Shaping a Blind Alley Legacy: Secretary Gates Looks Back
2014-01-27 by Robbin Laird
Secretary Gates has done the nation a service by writing his memoirs. His work provides useful insights into his thinking and approach as well as providing a unique look at the working styles of two very different Presidents.
The book is quite revealing about the man himself. The book certainly demonstrates why and how he has navigated so many bureaucratic positions and highlights the nature of bureaucratic power within the national security system. National security policy Inside the Beltway is certainly less about strategy or strategic debate than an ability to navigate the inside baseball conflicts and to appear to prevail or actually prevail.
And preparing for winning the navigational wars is a core effort highlighted in the memoirs.
A meeting in the Situation Room was never just another gathering for me: outcomes were important, and I always had a strategy going in. More often than I liked, there were two or three such meetings a day, and all that strategizing required a lot of energy.
The memoirs highlight a man preoccupied with what he thought his mission was and bulldozing anyone who got in the way.
It is a Nixonian world populated by enemies, allies, former allies, and those who understood correctly what needed to be done and the rest.
Vice President Biden provides an interesting example of “you are great guy when you do what I want done” but if later you don’t you are characterized as a derogatory speed bump.
Senator Biden was a great man because he promoted MRAPs.
This directive began an all-out push to produce MRAPs, an effort that would become the first major military procurement program to go from decision to full industrial production in less than a year since World War II. Congress was fully supportive of the project. More than a month before my decision, Senator Joseph Biden on March 28 had offered an amendment, which passed 98– 0 in the Senate, providing an additional $ 1.5 billion for MRAPs and pulling forward money from the FY2008 budget into 2007.
Vice President Biden overall is something else and comes in for regular derision for not getting it.
“I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
The central policy question in treating Gates and his explanation of his legacy is as follows: Was his view of the world an appropriate table setter for what needed to be done then or for the decade in front of us? Because much of what he believes is central to the US defense effort remains important in the policy debates or is assumed within the policy debates, it is important to revisit his time as Secretary and his self-justification for his policies.
It should be noted that neither of his successors have followed his leadership path, either in terms of bullying people out of the way, or pushing all his force structure and procurement chips on key investments in the land wars or in supplying tools to narrowly defined current tasks and challenges.
For Secretary Panetta, the challenge was defined as buying, equipping, training and deploying “agile forces,” something that an MRAP heavy force certainly cannot be characterized a being. “There is a strategic and fiscal imperative that is driving the department to a smaller, … leaner and more agile force – that’s the reality.”
There were clear differences between Gates and Panetta. A major reflection of the difference was Gates putting the F-35B on “probation.” Whereas Panetta when it was evident that probation made no sense, gradually lifted “probation.” Here Panetta recognized the key role of allies (never a high priority for Gates except to fill in the gap) and of the USMC as the leading edge of expeditionary forces in the United States and a leader in shaping 21st century “agile forces.”
And for Secretary Hagel, the need has been defined to reshape the forces but to make them more technologically empowered and better equipped for tasks such as the Pivot to the Pacific. Hagel has cast the spending choices as a tradeoff between a larger, but poorly equipped force and one that is smaller, but more technologically advanced. “The balance we strike between capability, capacity, and readiness will determine the composition and the size of the force for years to come.”
Gates became Secretary of Defense largely to save the Iraq mission. He was a key leader in shaping the surge effort in Iraq, which President Bush came to believe was essential to the success of the mission. In crafting the surge policy, Gates made several personal determinations about what equipment was needed by the troops in Iraq and saw any who opposed his procurement or investment decisions as being representatives of bureaucratic resistance or worse.
Indeed, in leading the surge, he determined that senior civilian and military leadership was largely in the way because the Department of Defense was no longer the Department of War. This is a constant theme of the book and how Gates led the way forward to equip the force to win rather than to prepare for wars we are not likely to fight.
According to Gates: (I conducted) my bureaucratic war with the Department of Defense and the military services, aimed at transforming a department organized to plan for war into one that could wage war, changing the military forces we had into the military forces we needed to succeed.
He then followed the surge in Iraq with a similar template for Afghanistan.
