The Gates Doctrine: Avoid Big Land Wars

The United States should not deploy large numbers of combat troops on the ground to most of the world, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in his last speech to the West Point corps of cadets.

The United States should not deploy large numbers of combat troops on the ground to most of the world, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in his last speech to the West Point corps of cadets.

Here is the core of Gates’ argument: “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 counterterrorism, rapid reaction, disaster response, or stability or security force assistance missions. 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.

“By no means am I suggesting that the U.S. Army will – or should – turn into a Victorian nation-building constabulary – designed to chase guerrillas, build schools, or sip tea.”

While we may not rebuilding a colonial constabularly, the consequences of this strategic approach seems to be that the Army’s vaunted heavy divisions, designed to be the core of American global strength since World War II, may be headed for dissolution. Gates came pretty close to saying just that when he told the cadets that, …“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.”

Critics will doubtless target Gates on one key aspect of his reasoning. He told the Army’s future leaders that the US has “never once gotten it right, from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq, and more” when predicting the next war.

But he hedged his bets, noting that “the need for heavy armor and firepower to survive, close with, and destroy the enemy will always be there, as veterans of Sadr City and Fallujah can no doubt attest.” But those are largely tactical uses of limited elements of the Army’s structure, not the massive power that a heavy division could bring to bear.

He appeared to recognize this, because his next sentence says the Army “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.” If one were to look back in time, this would be very similar to the arguments one heard especially from the Air Force during the Clinton years that high precision weapons would basically render ground forces obsolete.

One senior Army officer characterized Gates’ speech as “a sad commentary” that would seem to tell Army cadets “that their career aspirations are misplaced. All in all, a terrible message.”

Gates placed most of his emphasis on the ability of land forces to engage in irregular warfare and the ability “to prevent festering problems from growing into full-blown crises which require costly – and controversial – large-scale American military intervention.” That would seem to relegate the conventional Army — ready to battle a conventional enemy that poses a life and death threat to the United States — to the sidelines. Instead, he urged the service to “adapt its practices and culture to these strategic realities.”

His examples of officers to emulate were drawn from irregular warfare, such as that of Russell Volckmann, who was stationed in the Philippines before World War II broke out. He raised and led many of the guerrilla forces that battled the Japanese during the war. “When the Japanese commander finally decided to surrender, he made the initial overtures not to General MacArthur, but to Volckmann, who went on after the war to help create the Green Berets. My point: if you chart a different path, there’s no telling the impact you could have – on the Army, and on history,” Gates told the cadets.

What Gates did not mention was that when Volckmann went to the Philippines, service there was largely viewed by the Army leadership as garrison duty to be avoided by soldiers looking for a promising career. Given how rarely the U.S. gets it right when predicting wars of the future, perhaps Gates should be less sanguine about his or anyone else’s chances of picking the right approach.

Developing an Army capable of executing a wide array of missions — low– and high-intensity warfare, with a large corps of highly trained special operators — may be the soundest approach. The Marines and Special Operations Command will have to be crucial parts of deciding how best to approach this. Regardless, the Army is and will likely remain the largest forces America deploys. And remaking it will, as Gates noted, require a much more adaptive and nimble Army leadership than we have had much of the last 70 years. When bureaucracies shrink they tend to grow more cautious unless forced to change by strong and unconventional leaders. Perhaps replacing many senior Army leaders is what’s needed over the next several years, as Gen. Marshall did after the Louisiana Maneuvers.