Robert Gates: insurgent wars wave of future

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, speaking to the Association of the United States Army in Washington DC Oct. 10, said the US Army of the future will need to concentrate more on training foreign militaries, mastering other languages and customs, and honing its ability to fight small insurgent forces. (AP, Oct. 10). Calling the post-9-11 War on Terrorism “our first protracted conflict with an all-volunteer force since the American Revolution,” Gates outlined the challenges facing US forces as this pattern extends indefinitely into the future. Some excerpts from the text, which is online at

The U.S. Army today is a battle-hardened force whose volunteer soldiers have performed with courage, resourcefulness, and resilience in the most grueling conditions. They’ve done so under the unforgiving glare of the 24 hour news cycle that leaves little room for error, serving in an organization largely organized, trained, and equipped in a different era for a different kind of conflict. And they’ve done all this with a country, a government – and in some cases a defense department – that has not been placed on a war footing.

As a result of this stress, there has been a good deal of concern about the condition of the Army, leading some to speculate that it is “broken.” I think not…

But while the Army certainly is not broken, it is under stress, and, as General Casey puts it, “out of balance…”

We are well familiar with the high pace of deployments and the strain this has placed on soldiers and their families. There are units like the 2nd Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division, now finishing up its 15th month in Iraq. Since 9/11 no other Army brigade has spent more time away from home.

But it is also important for the men and women of the Army to know that relief is on the way:

·While U.S. forces will play some role in Iraq for years to come, a reduction in the size of our commitment there is inevitable. Most of the serious discussion today is over how and when;

·The Army is expanding by some 65,000 soldiers, and I am prepared to support plans to speed up that process as long as we can do it without sacrificing quality;

·With strong bipartisan support in the Congress, tens of billions of dollars have been allocated to reconstitute damaged and destroyed equipment; and

·New programs and resources are coming on line to make the Army’s covenant with families a reality…

It strikes me that one of the principal challenges the Army faces is to regain its traditional edge at fighting conventional wars while retaining what it has learned – and relearned – about unconventional wars – the ones most likely to be fought in the years ahead…

In the years following the Vietnam War, the Army relegated unconventional war to the margins of training, doctrine, and budget priorities. Consider that in 1985 the core curriculum for the Army’s 10-month Command and General Staff College assigned 30 hours – about four days – for what was is now called low intensity conflict. This was about the same as what the Air Force was teaching at its staff college at the time.

This approach may have seemed validated by ultimate victory in the Cold War and the triumph of Desert Storm. But it left the service unprepared to deal with the operations that followed: Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans, and more recently Afghanistan and Iraq – the consequences and costs of which we are still struggling with today.

The work that has been done to adapt since has been impressive – if not nearly miraculous. Just one example is the transformation of places like the National Training Center, where, as one officer put it, the Army has “cut out a piece of Iraq and dropped it into Southern California,” replete with a dozen villages and hundreds of Arab Americans employed as role players. The publication of the counterinsurgency manual is another milestone, and is being validated by the progress we’ve seen in Iraq over the past few months. This work and these lessons in irregular warfare need to be retained and institutionalized, and should not be allowed to wither on the bureaucratic vine.

Put simply, our enemies and potential adversaries – including nation states – have gone to school on us. They saw what America’s technology and firepower did to Saddam’s army in 1991 and again in 2003, and they’ve seen what IEDs are doing to the American military today. It is hard to conceive of any country challenging the United States directly on the ground – at least for some years to come.

Indeed, history shows us that smaller, irregular forces – insurgents, guerrillas, terrorists – have for centuries found ways to harass and frustrate larger, regular armies and sow chaos. As one officer recently told the Washington Post, “the toys and trappings have changed,” but the fundamentals have not.

We can expect that asymmetric warfare will remain the mainstay of the contemporary battlefield for some time. These conflicts will be fundamentally political in nature, and require the application of all elements of national power. Success will be less a matter of imposing one’s will and more a function of shaping behavior – of friends, adversaries, and most importantly, the people in between.

See our last posts on Iraq and the politics of the GWOT.