One can understand the argument that there was a need not to get thrown out of Iraq, which clearly was the threat without a surge, but has either surge led to winning the conflicts?
Even more significantly, the core question is what forces does one want to conduct asymmetric operations and how does one determine success or failure, and how to ensure withdrawal of forces inserted into wars, which by definition will have no end?
Indeed looking back from the standpoint of early 2014, has the US prevailed in Iraq and Afghanistan? And have these efforts been linked in any fundamental way with a strategic effort in the Middle East?
At least one analyst has recently raised serious concerns about what is currently happening in Iraq and how that affects the overall position of the United States in the Middle East.
According to Stephen Blank in his assessment of Russian policy in Iraq and the Middle East:
Ten years after the American invasion Iraq is in danger of disintegration. Its stability cannot be taken for granted or even assumed.
Evidently Iraq is not far from being a failed state and Syria is already deep in the throes of protracted civil war.
Both states may be racked for years by internal conflict, violence, instability, and the “mushrooming” of terrorist groups, given the anarchy prevailing there.
At the end of 2013 the U.S. had to rush sizable amounts of weapons to Iraq to stave off a major Sunni offensive in the form of Iraqi Al-Qaeda attacks, an insurgency that threatens to destabilize Iraq.
Meanwhile the Iraqi Kurdish authorities (Kurdistan Regional Government-KRG) are moving openly and steadily towards independence, mainly connected with exporting energy located in Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkey and, though less well known, Russia. This situation exposes both Iraq’s fragility and the overall collapse of U.S. policy in the Middle East.
From the perspective of 2014, how successful has the Gates emphasis on the double surge been in terms of meeting US strategic interests in the region?
One could argue that a primary responsibility for a Secretary of Defense to sort out with his senior team, the conditions for deploying force, how to withdraw those forces and how to operate in the incomplete operations, which 21st century conditions will almost certainly require. In other words, the end game needs to guide the processes of force deployment and force generation and not the other way around.
The Gates strategy to the extent there was one, was to surge and hope.
He clearly articulated the need for some sort of U.S. presence in Iraq, which did not happen in large part because the Obama Administration could not agree with the Iraqis on a status of forces agreement.
The book emphasizes the process of surging and drawdowns. It tells us precious little about the end games, and or the relationship of ANY military intervention in relationship to strategy in the region. The clearly reflects the focus of Gates within his bureaucratic wars: on dominating the processes, and not setting in motion any real strategic reflection about the impact of his actions.
Gates underscores two procurement decisions which he believes demonstrates his leadership against the military and civilian troglodytes who opposed his surge of support to the troops.
The first is the decision to buy the MRAPs for Iraq and their cousins for Afghanistan. There were very few leaders in the Pentagon in my experience opposed to buying some MRAPs and deploying them; indeed the Marines had already done so. The question was: how many of them and at what cost?
A key consideration never considered by Gates was that the MRAP investment was the Army’s future combat vehicle. Would this vehicle be useful anywhere but in Iraq and in the end game of Iraq?
As Gates puts it: “Most people believed the MRAPs would just be surplus after the war, which most also thought would soon end.”
Acquiring some MRAPs made sense but not the at least 50 billions of dollars expended on an asset with limited utility and with very little future contribution to the force. It was a very near term asset decision, not a decision taken with the overall evolution of the future force in view.
In 2007, it was clear that Secretary Gates was jamming massive MRAP investments down the throats of the services, in spite of the very clear position of many senior players that so doing would jeopardize the force to be deployed after Iraq.
According to the then Commandant of the USMC this made no sense.
There is no question that the vehicles save lives: The up-armored trucks with their V-shaped hull protect troops from all but the largest types of explosive devices, allowing them often to walk away from some attacks that they would not have probably survived in up-armored Humvees, which are far more common in Iraq.
Yet in and outside the Pentagon, the concern is that such heavy investment in the expensive vehicles this late in the game comes with a greater price. The fear is that the average $800,000-per-unit cost and 22-ton weight of some of the vehicles may undermine military missions beyond Iraq.
Even during the current counterinsurgency, insulating US troops from the local population in these vehicles runs counter to the kinds of tactics US troops are typically employing in Iraq.
