Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told cadets here that they must continue changing the culture of the Army to ensure the service can handle the challenges facing America.
This was the last opportunity for the secretary to speak to the Corps of Cadets. He has announced he will step down as secretary later this year.
Gates spoke about the future of conflict and the implications for the Army. He talked about institutionalizing the diverse capabilities the service will need. Finally, he threw out some ideas for how the service can recruit and retain the leaders needed in the 21st century.
“When you receive your commission and walk off these parade fields for the last time, you will join an Army that, more than any other part of America’s military, is an institution transformed by war,” Gates told the cadets gathered in Eisenhower Hall.
He said the changes have been wrenching, but the service used the experiences to learn and adapt. They “allowed us to pull Iraq back from the brink of chaos in 2007 and, over the past year, to roll back the Taliban from their strongholds in Afghanistan,” he said.
The experience must be learned and incorporated into the service’s DNA and institutional memory, the secretary said.
All this leads to the challenge of how the Army will structure itself, and train and equip for the diverse range of missions it will face in the future.
“There has been an overwhelming tendency of our defense bureaucracy to focus on preparing for future high-end conflicts — priorities often based, ironically, on what transpired in the last century — as opposed to the messy fights in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Gates said. “But without succumbing to what I once called ‘next-war-itis,’ I do think it important to think about what the Army will look like and must be able to do after large U.S. combat units are substantially drawn down in Afghanistan — and what that means for young leaders entering the force.”
The United States has not done a good job over the years in forecasting where the next conflict will be, Gates said, but the country can build the capabilities to deal with a range of crises.
“We can’t know with absolute certainty what the future of warfare will hold, but we do know it will be exceedingly complex, unpredictable, and — as they say in the staff colleges — ‘unstructured,'” he said.
Gates listed a few of the challenges facing the country that will continue after U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down. These include: terrorism and terrorists in search of weapons of mass destruction, Iran, North Korea, military modernization programs in Russia and China, failed and failing states, revolution in the Middle East, cyber threats, piracy, nuclear proliferation, natural and man-made disasters and more.
There is a need for heavy armor and firepower, but there also is a need for counterinsurgency and humanitarian assistance, the secretary said.
“Looking ahead, though, in the competition for tight defense dollars within and between the services,” Gates said, “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.”
The strategic rationale for swift-moving Army or Marine expeditionary forces and airborne infantry or special operations is self-evident, he said, given the likelihood of counterterrorism, rapid reaction, disaster response or stability or security force assistance missions.
“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 [Army] General [Douglas] MacArthur so delicately put it,” he said.
The Army is not going to just build schools and sip tea, the secretary said. Still, 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 to those in the leadership of the Pentagon, and on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, who ultimately make policy and set budgets,” Gates said.
Enemies will seek to attack the United States where they believe America is weakest. The Army will not repeat the mistakes of the past, where irregular warfare doctrine was shunted aside after the Vietnam War, the secretary said.
Gates said the odds of repeating another Afghanistan or Iraq — invading, pacifying, and administering a large third world country — may be low. But in what Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey Jr. has called “an era of persistent conflict,” those unconventional capabilities still will be needed at various levels and in various locales, he said.
A second challenge facing the service, Gates said, is whether and how the Army can adapt its practices and culture to these strategic realities.
“From the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our soldiers and junior- and mid-level leaders downrange have been adjusting and improvising to the complex and evolving challenges on the ground — in many cases using the Internet, especially tools of social media — to share tactical lessons learned in real time with their colleagues at the front or preparing to deploy back in the United States,” he said.
It has taken time for the Pentagon to respond, but leaders are pushing the envelope. Gates pointed to the way the Army developed doctrine for the advise and assist brigades now deployed to Iraq. Planners devised the strategy in months rather than years and continue tweaking it as experience accumulates.
But people are the basis for American military excellence, and the question becomes how does the service prepare, train and retain officers “with the necessary multifaceted experience to take on a broad range of missions and roles,” Gates said, that involve “many doctrines in play, often simultaneously.”
As an example, Gates pointed to the ongoing and prospective requirements to train, equip and advise foreign armies and police. These capabilities must be institutionalized into the ‘Big Army,’ he said, while making the related experiences and skill sets a career-enhancing pursuit. This, he said, should be encouraged.
“If you chart a different path, there’s no telling the impact you could have — on the Army, and on history,” Gates said.
While the Army has always needed entrepreneurial leaders, for an era of full-spectrum conflict “America can succeed only with leaders who are themselves full-spectrum in their thinking,” he said. “The military will not be able to train or educate you to have all the right answers — as one might find in a manual — but you should look for those experiences and pursuits in your career that will help you at least ask the right questions.”
