United States Navy, by one estimate, is larger than the next 13 navies combined – and 11 of those 13 navies are allies or partners. No other navy has anything comparable to the reach or combat power of a single American Carrier Strike Group.

Russian tanks and artillery may have crushed Georgia’s tiny military. But before we begin rearming for another Cold War, remember that what’s driving Russia is a desire to exorcise past humiliation and dominate their near abroad – not an ideologically driven campaign to dominate the globe. As someone who used to prepare estimates of Soviet military strength for several presidents, I can say that the Russian conventional military, though vastly improved since its nadir in the late 1990s, remains a shadow of its Soviet predecessor. And Russian demographics will likely impede its numbers getting much larger. Though Russia’s recent air and naval forays into this hemisphere have grabbed headlines, it’s also worth nothing that in the last 15 years the Russian navy has launched just two new major warships. Russia does present serious challenges, but ones very different from the past.

All told, this year’s National Defense Strategy concluded that although U.S. predominance in conventional warfare is not unchallenged, it is sustainable for the medium term given current trends. 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’ve said before, where on Earth would we do that? We have ample, untapped striking power in our air and sea forces should the need arise to deter or punish aggression – whether on the Korean Peninsula, in the Persian Gulf, or across the Taiwan Strait. So while we are knowingly assuming some additional risk in this area, that risk is, I believe, a prudent and manageable one. 
 Other nations may be unwilling to challenge the United States fighter to fighter, ship to ship, tank to tank. But they are developing the disruptive means to blunt the impact of American power, narrow our military options, and deny us freedom of movement and action.

In the case of China, investments in cyber and anti-satellite warfare, anti-air and anti-ship weaponry, submarines, and ballistic missiles could threaten America’s primary means to project power and help allies in the Pacific: our bases, air and sea assets, and the networks that support them. This will put a premium on America’s ability to strike from over the horizon, employ missile defenses, and will require shifts from short-range to longer-range systems such as the Next Generation Bomber.

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  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