Questions for Secretary Gates


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Defense Secretary Gates will be on the hill this morning testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on the “hard choices” ahead for the Department of Defense (DOD) spending on big weapon systems.
Gates makes a strong case in the recent issue of Foreign Affairs on the need for balance between equipping and training for big wars — to counter great power adversaries or rising challengers (like China, and perhaps Russia) — versus preparing for small wars — counterinsurgency (COIN) and stability operations. The Defense Secretary seems to be trying to split the difference in a battle that continues to be fought within DOD over whether the US military should be adapting and retraining to these new operations or stick to what the US military has historically done best. Gates writes “The key is to make sure that the strategy and risk assessment drive procurement, rather than the other way around.”
Though it could be argued that scrapping some big weapons systems could be a result of economic and budgetary realities, there also might be an effort to reallocate some of that money to developing and institutionalizing these small war capabilities. Congress needs to take a hard look at these questions to determine whether having these capacities would simply make the US more prepared or increase the likelihood of engaging future conflicts with the belief that new COIN. There is some skepticism within the US military and analysts on the lessons we have learned from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Moreover, military operations are one thing but the nation-building acumen we believed we developed has been severely tested (and possibly discredited) in Afghanistan where we have arguably conflated state-building with nation-making, two very different tasks.
Specific to the focus of Gates’s testimony today on big weapons systems, it would be interesting for members to raise some important questions:

  • First, if big weapons systems and defense procurement are the problem in the inflated DOD budget, then why does Gates support the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program which Congress has repeatedly rejected in the past for being a wasteful and dangerous attempt to refine mini-nukes and bunker busters? Perhaps there is a role for the RRW if it can allow the military and thus the US to sign on to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, but he needs to explain this.
  • Second, big weapons systems may not be useful in fighting small wars but do they not constitute the backbone of the US securing the commons and patrolling the sea lanes that prevent small wars from erupting in the first place? What happens as regional powers begin stepping up naval deployments due to a perceived US naval vacuum between the eastern coast of Africa and the Indian ocean where piracy is on the rise – does that not raise the spectre of regional conflict?
  • Third, if the crux of the US’s future small wars strategy is training and equipping and “building the capacity of local security forces to do the dissuading and destroying” what then is the risk of blowback or the guns turning on us down the road if the local security forces allegiances shift?
  • Fourth, while striking some of the big ticket items on the DOD budget might appear to take on some service branch interests, the bigger target is the defense industry and Congressional district interests. The savvy defense industry has learned to spread the development and construction of big weapons systems across the 50 states to ensure maximum political stakeholders and support. The question armed services committee members might want to ask is whether Gates, the DOD, and the Obama administration have suited up for this necessary fight which is much bigger than meets the eye.

These questions need to be asked not as blunt political instruments but for serious engagement on the future of the US military with one of the most thougtful and seasoned veterans of the US national security establishment.
— Sameer Lalwani


8 comments on “Questions for Secretary Gates

  1. TonyForesta says:

    Gripping article Don Bacon. “War is racket” and warmaking and the warmaking industrial complexes are deeply entrenched in the US political machine. You make many solid points regarding the fruitlessness, needlessness, enormous costs heaped on tax payers, and the even larger benefits to the warmaking profiteers that promote and advance these programs. America spends more taxpayers dollars on warmaking (DOD appropriations, and nuclear weapons appropriations which are cunningly ledgered in the Energy department) than the next ten nations on earth, including China, Russia, and all the European nations. The private military, and private intelligence industrial complexes sap even more blackworld unaccountable taxpayer funds.
    If only some leadership would ask the tough questions, and make to wise decisions to balance America warmaking expenditures with our more critical domestic and softpower needs.
    The sad truth is that America’s warmaking industrial complexes are wasting oceans of the peoples treasure and fattening the offshore accounts of the predator class and failing to achieve our strategic objectives. Cases in point wherein the worlds hypersuperior military, our $600bn plus military, and whoknowwhat intelligence industrial complexes, and our vast array of brilliant weapons are incapable of claiming victory against insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq using AK-47’s, RPG’s, and IED’s.
    Gates is a bushgov appointee as so suspect. The sooner Obama replaces this crony and Iran/Contra participant – the better for America and everyone else on earth.