The secretary told the cadets to look for opportunities that in the past were considered off the beaten path, if not a career dead end. He said the Army needs to encourage leaders in these pursuits. “Such opportunities might include further study at graduate school, teaching at this or another first-rate university, spending time at a think tank, being a congressional fellow, working in a different government agency or becoming a foreign area specialist,” he said.
“It is incumbent on the Army to promote — in every sense of the word — these choices and experiences for its next generation of leaders; the junior- and mid-grade officers in Army ranks who represent the most battle-tested group in its history,” Gates said.
The greatest challenge facing the Army is breaking-up “the institutional concrete” in the service’s assignments and promotion processes to keep the best and most battled-tested young officers, the secretary said.
The soldiers have been resilient and have done all that national leaders have asked.
“I will never forget one of my first decisions as Secretary of Defense in early 2007, which was to extend Army combat tours from 12 to 15 months, including for units that had spent less than a year at home,” Gates said. “This was perhaps my most difficult decision over the past four years because I knew the hardship this would place on those who had already borne so much for this country. But the alternative would have been a disaster for our country and for Iraq. And the Army did as ordered and much more.”
Today’s cadets will join a force that has been decisively engaged for nearly a decade, Gates said. “While it is resilient, it is also stressed and tired,” he said.
The repeated deployments, Gates said, mean that young officers have had “little opportunity to do more than catch their breath” and then get ready for the next deployment. And waiting for these officers is the bureaucratic, garrison mindset at their home stations.
“In theater, junior leaders are given extraordinary opportunities to be innovative, take risks and be responsible and recognized for the consequences,” Gates said.
In garrison, the opposite is often true.
“Men and women in the prime of their professional lives, who may have been responsible for the lives of scores or hundreds of troops, or millions of dollars in assistance, or engaging or reconciling warring tribes, may find themselves in a cube all day re-formatting Powerpoint slides, preparing quarterly training briefs or assigned an ever expanding array of clerical duties,” he said. “The consequences of this terrify me.”
Gates said his experiences in running large public organizations — he was the director of Central Intelligence and then president of Texas A&M University before becoming the defense secretary — show that leaders must concentrate on the top 20 percent of their workforce ,and the bottom 20 percent.
“The former to elevate and give more responsibility and opportunity, the latter to transition out, albeit with consideration and respect for the service they have rendered,” he said. “Failure to do so risks frustrating, demoralizing and ultimately losing the leaders we will need most for the future.”
Any bureaucracy often encourages people to keep their heads down, avoid making waves and to never disagree with superiors. “The Army has been fortunate throughout its history to have officers who, at critical times, exercise respectful, principled dissent,” he said. He pointed to Army Gen. George C. Marshall as one shining example among many, of this characteristic.
The tendency of any big bureaucracy is to revert to business as usual at the first opportunity. For the military, that opportunity is coming with the unwinding of sustained combat, Gates said.
Stopping that tendency is crucial to the health of the force. “The former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Barno, [West Point] Class of 1976, has written that, ‘In a smaller professional force competing for talent with the Googles of the world,’ reforming this system is a ‘must do’ for the Army to keep its best and brightest leaders,” Gates said.
But while the service competes with corporate America, the Army is not Apple or General Electric, he said.
“Taking that oath and accepting that commission means doing what you are told and going where you are needed,” the secretary told the cadets. “But just as the Army has reset and reformed itself in when it comes to doctrine, equipment, and training, it must use the eventual slackening of overseas deployments as an opportunity to attack the institutional constipation of ‘Big Army,’ and re-think the way it deals with the outstanding young leaders in its lower- and middle-ranks.”
Gates said for all the challenges that lie ahead for the cadets, they made the right choice in joining the Long Gray Line. “Beyond the hardship, heartbreak, and sacrifice — and they are real — there is another side to military service,” he said. “You have an extraordinary opportunity — not just for the lives of your soldiers, but for missions and decisions that may change the course of history.”
Gates said the today’s cadets will be challenged to take risks and expand what they thought they were capable of doing. “And you will be doing all this at an age when many of your peers are reading spreadsheets and making photocopies,” he said.
“Each of you — with your talents, your intelligence, your record of accomplishments — could have chosen something easier or safer and, of course, better paid,” Gates told the cadets. “But you took on the mantle of duty, honor and country; you passed down the Long Gray Line of men and women who have walked these halls and strode these grounds before you — more than 80 of whom have fallen in battle since 9/11. For that, you have the profound gratitude and eternal admiration of the American people.”