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‘Categories of Warfare Are Blurring’ 

Robert Gates on the Tactics and Tools of Tomorrow’s Battles

In an address at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. on September 29, 2008, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates explained how future conflicts would combine conventional and irregular elements — and how the U.S. military should prepare. The following excerpts from his remarks have been lightly edited for clarity.

All told, this year’s National Defense Strategy concluded that although U.S. predominance in conventional warfare is not unchallenged, it is sustainable for the medium term given current trends. It is true that the United States would be hard pressed to fight a major conventional ground war elsewhere on short notice, but as I’ve said before, where on Earth would we do that? We have ample, untapped striking power in our air and sea forces should the need arise to deter or punish aggression — whether on the Korean Peninsula, in the Persian Gulf, or across the Taiwan Strait. So while we are knowingly assuming some additional risk in this area, that risk is, I believe, a prudent and manageable one.

Other nations may be unwilling to challenge the United States fighter to fighter, ship to ship, tank to tank. But they are developing the disruptive means to blunt the impact of American power, narrow our military options, and deny us freedom of movement and action.

In the case of China, investments in cyber and anti-satellite warfare, anti-air and anti-ship weaponry, submarines, and ballistic missiles could threaten America’s primary means to project power and help allies in the Pacific: our bases, air and sea assets, and the networks that support them. This will put a premium on America’s ability to strike from over the horizon, employ missile defenses, and will require shifts from short-range to longer-range systems such as the Next Generation Bomber....

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.

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...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 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.

The Editors of The New Atlantis, "Categories of Warfare Are Blurring," The New Atlantis, Number 22, Fall 2008, pp. 107-109.