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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

And even though the days of hair-trigger superpower confrontation are over, as long as other nations possess the bomb and the means to deliver it, the United States must maintain a credible strategic deterrent. Towards this end, the Department of Defense and the Air Force have taken firm steps to return excellence and accountability to our nuclear stewardship. We also need the Congress to fund the Reliable Replacement Warhead Program – for safety, for security, and for a more reliable deterrent.

As we think about this range of threats, it is common to define and divide the so-called “high end” from the “low end,” the conventional from the irregular; armored divisions on one side, guerrillas toting AK-47s on the other. In reality, as professor Colin Gray has noted, the categories of warfare are blurring and do not fit into neat, tidy boxes. We can expect to see more tools and tactics of destruction – from the sophisticated to the simple – being employed simultaneously in hybrid and more complex forms of warfare. 
 Russia’s relatively crude – though brutally effective – conventional offensive in Georgia was augmented with a sophisticated cyber attack, and a well coordinated propaganda campaign. We saw a different version during the invasion of Iraq, where Saddam Hussein dispatched his swarming, paramilitary Fedayeen along with the T-72s of the Republican Guard.


Conversely, militias, insurgent groups, other non-state actors, and third-world militaries are increasingly acquiring more technology, lethality, and sophistication – as illustrated by the losses and propaganda victory that Hezbollah was able to inflict on Israel two years ago. Hezbollah’s restocked arsenal of rockets and missiles now dwarfs the inventory of many nation-states. Furthermore, Russian and Chinese arms sales are putting advanced capabilities – both offensive and defensive – in the hands of more countries and groups.

As defense scholars have noted, these hybrid scenarios combine the “lethality of state conflict with the fanatical and protracted fervor of irregular warfare.” Where “Microsoft coexists with machetes, and stealth … is met by suicide bombers.”

As we can expect a blended, high-low mix of adversaries and types of conflict, so too should America seek a better balance in the portfolio of capabilities we have – the types of units we field, the weapons we buy, the training we do.

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.

Given that resources are not unlimited, the dynamic of exchanging numbers for capability is perhaps reaching a point of diminishing returns. A given ship or aircraft – no matter how capable, or well-equipped – can only be in one place at one time – and, to state the obvious, when one is sunk or shot down, there is one less of them.

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. And it has worked to some extent: Strategic bombers designed to obliterate cities have been used as close air support for riflemen on horseback. M-1 tanks designed to plug the Fulda Gap routed insurgents in Fallujah and Najaf. Billion dollar ships are employed to track pirates, and deliver humanitarian aid. And the Army is spinning out parts of the Future Combat Systems – as they move from drawing board to reality – so they could be available and usable for our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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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