Gates’s Hope to Reform the Pentagon Is Barking at the Moon

by , May 18, 2008

In a recent speech, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates pleaded with the armed services to emphasize preparing for war against guerrillas instead of spending so much money and effort getting ready for conventional wars. He said that he wanted to avoid the erosion of counterinsurgency capabilities that occurred after the Vietnam War, when the U.S. military forgot all it knew about fighting guerrillas and went back to concentrating solely on a possible battle with the conventional forces of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the uniformed services – where the power at the Pentagon still ultimately lies – will probably not pay much attention to him, and the next administration’s Secretary of Defense will face the same recalcitrant services bent on procuring expensive high-tech weapons designed to fight non-existent major conventional threats.

Why will Secretary Gates’s "management by exhortation" be ignored? First, he, like his boss President Bush, is a lame duck. All the services have to do is wait out the remaining eight months of Gates’s term.

Second, and more important, despite the embarrassing bungling in counterinsurgency that occurred in Afghanistan and Iraq as the U.S. military relearned the lost art of counterinsurgency warfare, the armed services have few incentives to change the weapons they are buying, and Congress has even fewer to accept such changes. To put it bluntly, relatively low-tech counterinsurgency warfare is not as profitable as designing and building glitzy high-tech weaponry.

Although there are certainly people in the U.S. military who want to fight and win the wars of the future – which will be much like Iraq and Afghanistan – they are unlikely to get much money. Most Americans think that the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) should be…well…defending the United States. Yet despite all the flag waving, the DoD works like any other government agency in redistributing the taxpayer’s dollars to special interests. Defense contractors and subcontractors in states and congressional districts across the country lobby to get lucrative defense contracts spread around to them, and their congresspersons and senators gleefully pressure the armed services to do so. The problem is that fighting guerrillas and terrorists requires that fewer and less expensive contracts be undertaken than when preparing for war against imaginary major conventional threats. Although new technology can be helpful in fighting guerrillas, counterinsurgency warfare is more manpower intensive – requiring boots on the ground – and less dependent on high-tech weapons than conventional battle.

So the military keeps building the F-22 fighter, which was designed to fight the Soviet Union, the Future Combat System, designed for ground combat against a conventional foe, and expensive ships and submarines that have little to do with fighting guerrillas on land.

A similar problem occurs in U.S. intelligence, most of which is under Gates’s purview. For decades, complaints have been heard that the U.S. neglects human intelligence and instead overemphasizes electronic and satellite intelligence gathering. The problem is similar to that of counterinsurgency warfare; putting more emphasis on human intelligence agents is people-intensive and brings many fewer dollars back to congressional districts and states than does procuring high-tech reconnaissance and surveillance systems.

Thus, Gates and his successors as Secretary of Defense can chatter, cajole, exhort, prod, and even threaten the services, but they’ll probably have little luck in changing the incentive structure of the military-industrial-congressional complex. In short, when U.S. policy-makers stumble into the next counterinsurgency quagmire, the U.S. military will probably have to reinvent the wheel yet again.

Read more by Ivan Eland