Marine Commandant Gen. James Conway supports the MRAP and said Monday the program “was the right thing to do.” But thinking ahead, the Corps’ top general is concerned that his service’s traditional missions could be hindered by the costly and heavy truck that is virtually impossible to transport easily. General Conway also believes the truck is contributing to the Corps losing its “expeditionary flavor.”
“Can I give a satisfactory answer to what we’re going to be doing with those things in five or 10 years? Probably not,” he told a group Monday at the Center for a New American Security, a new think tank in Washington.
When the Marines ultimately leave Iraq – which could be sooner rather than later since they occupy one of the most secure areas there – they will effectively be saddled with the trucks if there is no mission that requires them.
“Wrap them in shrink wrap and put them in asphalt somewhere is about the best thing that we can describe at this point,” Conway said. “And as expensive as they are, that is probably not a good use of the taxpayers’ money.”
Commandant Conway was one of those military leaders who were often obstacles to achieving the Gates vision of the future.
The quote above made in plenty of time to avoid the cascading MRAP investments out of control was reflected within the operational commands of the USMC as well. In Afghanistan, Gates was happy to reap the benefits of the Marines’ exceptional performance in Helmand, but he can’t resist inappropriately charging them with parochial service interests at the expense of the Afghanistan mission.
Only Helmand fit Conway’s conditions. The Marines were determined to keep operational control of their forces away from the senior U.S. commander in Kabul and in the hands of a Marine lieutenant general at Central Command in Tampa. The Marines performed with courage, brilliance, and considerable success on the ground, but their higher leadership put their own parochial service concerns above the requirements of the overall Afghan mission.
Before there was Helmand there was Fallujah. And in Fallujah, the USMC emphasized integrated operations and a central role for their integrated MAGTF approach to defeat the adversary. As Marine Corps historian Fred Allison noted about the Battle of Fallujah:
Although Air Force, Army, and Navy aircraft flew numerous strikes, in the final tally, at least 80 percent of the CAS strikes in November in Fallujah were delivered by 3d MAW aircraft, precisely and expeditiously. Approximately 318 precision bombs, 391 rockets and missiles, and 93,000 machinegun or cannon rounds were sent down range by aircraft—in concert with over 6,000 artillery rounds and almost 9,000 mortar rounds fired.There were no fratricides.
Perhaps the USMC had a good idea what it was doing when it came to Helmand and amazingly understood the combat environment better than the intelligence analyst turned Sec Def Gates.
The second procurement decision highlighted by Gates was the increased procurement of unmanned air vehicles. Here he hammered his “old service” the USAF for being feet draggers and blocking not only UAV acquisitions but ISR aircraft like Project Liberty aircraft (which would also have no future).
The difficulty with his significant overemphasis on UAVs is that even more fundamental changes occurring in air power in support of joint operations was not addressed. The shift from a classic division of labor between air and ground operations was being replaced by a new approach: one in which joint actions were operating together to exploit all the domain components and capabilities to accomplish combat objectives.
In passing Gates mentions that the USAF was contributing to the efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but does not focus at all on the basic change whereby airpower was able to hold at risk adversaries throughout Afghanistan through air ground integration. Indeed, air strikes were responsible for some 80% of all adversaries killed in action in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
He also failed to discuss two radical innovations contributed by the USAF in the land wars, namely the ROVER system which was a key technology enhancing the ability to connect the air and ground forces into a revolutionary air strike support capability and the emergence of precision air dropping which facilitated the movement of ground forces in a radically different manner.
And the introduction of new systems like the Osprey is not even mentioned as part of the war effort. And in his later harangues about the perceived slowness of delivering support on the battlefield to injured soldiers, the USMC innovation to already have included Ospreys in support of that mission is not mentioned either.
In fact, the allied forces operated in Afghanistan with complete air superiority and often with an overhead strike and ISR grid, which could deliver on demand from the ground support. This was the revolution; not a few Predators.
An issue not discussed by Gates associated with his shift in strategy in Afghanistan was changing the rules of engagement.
