SEYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, N.C., May 6, 2011 — The lesson Americans should take from recent military operations is that we cannot predict where or how U.S. forces will be engaged, and having flexible capabilities is the best defense for the nation, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today.
Since the Vietnam War, U.S. leaders have a “perfect” record in forecasting where America is going to use military power next: “We have never once gotten it right,” Gates said to about 450 airmen in a hangar at this F‑15 Strike Eagle base.
“We just don’t know, and that’s why we have to be prepared,” he said.
Given that record, Gates said, the equipment the military buys and the capabilities it develops must be broad based. Especially in a time of budget constraints, he said, “we need to buy capabilities that have the maximum possible flexibility for the broadest possible range of conflict.”
Americans should be cautious about significant cuts in the defense budget, Gates said. Four times in the last century America has significantly reduced its military capabilities after a war – World War I, World Wart II, Vietnam and the Cold War. Each time it was because people thought the world had changed, that challenges had gone away.
“Human nature hasn’t changed,” he said. “There will always be despots out there, there will always be aggressors and tyrants.
“The United States must keep its military capabilities strong as it look to the future, because we can’t tell what the future will hold,” he said.
The federal debt crisis is dire, but that seems to be the only time a democracy will confront a problem, the secretary said. “All through our history, people will try and put off dealing with a crisis for as long as they can, until it cannot be put off any longer,” he said. “If there is a consensus in Washington on one thing, it is that we cannot put off dealing with this crisis any longer.”
A strong defense needs a strong economy, and the Defense Department has a role to play in cutting the deficit, Gates said. There are more savings to be made, particularly in infrastructure and medical coverage, which is eating away at the Defense budget, he said.
“What I have been trying to do – in dealing with the Congress and the White House – is say, ‘Let’s not do this as math, as opposed to strategy,” he said. “Let’s take a look at our capabilities; let’s take a look at scenario-based force planning and see where we can take additional risk.”
The country needs a process that provides the president and Congress options that make sense, the secretary said. The options would be realistic and convey, “if you want to reduce Defense by this much, these are the changes in assumptions you have to make, and here is the added risk you face if you head in that direction,” he said.
If the country has the time to adopt this budget strategy, and plans for reductions, “and do it intelligently, we can do our part without weakening our national security,” he said.
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)