Wednesday 14 May 2008

The mother of all speeches

It was perhaps best summed up by Reuters which paraphrases Defence Secretary Robert Gates, saying: "The US military should focus more on winning in Iraq and preparing to fight other insurgencies and less on possible big wars with other countries".

The trouble is, as Gates rightly observes, that this is not always the main priority of the military. "I have noticed," he says, "too much of a tendency toward what might be called 'next-war-itis' - the propensity of much of the defense establishment to be in favour of what might be needed in a future conflict."

He goes on to say: "It is true that we would be hard-pressed to launch a major conventional ground operation elsewhere in the world at this time,” but then asks the killer question: "…but where would we sensibly do that?"

These were all extracts from a speech given yesterday under the aegis of the Heritage Foundation at Colorado Springs, Denver. Important enough in their own right, these comments are even more so when they are applied to the British military.

Unlike the US, we do not have sufficient capacity or funding to be able to fund current operations and the a "future war" yet "next-war-itis" is a massive driver of UK defence expenditure, and clearly dominates the thinking of the top brass.

It is perhaps indicative, therefore, that while the Gates' speech gets good coverage in the US media and the agencies, it is ignored by the British MSM. All we get from the likes of The Daily Telegraph is ritual whingeing as it tells us that, "Nearly half of all Armed Forces units are suffering from 'serious or critical weaknesses' as a result of their service in Iraq and Afghanistan."

This, itself, is instructive, indirectly illustrating precisely the point Gates is making. By and large, the Armed Forces – and especially the Army as a corporate body – regards the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as an irritation; necessary but tiresome interruptions in the tempo of training and preparation for the "next war".

This "next war" is the war the military would prefer to fight, and for which they devote the bulk of its spending, equipment and for which the Services are structured – irrespective of the needs of the actual operations it they are conducting. Hence, the shortages and stresses of which the Forces so volubly complain arise as much from the determination, effectively, to keep two separate establishments and to put so much energy and resource into the non-operational tasks.

The point here is that the "next war" in the minds of the military, is nothing like the wars they are actually fighting. One suspects they hanker after the wide open plains of nothern Germany, amassing their ranks of shiny toys against the hoards of Soviet tanks about to thunder through the Fulda Gap.

Alternatively, in the pursuit of their mythical "rapid reaction force", they must imagine thundering out of their gleaming new airlifters, in streamlined, eight-wheeler killing machines, ready to do battle at a moment's notice in a country a long way away. The nature of the enemy, they know not; the enemy they cannot identify and the location is never revealed. Simply, it is not here, but there.

Gates has the answer to that: "…in a world of finite knowledge and limited resources, where we have to make choices and set priorities," he cautions, "it makes sense to lean toward the most likely and lethal scenarios for our military."

It is, he says, hard to conceive of any country confronting the United States directly in conventional terms – ship to ship, fighter to fighter, tank to tank – for some time to come. On the other hand, the record of the past quarter century is clear: the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Israelis in Lebanon, the United States in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Thus, he says, smaller, irregular forces – insurgents, guerrillas, terrorists – will find ways, as they always have, to frustrate and neutralize the advantages of larger, regular militaries. And even nation-states will try to exploit our perceived vulnerabilities in an asymmetric way, rather than play to our inherent strengths.

At this point, one must note the theme to which Gates was speaking. The conference was entitled: "The Military Beyond Iraq," the expectation being that he would sketch out the shape of the forces of the future. His response, therefore, puts the thinking in focus. Overall, he says, "the kinds of capabilities we will most likely need in the years ahead will often resemble the kinds of capabilities we need today."

Again, this has a huge resonance for the British. Barring the Falklands War, and the early stages of the two Iraqi campaigns, ever since Korea the British have been engaged in a series of "irregular" wars. From Malaysia, to Kenya, to Oman (where we were not officially engaged), Aden, and the Balkans – not forgetting Northern Ireland - and now Iraq and Afghanistan, that is where the bulk of our effort has been devoted.

Yet, as we have observed on this blog, lessons learned in fighting these and other campaigns seem to have been forgotten – it seems as if the Forces have lost their corporate memories.