As the late Jack Wheeler, USMA graduate and Vietnam War veteran and a major force in gaining support for a Vietnam War memorial underscored in a piece shortly after the change in the ROE (see Appendix 2):
COIN provides a set of techniques appropriate to operations in close proximity to civilian populations when combating insurgents. Unfortunately, an older interpretation of COIN prior to the air-ground revolution is being applied strategically in Afghanistan. With the fielding of systems which allow for 360 degree situational awareness, Rover, and time tested (over the last decade) air-ground communications and release systems, the ground combatant commander now has actually tools for survival and effectiveness unknown in previous wars.
We should be concerned lest adopting older COIN rules, where the ground troops are in equivalence with the insurgents, add needless US and allied casualties. With the tool sets, which have evolved over the past decade, we should pursue greater air-ground integration in support of COIN, not pursue a ground operation per se.
The current interpretation of US defense counterinsurgency means organizing US defense heavily around support of “boots on the ground” in Vietnam-like war. It is a slow-paced mode of operations, personnel-intensive, expensive in personnel costs, and centered on nation building.
Wheeler was concerned that the new Gates strategy would lead to increased loss of American and allied lives in conducting operations in Afghanistan. It did. The data is conclusive. In Operation Enduring Freedom, from 2001-2008 1150 Americans lost their lives in combat or about 144 per year. Since 2008 1679 have lost their lives or on average 280 per year.
This represents a doubling of fatalities in Afghanistan under the ROE established as a result of the Gates strategy and under the leadership of President Obama.
And Gates as well accuses the Obama Administration NSC of micromanaging military operations and “experts” like Samantha Power for undercutting the US military.
“Don’t give the White House staff and NSS too much information on the military options,” I said. “They don’t understand it, and ‘experts’ like Samantha Power will decide when we should move militarily.”
This is clearly a case of the pot calling the kettle black. His “old service” experience was in intelligence; he is not a combat expert. Yet he intruded in ways that made no sense for an intelligence generalist like Gates.
UAV operations in Afghanistan operated within the air grid mentioned above. It was manpower intensive to operate and was part of the ISR solution, not the main provider.
Yet Gates demanded Orbit numbers from the USAF, which made little sense to any air professional. And those air professionals when they pushed back were told that they were not getting it.
According to one attendee to a Gates woodshed meeting for the military leadership:
When I aggressively questioned Gates and Mullin in the Tank on this continued pressure on the USAF on orbit numbers and asked where are the Army airplanes, GCS’s and people and highlighted as well all the capability/capacity that we all bought… I was literally told, “you just don’t understand.”
When I pressed them, they both allowed they had to respect the Army’s ‘force generation/force rotation model’ and it was easier to use Air Force assets!
Gates completely ignored the fact that there were already more orbits of UAVs resident in garrison in the Army, than he was directing the Air Force to buy — it was an enormous waste of resources, not to mention gross neglect of an option that could have greatly increased desired ISR capability.
The orbit numbers are not simply orbit numbers; they are about manpower, and commitment of limited staff to a narrow set of missions. There are no resource free choices on things like increasing numbers of UAVs and Orbits at the expense of other air mission requirements both in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
But throughout the book, Gates makes it clear that his sense of urgency is the imperative and not the backward leaning or forward leaning, it depends on the section of the book, service chiefs and commanders.
Now that we have a significant surplus of UAVs with the ending of large-scale forces in Afghanistan, what is the USAF going to do with them?
The challenge is to meet current needs and to invest in the evolving future. It is not easy and there will never by consensus on the balance.
But what Gates has done and the highlighting of his legacy underscores is that an over emphasis on the present guarantees that you will not have a force structure able to meet the needs of the next five years, not decades out but in the near term.
There are words throughout the book, which suggest that Gates went for balance, but clearly he did not and he bet the ranch on wars like Iraq and Afghanistan being the norm for the future.
At West Point the same day, I delivered a lecture to the entire corps of cadets with a similar message about military leadership, knowing that my remarks there would be read throughout the Army. I told the cadets, In order to succeed in the asymmetric battlefields of the twenty-first century— the dominant combat environment in the decades to come, in my view— our Army will require leaders of uncommon agility, resourcefulness, and imagination; leaders willing and able to think and act creatively and decisively in a different kind of world, in a different kind of conflict than we have prepared for the last six decades.… 
Throughout his book, Gates highlights his desire to be confronted with innovative thoughts and leaders.
