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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

One of the enduring issues our military struggles with is whether personnel and promotions systems designed to reward command of American troops will be able to reflect the importance of advising, training, and equipping foreign troops – which is still not considered a career enhancing path for our best and brightest officers. Or whether formations and units organized, trained, and equipped to destroy enemies can be adapted well enough and fast enough, to dissuade or co-opt them – or, more significantly, to build the capacity of local security forces to do the dissuading and destroying.

As you know, I’ve spent much of the last year making the argument in favor of institutionalizing counterinsurgency skills, and our ability to conduct stability and support operations. This begs a fair question: If balance between high- and low-end capabilities is so important, and we cannot lose our conventional edge, why spend so much time talking about irregular or asymmetric warfare?


As I suggested earlier in my remarks, the reality is that conventional and strategic force modernization programs are strongly supported in the services, in the Congress, and by the defense industry. For reasons laid out today, I also support them. For example, this year’s base budget for FY09 contains more than $180 billion in procurement, research and development, the overwhelming preponderance of which is for conventional systems.

However, apart from the special forces community and some dissident colonels, for decades there has been no strong, deeply rooted constituency inside the Pentagon or elsewhere for institutionalizing our capabilities to wage asymmetric or irregular conflict – and to quickly meet the ever-changing needs of our forces engaged in these conflicts.

Think of where our forces have been sent and have been engaged over the last 40-plus years: Vietnam, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa, and more. In fact, the first Gulf War stands alone in over two generations of constant military engagement as a more or less traditional conventional conflict from beginning to end. As then-Marine Commandant Charles Krulak predicted 10 years ago today, instead of the beloved “son of Desert Storm,” western militaries are confronted with the unwanted “step child of Chechnya.”

There is no doubt in my mind that conventional modernization programs will continue to have – and deserve – strong institutional and congressional support. I just want to make sure that the capabilities we need for the complex conflicts we’re actually in and most likely to face in the foreseeable future also have strong institutional support and are sustained long-term. And I want to see an institution that can make and implement decisions quickly in support of those on the battlefield.

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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