“The United States is the strongest and greatest nation on Earth, but there are still limits on what it can do,” Gates wrote in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.
The U.S. military’s power and global reach have been “an indispensible contributor to world peace and must remain so,” Gates continued in his article, titled “A Balanced Strategy: Reprogramming the Pentagon for a New Age.”
“But not every outrage, every act of aggression or every crisis can or should elicit a U.S. military response,” he said.
In fact, he said the United States “should be modest” about what military force and technology can accomplish.
“The advances in precision, sensor, information and satellite technologies have led to extraordinary gains in what the U.S. military can do,” Gates said. “But no one should ever neglect the psychological, cultural, political and human dimensions of warfare.
“War is inevitably tragic, inefficient and uncertain,” the secretary said, “and it is important to be skeptical of systems analyses, computer models, game theories or doctrines that suggest otherwise.”
He dismissed notions of future conflict that gloss over the ugly realities of war and the heavy costs involved. He warned against concepts that “imagine it is possible to cow, shock or awe an enemy into submission instead of tracking enemies down hilltop by hilltop, house by house, block by bloody block.”
Gates pointed to transformations the U.S. military has made to conduct operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. What started as a smaller-scale Cold War force was able to become an effective instrument of counterinsurgency — but only at a substantial cost and by bucking the ingrained Pentagon bureaucracy.
“For every historic and resourceful innovation by troops and commanders on the battlefield, there was some institutional shortcoming at the Pentagon they had to overcome,” he wrote.
Gates called for institutional changes so “the next sets of colonels, captains and sergeants will not have to be quite so heroic or quite so resourceful.”
A strong advocate of institutionalizing counterinsurgency skills and the ability to conduct stability and support operations, Gates said it’s time to bring them on par with the United States’ conventional and strategic capabilities.
He cited the tradition of the United States being able to fight and adapt to a diverse range of conflicts — a capability dating back to the Revolutionary War.
The U.S. National Defense Strategy, he said, builds on this tradition, providing a balanced approach needed for the United States to meet its responsibilities and preserve America’s freedom, prosperity and security.