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Gates on Gates: Can We Overcome His Legacy?

Posted by Robbin Laird on

US Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates givFormer Defense Secretary Robert Gates has done the nation a service by writing his memoirs, “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,” providing useful insights into his thinking and approach, as well as giving us a unique look at the working styles of two very different presidents.

The book demonstrates why and how Gates 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 less about strategic mastery than an ability to navigate the inside baseball conflicts and to at least appear to 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, then 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.

But Vice President Biden overall is something else entirely:

“I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades,” as Gates now infamously wrote.

One could ask Secretary Gates, did that include the MRAP effort?

The central policy question in assessing Gates and his legacy is as follows: Was his view of the world appropriate for what needed to be done then or for the decade in front of us?

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, so 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 Gates’ 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 Gates’ successor, Leon Panetta, the challenge was defined as buying, equipping, training and deploying “agile forces,” something that an MRAP heavy force certainly cannot be characterized as 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’ decision to put the F-35B on “probation.” Panetta lifted “probation” when it became evident that probation made no sense.  Here Panetta recognized the key role of allies (never a high priority for Gates except to fill in the force deployment gap) and of the Marines as the leading edge of expeditionary forces in the United States and a leader in shaping 21st century “agile forces.”

Secretary Chuck Hagel has decided to reshape the forces and make them more technologically empowered and better equipped for tasks such as the Pivot to the Pacific. Hagel has cast our military spending choices as a tradeoff between a larger, but less well-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 was named Secretary of Defense largely to save the Iraq mission. This is clear from his coverage of his meetings with President Bush and his description of his own priorities. 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 in Iraq. He saw anyone 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 leaders were largely in the way because the Department of Defense was no longer the Department of War. This is a constant theme of the book. How Gates led the way forward to equip the force to win rather than to prepare for wars we are not likely to fight was his self characterization throughout.

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 our winning either conflict?

Even more significantly, the core question is what forces should conduct asymmetric operations and how does one determine success or failure, and how best do we 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 an overall American  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 U.S. strategic interests in the region?

One could argue that a primary responsibility of a Defense Secretary is to sort out 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, or the relationship of ANY military intervention to strategy in the region. This clearly reflects Gates’ focus on his bureaucratic wars: on dominating the processes, and not on 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 should have been to include the MRAP investment within thinking and decisions about the Army’s future combat vehicle.  Would this vehicle be useful anywhere but in 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.

As the Christian Science Monitor reported, the then-Marine Commandant thought this made no sense.

“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.”

Conway was one of those military leaders who were often obstacles to achieving the Gates vision of the future. In Afghanistan, Gates was happy to reap the benefits of the Marines’ exceptional performance in Helmand, but he couldn’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 Helmand there was Fallujah. And in Fallujah, the Marines emphasized integrated operations and a central role for their 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 Marines had a good idea of what they were doing when it came to Helmand and — amazingly — understood the combat environment better than intelligence-analyst-turned-SecDef Gates.

The second procurement decision highlighted by Gates was his decision to increase the number of Unmanned Air Vehicles bought by the Air Force. Here he hammered his “old service” the Air Force for foot dragging 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 were 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 services were operating together to exploit all the domain components and capabilities to accomplish combat objectives.

In passing Gates mentions that the Air Force 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 adversaries at risk throughout Afghanistan through air ground integration. Indeed, air strikes were responsible for some 80 percent of all adversaries killed in action in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

He also failed to discuss two radical Air Force innovations to the land wars, namely the ROVER system, 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 to improve the movement of ground forces in a radically new manner. And Gates does not even mention the introduction of new systems like the V-22 Osprey. 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, 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.

One issue Gates does not discuss is the fact that he changed the rules of engagement (ROE) for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. As the late Jack Wheeler, 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:

“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 1,150 Americans lost their lives in combat between 2001-2008, about 144 per year.  Since 2008, 1,679 have died, an average of 280 per year. This represents a doubling of fatalities in Afghanistan under the ROE established as a result of the Gates strategy.

Gates accuses the Obama Administration NSC of micromanaging military operations and “experts” like Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power of undercutting the U.S. 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.  When those air professionals pushed back they were told that they just were not getting it.

According to one attendee to a Gates woodshed meeting with the military leadership:

“When I aggressively questioned Gates and Mullen 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.'”

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. Because of Gates’ decision, we now have a significant surplus of UAVs with the ending of large-scale forces in Afghanistan. What is the Air Force 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 actions underscore is that an over emphasis on the immediate 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 aimed for balance, but missed. Instead, 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. But he fired multiple airpower leaders (Secretary Wynne and Air Force Chief of Staff Mosely are only the most prominent; Marine Maj. Gen. David Heinz, the head of the F-35 program is among the others) suggesting to some observers 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. One of the famous innovations Gates introduced were non-disclosure agreements. Senior officials were required to sign these personal commitments not to share budget data with outsiders.

Gates’ tendency to push aside anyone who disagreed with him was a skill honed in his rise to power in the intelligence community.

During his time in the IC, Gates was not believed by many, including Secretary of State George Shultz, to welcome 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 the CIA under 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.”

But Gates went on to find a bigger stage at the Pentagon 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. If you did, in the words of one senior Air Force officer, “you would get a bullet to the head of your career”.

Even when a sovereign nation — China — decided to introduce a new weapon system, 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.

What is the real Gates legacy?

Above all, there is a clear overinvestment in mobilized forces for land wars. The costs of those forces, their retirements, their medical costs and equipment appropriate for Iraq or Afghanistan are huge. What kind of Army does the United States really need going forward?  What transition strategy must we forge in Afghanistan, and how is that linked to future engagements? And what type of joint force structure is necessary going forward?

What is certainly clear is that the Army, which has emerged under Gates sponsorship, is not the likely answer to that question.

The overinvestment in a certain type of land war has severely stressed as well the US Air Force lift and airborne tanking assets.  These assets were heavily over-used in support of the US Army in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Now those lift and tanking assets need to be rebuilt and strengthened at the expense, in part, by cuts in the 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.”

Editor”s note: Former Secretary Wynne works closely with Robbin Laird on a range of issues. The material in italics above is quoted from the Gates’ memoir.


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