  2. Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi says:

    The Gates doctrine of political revisionism and refractoriness regarding Iraq does have negative impact in terms of President Obama’s promise of withdrawing the US military forces from Iraq.This US policy of the continuation of neoliberlists’ agenda seems not reflecting the US foreign policy change.


  3. Dan Kervick says:

    In my previous post, the point by Sameer that I wanted to say was “excellent” is this:
    “Though it could be argued that scrapping some big weapons systems could be a result of economic and budgetary realities, there also might be an effort to reallocate some of that money to developing and institutionalizing these small war capabilities.”


  4. Dan Kervick says:

    This is an excellent point, Sameer. I know that on the Democratic side of the national security debates of the past eight years there has been a lot of enthusiasm for increasing our capabilities for intervening in failed states, rogue states, etc., and in enhancing our ability to do “post-conflict reconstruction” and the other operations that follow upon such interventions. These folks tend to look at the failures of our interventions in Iraq not as a lesson about what not to do again, but as an instructive experiment showing us how to do it better next time, about how many new soldiers we need to hire, and about what new tools we need to buy to get these jobs done.
    There is likely to be an effort to sell some of these capabilities as cheaper, leaner alternatives to big ticket boondoggles, and even as cuddly examples of “soft power”, “smart power”, what have you. Inherently hawkish expenditures expanding our “forward” capabilities could be promoted by their PR men to gullible liberals as challenges to the military-industrial complex.
    But we should all be wary of shifts away from capabilities that constitute “don’t mess with us” *defensive* and deterrent capabilities toward what are actually “let’s mess with others” *offensive* capabilities, no matter how philanthropic and cuddly those offensive capabilities might sound. I’m not sure I want our government to get much better at “post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction” and the rest, because that will only eliminate one of the deterrents keeping our government from engaging in unnecessary conflicts abroad.
    The next time a US president asks his secretary of defense about the likelihood of success in intervening in Iraq or some other failed state, rogue state or overseas nuisance, I would rather NOT have the secretary say, “They’re great; because we can use our new Flexible Response Failed State Rapid Action Storm Troopers, and also our new Post-conflict Humpty-Dumpty Reconstruction and Builder-upper Units, and our new Liberal Political State-building and Re-education Team!”
    I think I’d rather have him say, “Let’s not try it; we’ll only kill a bunch of people and create a very expensive mess.”
    This is one place where progressives can learn something from our paleo-conservative friends. At least in the area of the exercise of military power, it is not sufficient to rely on good will, good intentions and virtuous dispositions as a check against the excesses of states and the abuses of power. Militarily powerful states have a natural tendency to spread themselves out on the world and use whatever powers they possess. If we want to prevent our government from engaging in more Iraq-like adventures, we need to tie its hands by denying them some of the attractive, power-expanding tools they desire.


  5. ... says:

    ….But ultimately, people are going to judge me not by my words but by my actions and my administration’s actions. And I think that what you will see over the next several years is that I’m not going to agree with everything that some Muslim leader may say, or what’s on a television station in the Arab world — but I think that what you’ll see is somebody who is listening, who is respectful, and who is trying to promote the interests not just of the United States, but also ordinary people who right now are suffering from poverty and a lack of opportunity. I want to make sure that I’m speaking to them, as well….
    follow the money………………….


  6. Dan Kervick says:

    There were reports this week that there is a significant disagreement between Obama and Gates over the nuclear deterrent. Gates wants to replace some of the aging weapons in the arsenal new models.


  7. JohnH says:

    What Congress ought to ask the SecDef: Where’s all the money gone? When will DOD pass an audit? What is being done to put DOD bookkeeping in order so that it can pass an audit?
    If you have no idea where the money’s going, you simply have no basis for setting priorities or budgets.
    Once again Congress and TWN simply ignore the elephant in the middle of the room and rush to comment on secondary problems.


  8. Don Bacon says:

    The US is still somewhat of a democracy and, with all due respect to Bob Gates, he doesn’t get to make the “hard choices” — the congress does.
    The US congress, bought and paid for by corporate interests, and greatly interested in sustaining the Pentagon financial flow into their districts, is the final determinant in Pentagon procurement.
    In the current economic crisis, congress is more interested than ever in continuing or even increasing the money flow. Face it, the Pentagon is a growth industry at a time of economic shrinkage.
    I just wrote an article on the subject– “Killer Jobs Programs”


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