Operational Uncertainties Require Flexibility, Gates Says

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)

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