Pages Menu

Categories Menu

Posted on Oct 3, 2008 in War College

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

By Armchair General

The need for the state of the art systems – particularly longer range capabilities – will never go away, as we strive to offset the countermeasures being developed by other nations. But at a certain point, given the types of situations we are likely to face – and given, for example, the struggles to field up-armored HUMVEES, MRAPs, and ISR in Iraq – it begs the question whether specialized, often relatively low-tech equipment for stability and counterinsurgency missions is also needed.

And how do we institutionalize procurement of such capabilities – and the ability to get them fielded quickly? Why did we have to go outside the normal bureaucratic process to develop counter-IED technologies, to build MRAPs, and to quickly expand our ISR capability? In short, why did we have to bypass existing institutions and procedures to get the capabilities we need to protect our troops and pursue the wars we are in?


Our conventional modernization programs seek a 99 percent solution in years. Stability and counterinsurgency missions – the wars we are in – require 75 percent solutions in months. The challenge is whether in our bureaucracy and in our minds these two different paradigms can be made to coexist.

At the Air War College earlier this year, I asked whether it made sense in situations where we have total air dominance to employ lower-cost, lower-tech aircraft that can be employed in large quantities and used by our partners. This is already happening now in the field with Task Force Odin in Iraq, where advanced sensors were mated with turboprop aircraft to produce a massive increase in the amount of surveillance and reconnaissance coverage. The issue then becomes how we build this kind of innovative thinking and flexibility into our rigid procurement processes here at home. The key is to make sure that the strategy and risk assessment drives the procurement, rather than the other way around.

I believe we must do this. The two models can – and do – coexist. Being able to fight and adapt to a diverse range of conflicts – sometimes all at once – lands squarely in the long history and finest traditions of the American practice of arms. In the Revolutionary War, tight formations drilled by Baron Von Steuben fought Redcoats in the north, while guerrillas led by Francis Marion harassed them in the South. During the 1920s and 30s, the Marine Corps conducted what we would call now stability operations in the Caribbean, wrote the Small Wars Manual, and at the same time developed the amphibious landing techniques that would help liberate Europe and the Pacific in the following decade.

And then consider General “Black Jack” Pershing, behind whose desk I sit. Before commanding the American Expeditionary Force in Europe, Pershing led a platoon of Sioux Indian scouts, rode with Buffalo soldiers up San Juan Hill, won the respect of the Moros in the Philippines, and chased Pancho Villa in Mexico. 
 In Iraq, we’ve seen how an army that was basically a smaller version of the Cold War force can over time become an effective instrument of counterinsurgency. But that came at a frightful human, financial, and political cost. For every heroic and resourceful innovation by troops and commanders on the battlefield, there was some institutional shortcoming at the Pentagon they had to overcome. Your task, particularly for those of you going back to the services, is to support the institutional changes necessary so the next set of colonels, captains, and sergeants will not have to be quite so heroic or quite so resourceful.

[continued on next page]

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10


  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