Barack Obama kept the man that George Bush reluctantly appointed SecDef as his SecDef. This is truly a bizarre thing but I suspect that it will go down in history as one of the smartest things he did. I’m willing to believe news reports that Obama didn’t entirely want to do this either. Think about it, you’re basically saying “gosh, I have to keep the guy appointed to a key job by the deeply unpopular guy I’m replacing….” It doesn’t look pretty politically for all sorts of reasons. But whatever the politics of the decision, it seems that the two men have developed a very functional relationship, and not a moment too soon given the fact that, not to put too fine a point on it, we are in two wars and dealing with numerous other unpleasant contingencies that require attention from men with guns.

Take a look at Gates’ recent speech to the Air War College, though. For those of you who don’t know, the Air Force is one of the greatest bureaucratic warrior organizations around. They are fantastic at this, the acknowledged masters, so Gates pretty much has to win roll the USAF to win this. Anyway, the speech is worth reading in its entirety but I’ve extracted a few choice bits. It’s full of a refreshing empiricism that seemed lacking in Rumsfeld, e.g.,

Another theme underlying my recommendations is the need to think about future conflicts in a different way. To recognize that the black and white distinction between irregular war and conventional war is an outdated model. We must understand that we face a more complex future than that, a future where all conflict will range along a broad spectrum of operations and lethality. Where near-peers will use irregular or asymmetric tactics and non-state actors may have weapons of mass destruction or sophisticated missiles as well as AK-47s and RPGs. This kind of warfare will require capabilities with the maximum possible flexibility to deal with the widest possible range of conflict.

Another important thing I looked at was whether modernization programs, in particular ground modernization programs, had incorporated the operational and combat experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem with the Army’s Future Combat Systems vehicles was that a program designed nine years ago did not adequately reflect the lessons of close-quarter combat and improvised explosive devices that have taken a fearsome toll on our troops and their vehicles in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan.

We have to be prepared for the wars we are most likely to fight – not just the wars we’re best suited to fight, or threats we conjure up from potential adversaries with unlimited time and resources. And as I’ve said before, even when considering challenges from nation-states with modern militaries, the answer is not necessarily buying more technologically advanced versions of what we built – on land, sea, or air – to stop the Soviets during the Cold War.

Of course, a pretty speech doesn’t make reality. No plan survives contact with the enemy, and in Washington there are many: Contractors, the military itself (sadly), Congress, etc. But if the SecDef doesn’t make a real, realistic hard-nosed but not dictatorial, empirically-based start at reforming the Pentagon bureaucracy, who will?

Now it’s up to Obama to back Gates again. Choosing the right man for the job is probably the easier part.

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