Yet he fired multiple airpower leaders (Secretary Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff Mosely are only the most prominent, General Heinz, the head of the F-35 program and General Corley, the ACC Commander, are among the others) suggesting to some that innovation has its cost in his presence.
Firings were done to enforce his own beliefs and predilections and his own narrowly considered orthodoxy; it was not to shape an innovative approach to transforming the military.
His tendency to push aside anyone who disagreed with him was a skill honed in his time in the intelligence community and his rise to power within that community.
According to one analyst Gates as a leader in the intelligence community certainly did not lead the way on reasoned debate and innovation.
In January, 1981 Casey appoints Gates Deputy Director for the Intelligence Directorate. He promptly informs the analysts under him that he wants their “best estimates,” but begins to keep a “scorecard” of favored analysts that influences promotions.
“A little Napoleon,” one analyst calls him.
“It was well known among analysts at the time,” wrote former Soviet affairs officer Jennifer Glaudemans, “that we would have a hard time getting Gates to sign off on analyses that did not fit his ideological preconceptions.”
Or as George Schultz commented on Gates: “I feel you all have very strong policy views. I feel you try to manipulate me. So you have a very dissatisfied customer. If this were a business, I’d find myself another supplier.”
He simply found a bigger stage in the Department of Defense to play out his approach of molding an institution to be congruent with his own preferences.
No wonder his experience was one of constant “wars” in the bureaucracy!
The real legacy that the military will remember from Gates time in the Pentagon is that one dare not speak truth to power, because if you did so, in the words of one senior USAF officer “you would get a bullet to the head of your career”.
And when a sovereign nation clearly demonstrated that his approach had its limits, there is no strategic reflection, but it is seen as directed against him personally.
Despite President Hu’s desire to have my visit be picture-perfect to pave the way for his state visit to Washington just a little over a week later, in a remarkable display of chutzpah, the PLA nearly wrecked both trips. Just hours before my meeting with Hu, the PLA rolled out for the first time publicly its new J-20 stealth fighter. Photos of the plane hit the Chinese press about two hours before my session with Hu. As one of my China policy experts insightfully expressed it, “This is about as big a ‘fuck you’ as you can get.” There was some talk among my team about canceling the rest of the visit or part of it, or ignoring the insult.
The Gates legacy is a major one to overcome to ensure the nation’s security.
Above all, there is the overinvestment in mobilized forces for land wars. The costs of the forces, their retirements, their medical costs and equipment appropriate for Iraq or Afghanistan are significant.
What kind of Army does the United States really need going forward? What transition strategy do we forge in Afghanistan and how is that linked to future engagements?
What role will the Army play in an era where the insertion and withdrawal of force, scalability and force enhancement for the joint and coalition forces play a central role?
Another legacy is the heavy burden placed on the USAF lift and tanking assets supporting the US Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. The lift and tanking fleet need to be rebuilt and strengthened at the expense in part of a drawn down of Army force structure.
Gates himself provided his own epitaph.
Former secretary of the Air Force Mike Wynne, not a member of my fan club, wrote, “I am sure … the Iranians are cringing in their boots about the threat from our stability forces. Our national interests are being reduced to becoming the armed custodians of two nations, Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Credit Quote by Gates on China was from a Bloomberg story published on January 14, 2014.
The video above is from a Gates visit to Afghanistan in early March 2010.
Credit Video: Training Mission Afghanistan
For a USMC view of their time Helmand province see the following:
Appendix: The MRAP Legacy
Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles were rapidly acquired based upon an undeniable urgent operational requirement. In short, the rapid fielding of MRAPs was an absolute necessity. The use of improvised explosive devices in Iraq and beyond had become a clear threat after several years in the Iraqi theater. And, as the improvised shifted to de facto – becoming regularly developed and deployed explosive devices (RDDEs), the threat clearly had to be responded to on an urgent basis.
