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National Defense > Blog > Posts > In Two Speeches, Two Very Different Messages to the U.S. Army
In Two Speeches, Two Very Different Messages to the U.S. Army
It was the opening salvo of the next Pentagon Budget War. Defense Secretary Robert Gates — who only a few short years ago warned the Air Force and the Navy to curb their appetite for “exquisite” high-tech weapons and focus on winning today’s wars — told West Point cadets last week that it’s now time for the Army to begin to suppress its cravings for massive armored formations and pricey hardware.

Gates’ Feb. 25 speech marks a rather dramatic turnabout from earlier addresses in which he sought to mobilize the Pentagon’s bureaucracy to support the military’s counterinsurgency push in Iraq and Afghanistan. His message is all the more striking considering that, on the same day, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey delivered a keynote speech at the Association of the U.S. Army winter symposium in which he called for the nation to continue to support the service’s current force structure. “The war is not over,” Casey cautioned, and any temptation to seek a “peace dividend” by gutting the Army only creates a “danger to the long-term security” of the United States.

Gates, who may be leaving the Pentagon soon and seems genuinely worried about the future of the Army, is telling green-suiters to accept the reality that Iraq-like wars will not happen again, and should focus on reshaping the service so that it can be relevant in non-counterinsurgency types of conflict.

“I do think it is important to think about what the Army will look like and must be able to do after large U.S. combat units are substantially drawn down in Afghanistan,” said Gates. “The need for heavy armor and firepower to survive, close with, and destroy the enemy will always be there. … Looking ahead, though, in the competition for tight defense dollars within and between the services, the Army also 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.”

Rapid-response “expeditionary forces, be they Army or Marines, airborne infantry or special operations” always will be needed, Gates said. But the Army has to come to grips with the idea that the past decade of counterinsurgency fighting soon will be part of history and not likely to repeat itself. “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,” Gates said.

But while some Army leaders may welcome the end of counterinsurgencies, they worry that it also means the death of big budgets. With the federal budget deficit threatening to bankrupt the United States and the Pentagon seeking to make serious expenditures on next-generation naval and aerial systems, an inevitable squeeze is coming for ground forces.

Casey, whose AUSA speech was probably one of his last before retiring, said it is premature to start reshaping U.S. military forces. For years, Casey has been forecasting that the United States will be engaged in conflicts indefinitely and will need to keep a large ground army. Any "sense that our successful transition in Iraq, the planned (conditions-based) redeployment of our Afghan plus-up forces next summer, and the potential transition there by 2014 are all harbingers of the end of our struggle with violent extremism" is misguided, Casey said. "They are not.” Raising the specter of the post-Vietnam “hollow” Army, Casey said he worries about a similar fate for the post-Afghanistan force. “We've seen time and again that a ‘peace dividend’ is, at best, a mirage and, at worst, a danger to the long-term security of our country, our allies and our interests. … We simply cannot afford to dismantle this incredible Army that we have so painstakingly built over the past decade. If you look at what's going on in the Middle East right now -- that only confirms what I've been saying for four years: that we're in an era of persistent conflict.”

Gates is not predicting that all wars will end after Afghanistan, but he is calling for the Army to be smart about planning for future.

“We can’t know with absolute certainty what the future of warfare will hold, but we do know it will be exceedingly complex, unpredictable … terrorism and terrorists in search of weapons of mass destruction, Iran, North Korea, military modernization programs in Russia and China, failed and failing states, revolution in the Middle East, cyber, piracy, proliferation, natural and man-made disasters, and more,” Gates said. “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. But 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.”

Let the budget battles begin.

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