One of the defining features of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ tenure has been the focus he placed on fighting and winning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Almost single-handedly he dragged the military away from its traditional focus on high-end conventional conflict and towards counterinsurgency warfare. In one well-known utterance Gates accused some in the military of being afflicted with “next-war-itis,” which meant an excessive focus on preparing for the next big conflict at the expense of the wars in which the nation was currently engaged.
The Secretary reshaped the Pentagon’s portfolio of weapons systems to meet his insistence of giving primacy to current wars. He personally pushed the Army/Marine Corps’ acquisition of tens of thousands of MRAP armored vehicles and the Air Force’s expansion of its Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) fleet to support 50 continuous orbits. He secured a major increase in Army/Marine Corps end-strength.
At the same time, he cancelled or capped each of the service’s premier “next war” programs. The Army saw the Future Combat System canceled in a series of decisions over the past two years, culminating with the recent termination of the non-line-of-sight systems, the Class 1 UAV and the unattended ground sensor programs. The Air Force had the F-22 program capped at 187 aircraft, the Transformational Communications Satellite program canceled and the new strategic bomber program delayed pending a better definition of requirements. The Navy had its plans to design a new missile defense cruiser canceled, the DDG-1000 program terminated at three ships and the time between construction of new nuclear-powered aircraft carriers lengthened. The pendulum had clearly swung away from high-end conventional conflict and towards counterinsurgency warfare.
Now as U.S. forces exit Iraq and prepare for a 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan, it appears that the Secretary is reversing course. Most notably, in the January 6 press conference unveiling the results his efficiency drive, the Secretary announced a reduction in Army and Marine Corps end strength of at least 42,000 personnel. Secretary Gates identified a number of high-end programs that will be started or expanded. There is a new radar for the F-15, additional Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles, a new generation of sea-borne strike and reconnaissance UAVs, more Navy ships and late model F/A-18s, a new generation of electronic jammers and the restart of the program to develop a new, long-range, nuclear-capable strategic bomber.
This last program is particularly notable because of the specific comment the Secretary made about it: “The follow-on bomber represents a key component of a joint portfolio of conventional deep-strike capabilities — an area that should be a high priority for future defense investment given the anti-access challenges our military faces.” The fight for access in the face of advanced anti-access and area denial threats will be one of the defining characteristics of high-end conventional warfare in the 21st Century.
A program that may be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the Secretary’s strategic shift is advanced missile defense. The Secretary said that there would be more funding for long range missile defenses for both Europe and the continental United States. This apparently means accelerating work on the next generation of missile interceptors, the Standard Missile 3, Block IIB. Additional advanced radar systems would be deployed in Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific. The challenge for the Missile Defense Agency will be to speed up its plans for advanced missile defenses, the so-called Phase IV capabilities, envisioned in its Phased Adaptive Approach to deploying missile defenses.
Secretary Gates’ decisions appear to be signaling the need to rebalance the Pentagon’s weapons portfolio in favor of conventional conflict. Yes, there is plenty of money for capabilities to support current fights. But what is significant is the trend away from counterinsurgency and towards capabilities to deal with high-end conventional conflicts.
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