Shocked and Awed

Stephen DeAngelis

October 1, 2008

Readers of this blog know that it is not a blog about national security even though I often discuss security as it relates to development in emerging market countries. I generally leave the in-depth discussions of security issues to my colleague Tom Barnett and his Weblog. On several occasions, however, I have written about Tom’s suggestion of creating a System Administration (SysAdmin) Force. The point of those posts has been that strategists and analysts have come to realize that Tom has been correct in pushing for the capabilities embodied in such a force [for example, see my posts entitled The Economist Looks at the System Administration Force, Soft Power, SysAdmin, and Development-in-a-Box™ and A Manual for the SysAdmin Force]. In the post on Soft Power, I discussed a speech by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in which he encouraged the administration and Congress to appropriate more money for the State Department and the activities under its control. Gates admitted that such advocacy by a standing Secretary of Defense was considered “blasphemy” by many in the Defense Department. Gates has now truly shocked what Tom calls the “big war” crowd and awed proponents of his SysAdmin approach by openly criticizing the way the military went to war in Iraq [“Gates Criticizes Conventional Focus At Start of Iraq War,” by Ann Scott Tyson, Washington Post, 30 September 2008].

“Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates [in a 29 September speech] criticized the shock-and-awe strategy of the 2003 Iraq invasion and said the Pentagon’s narrow focus on conventional combat operations proved costly when U.S. ground troops had to switch gears to try to stabilize that country. The Pentagon bureaucracy failed to respond quickly enough to the military’s need for innovative counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gates said, and he called for reforms to make the institution more agile and flexible.”

For years Tom has been telling military leaders that they have been buying one military but fighting another. What he means by that is that the Pentagon has been concentrating on “big ticket” weapons systems needed to fight a near-peer competitor while the majority of its time has been spent responding to crises and participating in stability operations. Tom understands that the military needs to hedge against a “big war” and has never called for eliminating what he calls its “Leviathan” capabilities. He has simply tried to point out that the myopic focus on big weapons systems focused on a technologically-sophisticated opponent has meant that soldiers on the ground have not received the intellectual and materiel support they need to operate in the scenarios in which they most often find themselves. Gates is now echoing Tom’s arguments.

“The military’s struggle to adjust to the counterinsurgency mission in Iraq ‘came at a frightful human, financial and political cost,’ Gates told an audience of military officers at the National Defense University here. ‘For every heroic and resourceful innovation by troops and commanders on the battlefield, there was some institutional shortcoming at the Pentagon that they had to overcome,’ he said. While having a military skilled in fighting major conventional ground wars is essential, Gates said, such a war is unlikely in the near future. Yet the Pentagon has placed comparatively too much emphasis on developing high-technology weapon systems aimed at potential state adversaries such as China or Russia that take years to develop, he said, noting that the 2009 budget contains more than $180 billion for such conventional systems. Such weapons often envision a computerized, idealized version of warfare that Gates suggested is unrealistic.”

The focus of Gates’ criticism seems to be the theories that undergird network-centric warfare and effects-based operations. Proponents of network-centric warfare and effects-based operations believe that high tech gadgets can provide field commanders with such good information that they will have an overwhelming competitive advantage because they will be able to make surgical strikes that will bring an adversary to its knees. Gates wasn’t arguing about the importance of good information, he was arguing against the notion that high tech systems are the answer in every conflict scenario. He asked officers to be skeptical of such notions.

“‘Be skeptical of systems analysis, computer models, game theories,’ he warned, adding that officers should ‘look askance’ at notions of future conflict that imply ‘adversaries can be cowed, shocked or awed into submission, instead of being tracked down, hilltop by hilltop, house by house.’ Instead, Gates said, the Pentagon needs to be able to rapidly purchase and field more low-tech capabilities. ‘Our conventional modernization programs seek a 99 percent solution in years. Stability and counterinsurgency missions — the wars we are in — require 75 percent solutions in months,’ he said. For example, Gates said, the Defense Department took too long to develop up-armored Humvees, mine-resistant vehicles, jammers and other gear to counter roadside bombs, as well as new intelligence technologies needed for Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Gates biggest concern is the calcification of the Pentagon’s bureaucracy.

“‘Why did we have to bypass existing institutions and procedures to get the capabilities we need to protect our troops and pursue the wars we are in?’ he said. Gates said that given U.S. military dominance in air, land and sea power, the Pentagon can safely shift away from building small numbers of highly advanced ships, aircraft, and other systems and instead purchase larger quantities of simpler, cheaper equipment — potentially for use by foreign military partners. For instance, he said that in Iraq a task force has expanded its surveillance capabilities by using turboprop aircraft coupled with advanced sensors, he said.”

Gates basically argues that the U.S. force is “good enough” to deal with high end warfare for the foreseeable future but out of balance at the lower end of the spectrum of conflict. He wants to bring the military into better balance.

“Gates predicted that in coming years the main threat faced by the U.S. military overseas will be a complex hybrid of conventional and unconventional conflicts, waged by ‘militias, insurgent groups, other non-state actors and Third World militaries.’ ‘However,’ he said, ‘apart from the Special Forces community and some dissident colonels, for decades there has been no strong, deeply rooted constituency inside the Pentagon … for institutionalizing our capabilities to wage … irregular conflict.'”

Tom would probably argue that Gates doesn’t go far enough. Gates is still talking about a force primarily involved in kinetic solutions (low-end conflict as we know it). The lower you go on the spectrum of conflict the more emphasis one should place on non-kinetic activities. The focus should not be winning the war but securing the peace. Tom’s SysAdmin force would include security forces, but it would concentrate on activities that build rather destroy local capacities. Nevertheless, Gates has demonstrated both wisdom and courage in advocating for a better balanced military.