Gates himself is clearly aware of this dynamic. "What we must guard against," he tells his audience, "is the kind of backsliding that has occurred in the past, where if nature takes it course, these kinds of capabilities – that is counter-insurgency – tend to wither on the vine." He then recounts:

There is a history here. During the 1980s, a Princeton graduate student noted in his dissertation that, about a decade after the fall of Saigon, the Army’s 10-month staff college assigned 30 hours – about four days – for what is now called low-intensity conflict. This was about the same as what the Air Force was teaching at the time. That grad student was then-Army Major David Petraeus.
And so to the future shape of the Armed Forces. Here, Gates makes two crucial points, points which will be found writ through this blog. First, he says, any major weapons programme, in order to remain viable, will have to show some utility and relevance to the kind of irregular campaigns that are most likely to engage America's military in the coming decades.

He makes a special reference to FCS (the equivalent of FRES), which he says – being somewhat diplomatic – must "continue" to demonstrate its value for the types of irregular challenges we will face, as well as for full-spectrum warfare. Secondly, he says that the perennial procurement cycle "of adding layer upon layer of cost and complexity onto fewer and fewer platforms that take longer and longer to build must come to an end."

Without a fundamental change in this dynamic, he warns, it will be difficult to sustain support for these kinds of weapons programs in the future. And much the same must apply to the UK – we simply cannot afford the expenditure on more and more expensive platforms, only to have fewer of them – exactly what has happened with the Type 45.

As to preferred platforms, Gates singles out the MRAPs, Mine Resistant Ambush Protected. He confronts the complaints that more than $20 billion is being spent for a vehicle "that many people see as not having much use beyond Iraq", and the fact that they "may have been seen as competing with the funding for future weapons programs with strong constituencies inside and outside the Pentagon."

But, he says, "there is a strong case to be made that IEDs and suicide bombings have become the weapon of choice for America's most dangerous and likely adversaries – and the need to have a vehicle of this kind won't go away."

Even if that weren't the case, he adds, if sending thousands of MRAPs halfway across the world can save the lives and limbs of young Americans, and can demonstrate to those troops, their families, and to the country that everything is being done to protect our servicemen on the front lines – then I think this money is more than well spent.

Then, we get a stunning piece of information which should give everyone cause to stop and think – especially those gainsayers who argued against the introduction of MRAPs into the British Army. Of the new batch of vehicles in the MRAP programme, there have been 150-plus attacks so far and all but six soldiers have survived . The casualty rate is one-third that of a[n armoured] Humvee, less than half that of an Abrams tank. "These vehicles are saving lives," Gates declares.

That latter statistic tells us a great deal: you have more than twice the chance of walking away uninjured from a MRAP hit by an IED than you do a main battle tank.

And, even in this mother of all speeches, Gates is still not finished. Another thing he points out is that, at West Point last month, he told the cadets that the most important assignment in their careers may not necessarily be commanding U.S. soldiers, but advising or mentoring the troops of other nations.

That, our troops are doing – and all credit to them – but the Royal Air Force needs to catch up. For too long, they (and the US forces) have had a monopoly of offensive air, but it is not until they bring the Afghani Air force into the fight, as an effective force, can there be any hope of scaling down operations.

Much else does the man say, and it is impossible to do this speech full justice in a review, so it is worth reading the full text. And it does not lose pace. Gates' closing paragraph needs quoting in full:

The risk of overextending the Army is real. But I believe the risk is far greater – to that institution, as well as to our country – if we were to fail in Iraq. That is the war we are in. That is the war we must win.
This is something our own Army could have taken to heart before it bugged out of al Amarah, and before it retreated into its bunkers at Basra Air Station. Moreover, the same applies to Afghanistan. The Army is there to fight and win a war, the war it is fighting and not some mythical "next war" that exists only in the minds of the brass and the defence contractors who will so willingly give the retired chiefs jobs when they retire.

The Army may just get away with its defeat in Iraq. It will not survive a similar humiliation in Afghanistan. Yet, according to some recently back from theatre (with whom we have had long discussions), the way it is going about the task, it will lose. Gates, thou should be speaking here.