Luckily, the South Africans had developed the MRAP technologies and the United States was able to rapidly adopt and adapt its trucks and vehicles to MRAP standards. Today, it remains almost a given proposition that MRAP capabilities will remain part of the irregular warfare arsenal of the U.S. and its allies.
But is the manner in which the MRAPs were acquired a good model of acquisition – urgent or otherwise? This question is significant because, almost at the level of legend, many analysts and policymakers today are suggesting that the MRAP acquisition experience be applied in developing acquisition reforms, especially in rapid acquisition cases. And they may be on the verge of codifying the MRAP approach as a model.
According to the General Accounting Office (GAO), the “DOD use of a tailored acquisition approach to rapidly acquire and field MRAP vehicles was successful.” The GAO went on to argue that the success of the acquisition was built around “decisions to 1) use only proven technologies, 2) keep requirements to a minimum, 3) infuse significant competition into contracting, and 4) keep final integration responsibility with the government all led to positive outcomes and may be transferable.”
And this success was predicated upon a “buying into the market approach:”
“To expand limited production capacity, indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contracts were awarded to nine commercial sources, with DOD agreeing to buy at least 4 vehicles from each. Subsequent orders were based on a concurrent testing approach with progressively more advanced vehicle test results and other assessments.”
The difficulties with assuming that this was the best way to go about rapid acquisition are several.
First, the government bought the market; and defense industry firms invested into the marketplace in anticipation of continued opportunities to support the marketplace. U.S. defense firms were well-placed to invest significant funds “up front” after several years of record DoD budgets and defense industry revenues and profits; but when the government would later turn around and narrow down its choices of firms to support the acquisition in the future (e.g. in eliminating BAE Systems, Force Dynamics and Navistar in favor of a single supplier – Oshkosh – for the Afghan variant of the MRAP, commonly referred to as the M-ATV), the impact was clear. The losers of this competition were left either with millions of dollars of inventories or several dozens of completed vehicles (which they were forced to purchase and/or build to meet aggressive government fielding requirements in the event of winning the competition). Given this outcome, firms understandably will be reluctant in the future to spend their own capital to meet near term procurements for the government.
Second, the diversity of the 20,000 plus MRAP vehicle fleet (built by nine different manufacturers) has meant that logistics and sustainment are a nightmare. Indeed, the continued propensity to see acquisition as being about the initial buy with little or no thought to sustainability is highlighted by this acquisition. MRAP acquisition is a poster child for “logistics-free” procurement considerations.
Third, the ability to give MRAPs to the Iraqis as we leave theater is limited, because of the difficulty of maintaining the vehicles. As a senior ground officer has commented. “We will not be able to provide these to the Iraqis easily because we have a hard time maintaining them. It will be better to give them something else like the Bradleys which we know how to maintain.” So a quick acquisition with little or no thought about its usefulness to help build “partnership capacity” is perhaps not the best idea.
Fourth, the MRAPs are a platform within the context of a mission. The USMC for one has used the MAGTF approach to countering IEDs with the use of air assets in addition to ground assets. What this acquisition implicitly (and erroneously) states is that stove-piped procurement is the best way to go in meeting urgent operational requirements.
Fifth, the upgrading of MRAPs as they enter the mainstream of tactical vehicles now becomes a core consideration. These vehicles were bought with very little consideration to how they would be upgraded. So, now the cost of upgrading those vehicles going into the permanent inventory is higher than if consideration had been built in to how to most effectively build an upgrade path. Again, in this regard, MRAPs are a poster child for acquisition without regard to sustainment.
Dov Zakheim, a former Comptroller of the DOD, in his testimony to the House Committee lionizing the MRAP acquisition added some cautionary notes and set forth an intelligent alternative path.
“The Department needs to field militarily useful solutions more quickly. The current threat environment is one in which the enemy on the battlefield employs easily obtainable, off-the-shelf technology to undermine the effectiveness of US military operations.”
To deal with this Zakheim has suggested moving beyond “ad-hockery” as a procurement approach. He argued for “codifying and institutionalizing a separate set of rapid acquisition processes and practices that can be tailored to expedite the rapid delivery of capabilities that meet urgent warfighter needs.”
