In his last major speech to the U.S. Army Corps of Cadets at West Point, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates continued his habit of using such addresses to prod a service into thinking seriously about its future. The previous time it was the Navy. In a speech last year to the Navy League the Secretary made headlines by questioning the need for aircraft carriers, amphibious forces and nuclear attack submarines. This time it was the Army’s turn. The Secretary thanked the Army for its efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan but then told them they were fired (at least as far as major conflicts were concerned).
According to the Secretary, the Army should not plan on fighting protracted, large scale counterinsurgency/stability operations such as Iraq and Afghanistan. “The odds of repeating another Afghanistan or Iraq -- invading, pacifying, and administering a large third world country -- may be low.” It also should not plan for a return to the good old days of major force-on-force conventional warfare. “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.”
As a consequence, the Secretary warned, the Army would face a serious crisis in the competition for resources. “... as 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.” In addition, Gates warned that in assessing the range of potential future large-scale contingencies, the nation would inevitably rely more on naval and air power. “In the competition for tight defense dollars, 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.”
Overall the Secretary made a strong case of the maintenance of a large, modern and balanced military. To those who want to gut military modernization or force structure based on the argument that large-scale conventional conflicts are unlikely in the near-future, he noted that “when it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right, from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq, and more -- we had no idea a year before any of these missions that we would be so engaged.”
The Secretary’s assessment leaves the Army caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. It now has almost a decade of practical experience in and a lot of platforms for large-scale counterinsurgency operations. At the same time, it is engaged in modernizing part of its force posture to deal with emerging challenges in high-end conventional warfare. The Army’s Force Generation Model (ARFORGEN) and new modular design are both intended to allow the service to respond to the demands for large-scale protracted warfare at the high and low ends of the conflict spectrum. While the Secretary said very clearly he did not favor turning the Army into a constabulary force, Gates made it clear that he thinks the Army will be getting smaller and lighter. Neither of these attributes is consonant with current Army force modernization plans.