Secretary of Defence Gates’ vision of the future

On 25 February at West Point, The U.S. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates provided a very clear picture of future U.S. defence strategy. (See the text of the speech here.)  It was not what many had expected given the heavy U.S. land commitment to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some of the more surprising elements of that speech included:

“But in my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined’, as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”

“Looking ahead, though, in the competition for tight defense dollars within and between the services, the Army also must confront the reality that the most plausible, high-end scenarios for the U.S. military are primarily naval and air engagements - whether in Asia, the Persian Gulf or elsewhere.”

“As the prospects for another head-on clash of large mechanized land armies seem less likely, the Army will be increasingly challenged to justify the number, size and cost of its heavy formations.”

Rather, Gates thinks the U.S. Army’s focus will likely be more along these lines:

“The strategic rationale for swift-moving expeditionary forces, be they Army or Marines, airborne infantry or special operations, is self-evident given the likelihood of counter-terrorism, rapid reaction, disaster response or stability or security-force assistance missions.”

Other commentators suggested that earlier perceptions that Gates was army-centric and dismissive of naval and air capabilities were likely too simple.  An article by David Axe on 28 February, entitled “Gates: Get Ready for Sea, Air Space Showdowns”, provides the following observations:

“Consider: while Gates curtailed the Navy's multi-billion-dollar stealth destroyer program in 2008, he did so in favor of a larger fleet of the arguably more effective Burke-class destroyer. Moreover, this year the secretary actually increased the Navy’s overall annual shipbuilding slate to more than 10 ships - something that hadn’t happened in 15 years. He also shepherded a long-planned doubling of attack-submarine production starting in 2012.”

“Gates performed a similar trick with the Air Force. True, in 2009 he ended production of the $300-million-per-copy F-22 Raptor stealth fighter at just 187 copies, but only because he was committed to maintaining an Air Force fighter fleet that’s stealthy and numerous - and that meant funnelling all resources into the potentially much-cheaper F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Despite serious technical challenges, Gates has never wavered from his plan to build more than 1,700 F-35s for the Air Force. And just a few weeks ago he launched development of a new stealth bomber for the flying branch.”

“[T]the most likely outcome of Gates’ current thinking is a tweaks to the mix and balance of the Army’s heavy and light forces. Carefully executed, these changes could preserve the Army’s ability to fight future wars of all sorts, while still allowing the Air Force and Navy to take the lead in America’s overall defense posture.”

The implications of all this for Canada are not straightforward.  Certainly our army cannot be considered in any way the “large mechanized” force or comprised of the “heavy formations” Gates critiqued.  However, Canada can assume that if it wishes to engage in land-based stability operations of the Afghanistan type it should not count on a U.S. lead or perhaps even a U.S. contribution.  Conversely, the U.S. might very welcome Canada and other allies taking on more of these costly stability operations while it sits on
the sidelines.  This is not, however, somewhere I think we, or others, would want to go.

Further, other noteworthy U.S. speakers, such as John Hamre at this year’s CDAI conference, are indicating the U.S. is now more ready to recognize it cannot do it all.  America will now be more ready to engage its traditional allies and use formal alliance structures.  If indeed the American view vision is that “future high-end scenarios are primarily naval and air engagements” we should ensure our own potential alliance commitments are likewise high-end capable and interoperable.  That, in turn, means we must rebalance our defence budget from its lopsided emphasis on personnel over capital renewal.   Currently the CFDS only allocates some 11% to capital and this simply must be increased to 22-25% if we are to have three capable and relevant services.  That, in turn, means DND’s civilian and military personnel costs must shrink to accommodate that rebalancing.