He then went on to argue for how this process could be crafted to ensure that needs are met but that they become integrated into an overall procurement effort. He argued for a new organizational home for rapid acquisition, which would be placed under the authority of the Office of USD (AT&L). The so-called Rapid Acquisition and Fielding Agency (RAFA) would “be a joint agency, organizationally similar to the Defense Logistics Agency or the National Security Agency.”
The advantage of the Zakheim approach is that it would deal with the shortfalls identified in this article with regard to the MRAP acquisition. RAFA would be part of OSD (AT&L) and its efforts would focus on spiral development with a modular open systems architecture, ensuring that fielding would include “training, sustainment and support in coordination with the services and combatant commands.”
In short, the rapid fielding of MRAP vehicles to meet an urgent operational requirement is clearly an important development; but as important is not lionizing it as an acquisition model without an in-depth understanding of its longer term impact and usefulness. To ensure that Americans and allies do not needlessly die on battlefields of the future, it is important not to blindly enshrine short term solutions as if they were sound long term methodologies.
This post was co-written by Robbin Laird and Robert Johnson.
 Christopher J. Lamb, et. al., “MRAPs, Irregular Warfare and Pentagon Reform.” Joint Forces Quarterly (4th quarter 2009)
 “Legislators Consider MRAP as Model for Rapid Acquisition Programs,” Inside the Army (October 12, 2009).
 Statement by Michael J. Sullivan, Director Acquisition and Sourcing Management, Rapid Acquisition of MRAP Vehicles (GAO, October 2009 http://armedservices.house.gov/pdfs/DAR100809/Sullivan_Testimony100809.pdf
 Zakheim’s proposals reflect the work of the Defense Science Board task force on the fulfillment of urgent operational needs http://www.acq.osd.mil/dsb/reports/2009-09-DSB_Urgent_Needs_Report.pdf
***Posted November 8th, 2009
A subject not discussed by Secretary Gates was the nature of the shift in strategy in 2010 which revolved around the challenge of new rules of engagement.
At the time of Memorial Day, 2010, the late Jack Wheeler wrote about the problem with the new ROEs:
Appendix II: New COIN Vs Old COIN: Reducing Collateral Damage AND Allied losses
COIN (COunter INsurgency) is the order of the day in Afghanistan. COIN provides a set of techniques appropriate to operations in close proximity to civilian populations when combating insurgents. Unfortunately, an older interpretation of COIN prior to the air-ground revolution is being applied strategically in Afghanistan. With the fielding of systems which allow for 360 degree situational awareness, Rover, and time tested (over the last decade) air-ground communications and release systems, the ground combatant commander now has actually tools for survival and effectiveness unknown in previous wars.
As we remember the Fallen on Memorial Day, we should be concerned lest adopting older COIN rules, where the ground troops are in equivalence with the insurgents, add needless US and allied casualties. With the tool sets which have evolved over the past decade, we should pursue greater air-ground integration in support of COIN, not pursue a ground operation per se.
The current interpretation of US defense counterinsurgency means organizing US defense heavily around support of “boots on the ground” in Vietnam-like war. It is a slow-paced mode of operations, personnel-intensive, expensive in personnel costs, and centered on nation building. The aim is to address mortal threats such as terrorist fission detonations in American cities by “winning hearts and minds.”
It features a return to the “fair fight” battles of the XXth century, with two sides slugging it out with high casualties. The mantra since 2006 has been that focus on anything other than the older interpretation of counterinsurgency is “Next-War-Itis” and has confused providing new integrative air-ground assets, such as F-35, with being functional equivalents to UAVs or to adding legacy aircraft buys.
In contrast, effective XXIst century operations focus on new tools, such as fifth generation aircraft and power projection assets such as the Osprey, or weapons ensuring a reduction of collateral damage and civilian casualties, such as the STB I Block 9. One wants to re-load to shape the “Unfair Fight,” with full and combined leveraging of American and allied technology and innovation:
- strategic and tactical cyber warfighting
- fifth generation (and sixth in view)
- speedy acquisition of the tankers, key to a global reach
- cyberlinks for “Reachback,” in which only minimum numbers of expensive personnel are in layers of overseas headquarters
- hyper-precise non-nuclear strike
- modern tankers replacing 50-year old—literally duct-taped—aircraft to renew the American “Air Bridge” across the world.
