Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Gates: Samurai (at the end)

Undoubtedly the most interesting news in U.S. military affairs in recent weeks has been the budgetary propositions formalized by Secretary of Defense Roberts Gates. Central to these propositions has been the focus on pragmatism – dramatic cuts in popular but expensive development programs and freezes on certain procurement items – due to the pressures of fighting two wars simultaneously. Furthermore, and perhaps more notably, Gates spoke for the need to reorient U.S. capabilities towards counter-insurgency operations and away from Cold War style conventional preparation and procurement. Though personally I agree whole-heartedly with the strategic arguments reflected in Gates’ proposals, I do not believe the United States will witness a conversion of ideas into reality. In short, I do not believe the Gates’ proposals can succeed.

To begin, Gates has agreed to straddle two different presidential administrations, which places him in an interesting arena historically. However, it is very unlikely that Gates will be willing or able to remain in his position for the duration of Obama’s term. This reflects both the opinions of Gates himself and the political/personal strain of the job. Importantly, his departure would assuredly terminate the policy momentum and political capital surrounding his recent propositions. Additionally, it is unlikely that a new Secretary of Defense would be willing the vehemently defend the policy path generated by Gates.

Secondly, the Pentagon and related defense industries will most likely not support (now or later) a fundamental reorientation of the U.S. military, regardless of whether Gates is leading the debate. We must remember that at the height of fighting in Iraq we did not hear a prominent call for the development new strategies and capabilities for the military (at a time when such a discussion could not have been more pertinent). We did not hear a debate over what the military needs now versus what it may need in the future. To be fair, this circumstance could be a reflection of the political strength, influence, and solidarity wielded by the Bush administration. Yet, it is more likely a reflection of the strength of the defense industry and the military’s reluctance to become involved in COIN operations (which is easy to understand).

Consequently, the prospects of “success” for Gates budgetary propositions (and accompanying strategies) are not good. The progenitor himself is unlikely to stay around long enough to conduct his concept to fruition. This fact makes the policy goal almost a pipe dream. Perhaps more importantly, the defense industries don’t want to prepare/produce for COIN operations (due to the lack of “exciting” big ticket items), and will lobby for “alternative” budget formulations and strategies. Also, military commanders may be understandably hesitant to commit towards such a reorientation (as such fighting plays away from the natural strengths of the U.S. military and its capabilities). In turn, the planning procurement process in Washington should not be expected to change dramatically any time soon.

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