“In recent years, these platforms have grown ever more baroque, have become ever more costly, are taking longer to build, and are being fielded in ever-dwindling quantities,” he said.
The problem, Gates said, is that the dynamic of exchanging numbers for capability is approaching a point of diminishing returns. “A given ship or aircraft, no matter how capable or well equipped, can be in only one place at one time,” he said.
The secretary recognized that many high-end weapons and units can be used in low-end operations. Strategic bombers have provided close-air support for riflemen on horseback. M-1 Abrams tanks have routed Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah and Najaf. Billion-dollar ships track pirates and deliver humanitarian aid. And as the Army moves its Future Combat Systems program forward, it’s spinning out parts of it now to support troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. FCS is a modernization program aimed at providing soldiers the best equipment and technology available as soon as practical.
But in light of the situations the United States is most likely to face in the future, Gates said, it’s time for the defense establishment to consider the requirements to support those efforts up front, not after the fact. This includes relatively low-tech equipment suited for stability and counterinsurgency missions.
Gates recalled the struggles the military encountered to field up-armored Humvees; mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles; and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets to Iraq.
“Why was it necessary to go outside the normal bureaucratic process to develop technologies to counter improvised explosive devices, to build MRAPs and to quickly expand the United States’ ISR capability?” he wrote. “In short, why was it necessary to bypass existing institutions and procedures to get the capabilities needed to protect U.S. troops and fight ongoing wars?”
Gates said it’s time to think hard about how to institutionalize the system that procures these capabilities so they can get fielded quickly.
The secretary noted the difference between what defense planners too often strive for and what’s really needed. “The Department of Defense’s conventional modernization programs seek a 99-percent solution over a period of years,” he said. “Stability and counterinsurgency missions require 75-percent solutions over a period of months.”
So the challenge, he said, is to recognize where the 99-percent solution in needed, and where the 75-percent one will do.
“The Defense Department has to consider whether, in situations in which the United States has total air dominance, it makes sense to employ lower-cost, lower-tech aircraft that can be employed in large quantities and used by U.S. partners,” he said, as one example.
Task Force ODIN — Observe, Detect, Identify and Neutralize — in Iraq stands as an example of this concept, he noted. The Army aviation battalion stood up in 2006 to conduct reconnaissance, surveillance, targeting and acquisition operations to counter improvised explosive devices. Since then, the unit has mated advanced sensors with turboprop aircraft to produce a massive increase in the amount of surveillance and reconnaissance coverage.
Gates said officials need to extend this mind-set more broadly throughout the Defense Department.
“The issue then becomes how to build this kind of innovative thinking and flexibility into the rigid procurement processes at home,” he said. “The key is to make sure that the strategy and risk assessment drive the procurement, rather than the other way around.”
Gates’ article calls “balance” a defining principle in the Pentagon’s new National Defense Strategy. The strategy strives for balance between:
— Prevailing in current conflicts and preparing for other contingencies;
— Instituting nonconventional capabilities while maintaining a conventional and strategic edge; and
— Retaining core traits that have made the military successful while shedding those that hamper its effectiveness.
“The United States cannot expect to eliminate national security risks through higher defense budgets to do everything and buy everything,” Gates wrote. “The Department of Defense must set priorities and consider inescapable tradeoffs and opportunity costs.”