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October 6, 2008—Major combat systems have plenty of champions, but irregular warfare capabilities have few, which is why Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates made such a fuss about the services’ “next war-itis” in the past few months.

Gates, in a Sept. 29 speech at the National Defense University in Washington, admitted that he was trying to shake the services up this summer when he railed that they were preoccupied with preparing for major wars and not devoting enough attention to the small ones. Irregular warfare (IW), nation-building, and mentoring other militaries will probably be the most common activities for the armed forces in the years to come, Gates predicted. He said he felt it necessary to personally promote capabilities that will enable success in such work.

“When referring to ‘next war-itis,’ I was not expressing opposition to thinking about and preparing for the future. It would be irresponsible not to do so,” Gates explained. However, he said, big modernization programs have support from “our bureaucracy, in the defense industry, and in Congress. My fundamental concern is that is that there is not commensurate institutional support—including in the Pentagon—for the capabilities to win the wars we are in and of the kinds of missions we are most likely to undertake in the future.”

In the war on terror, “we cannot kill or capture our way to victory,” Gates said, and added that kinetic systems may often have to take a backseat to economic and psychological approaches to quieting extremist behavior.

“We are unlikely to repeat another Iraq or Afghanistan anytime soon,” Gates acknowledged, “but that doesn’t mean we will not face similar challenges in a variety of locales.”

The speech was considered an exposition on the most recent National Defense Strategy, offered up to Congress last month.

Gates argued that IW capabilities will be needed for “big wars” as well, and said it’s inevitable that US forces, after winning a major conflict, will have to maintain security, provide aid, reconstruct the vanquished nation, and stand up a new local government, as it has had to do in postwar circumstances before. Moreover, the ability to win big wars doesn’t necessarily provide the ability to win small ones, as the rules and goals are very different, he maintained. 

Gates asserted: “The kind of capabilities needed to deal with these scenarios cannot be considered exotic distractions or temporary diversions. We do not have the luxury of opting out because they do not conform to preferred notions of the American way of war.”

He credited the services with taking some steps to face up to these realities, but said that, like all bureaucracies, the Pentagon would rather consider wars like Iraq and Afghanistan temporary episodes and not a new reality to which it must conform.

A resurgent Russia and a rising China are cited as potential major threats, Gates said, but  Russia’s conventional power “remains a shadow of its Soviet predecessor,” and the challenges it poses are “very different from the past.” Russia has only sluggishly built new weapon systems, and he said the recent adventurism in Georgia reflects “a desire to exorcise past humiliation and dominate their near-abroad—not an ideologically-driven campaign to dominate the globe.”

As for China, Gates acknowledged that "investments in cyber-and anti-satellite warfare, anti-air and anti-ship weaponry, submarines, and ballistic missiles could threaten America’s primary means to project power and help allies in the Pacific." However, he said, “We have ample, untapped striking power in our air and sea forces should the need arise to deter or punish aggression, whether on the Korean Peninsula, in the Persian Gulf, or across the Taiwan Strait."

Still, Gates said that "while we are knowingly assuming some additional risk in this area, that risk is, I believe, a prudent and manageable one.”