US Airstrike protects US and allied troops, and it finds, deters and kills enemy combatants. The Restriction on Airstrike notionally cuts back US Airstrike in order to reduce civilian casualties. General Stanley McChrystal ordered the restriction in June 2009, because he believes the level of innocent civilian casualties caused by some airstrikes to be a significant factor in causing disaffection toward the US by non-combatant Afghan citizens.
What General McChrystal has done is move in the direction of an “Army Can Go It All Alone” posture. It reverts to the XXth century Army position of the “Fair Fight”, where fairly evenly matched opponents ground forces slug it out with heavy WIA (Wounded In Action) and KIA (Killed In Action).
It equates COIN with such an approach; in reality, XXIst COIN is empowered by new tools and techniques of “360 spherical situational awareness” and air-ground integration. The USMC has pioneered these methods; now the US Army and Air Force working together can resonate with such an approach appropriate to their own integrative operations.
It is crucial not to pursue an interpretation of COIN that is XXth century in character, reminiscent of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. In the XXIst century, all that changed, and the combined US forces achieved Total Battlespace Dominance, reducing ground casualties and friendly fire incidents greatly; it also intimidates the foe from massing and from moving by day; instead, they must hide in caves and move in tiny groups at night, resorting to suicide missions.
Untying Our Hands
The supposed reason for the restriction, i.e. that CivCas (civilian casualties) is a significant factor impeding support of a majority of true noncombatant Afghanis, is not based upon systematic factual investigation that has been compiled and presented to Congress and the public. On the other hand, on can already highlight three major flaws intrinsic to such a restriction:
- The airstrike restriction increases the vulnerability of the warfighters and therefore may enhance the rate of US KIA and WIA in Afghanistan: because fewer enemy combatants are killed as they move to engage US troops and because the constant pressure from airstrike has been weakened, more and more enemy combatants roam free during day and night: this leads almost certainly to even more US KIA and WIA.
- The Restriction micromanages young officers and non-commissioned officers in the fight—the best-trained and equipped soldiers in history: micromanagement and “looking over the shoulder” hampers initiative, depresses US troop morale, and increases the delay in responding to battle situations – a delay, which can turn out in certain situations to be fatal as everyone knows.
- While such a path may make sense from a political point of view to keep the coalition unified, it also tends to confuse some of the U.S. military allies, as to what kind of war one is supposed to fight.
As we remember the war dead on Memorial Day we should consider the question of why we are pursuing a COIN approach, which inevitably increases US and allied casualties. Why limit ourselves to 1950′s styles of COIN, when we have evolved tools which allow for the use of airpower in close proximity operations, save American and allied lives, and reduce collateral damage?
As a Vietnam veteran remembering this Memorial Day, I just do not get it: why fight with one hand behind our backs for the purported reasons of winning “the hearts and minds” of the Taliban?
The late Jack Wheeler was a graduate of the US Military Academy and a Vietnam Veteran. He was a moving force in the creation of the Vietnam War memorial and had many other achievements to his credit.
 Robert M Gates (2014-01-14). Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Kindle Locations 5407-5411). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Robert M Gates (2014-01-14). Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Kindle Locations 2235-2250). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Robert M Gates (2014-01-14). Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Kindle Locations 5221-5222). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Robert M Gates (2014-01-14). Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Kindle Locations 52-54). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Robert M Gates (2014-01-14). Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Kindle Locations 2204-2220). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Robert M Gates (2014-01-14). Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Kindle Locations 6155-6160). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Robert M Gates (2014-01-14). Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Kindle Locations 9324-9326). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Robert M Gates (2014-01-14). Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Kindle Locations 2459-2463). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 . Robert M Gates (2014-01-14). Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Kindle Locations 9596-9598). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Robert M Gates (2014-01-14). Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Kindle Locations 5827-5829). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
A condensed version of this piece was published on Breaking Defense.