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Defense Secretary urges care in spending reductions while visiting FLW

FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. (May 19, 2011) — Finding $400 billion in additional defense spending reductions over the next 12 years will require careful thought that considers the risks the reductions create, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today.

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Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates speaks with students at Fort Leonard Wood. DOD photo by Cherie Cullen.

In a question-and-answer session with students at the U.S. Army Engineer School here, Gates warned against what he called the “managerial cowardice” of across-the-board cuts, advocating instead an approach that retains excellence in the missions the military keeps while cutting missions and programs that have value but would pose an acceptable level of risk if eliminated.

“Our approach in the Department of Defense to dealing with the reductions that people think we need to make needs to be very carefully thought through,” the secretary said. “My concern is that almost everybody in Washington sees this as a math problem, as opposed to a strategic problem. So I’m trying to frame the process in the Department of Defense so that we’ll continue the efficiencies that we began last year, and we’ll look at marginal missions and capabilities for some of those that have value, but are not core missions for us.”

Gates said “politically hard” issues such as military compensation, retirement and health care costs, as well as base closures, also need to be part of the discussion.

“But I think the real issue,” he added, “is that if we’re going to take a big hit in the budget, I want policy makers [and] the political leadership of the country to think of it in terms of ‘What additional risk are you prepared to take?’”

Previous large-scale defense spending reductions — in the 1970s after the Vietnam War and in the 1990s after the Cold War — were taken across the board, Gates said, calling that approach “absolutely the worst way to deal with this.”

“That is the way you hollow out the military,” he said. “That is the way you end up with a force structure that hasn’t changed, but you don’t have nearly enough money for training, for exercises, for tank miles, for steaming days or flying hours, or enough bullets to shoot in basic [training] to learn how.”

The secretary noted that national policy for more than 20 years has been for the military to be able to fight two major regional wars simultaneously.

“One approach [to spending reductions],” Gates said, “would be to say the likelihood of that happening is fairly low, and therefore, what are the implications if I think of it sequentially instead of simultaneously, where we won’t have to fight two at the same time? What are the implications of that for force structure? How many [brigade combat teams] can you take out of the force, how many fighters can you take out of the force, and so on, if you’re only going to fight one war at a time?”

But that approach, he said, also requires considering the risk.

“If you make that decision and cut that force,” he said, “the enemy always has a vote.”

The secretary presented a hypothetical example in which the United States is involved in a future conflict in Korea.

“Who’s to say that the Iranians don’t say, ‘What a great opportunity — the Americans are busy over here, let’s take advantage of the situation?’” he asked the students rhetorically.

“That’s the risk that’s involved,” he said. “So when people make these decisions, I don’t want them to treat it as a math problem. I want them to understand that there are strategic and military consequences to these budgetary decisions, and they need to make conscious choices about what capabilities and what risks they’re willing to deal with.”

Gates said he wants to make the process hard, because it’s always politically expedient to impose across-the-board percentage cuts when faced with the need for spending reductions.

“If we’re going to cut the budget,” he said, “we need to make some very hard, conscious decisions.”

• • • • •

Challenges Lie Ahead for Army, Gates Says

With all but its most senior soldiers having known no Army except the one that has deployed relentlessly for a decade, the service faces numerous challenges in the years to come, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today.

In a question-and-answer session with students during a visit to the U.S. Army Engineer School, Gates said Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Army chief of staff, has ambitious plans to help the Army adapt to a new reality.

“I think the next step for the Army is resetting after Afghanistan and a resumption of full-spectrum training,” the secretary said.

With so little time at their home stations between deployments over the last 10 years, he explained, the only unit training soldiers have been receiving has been for their next deployment. By fall or early winter, he added, all Army units should be on a cycle of two years at their home stations between one-year deployments, allowing full-spectrum training to resume.

Two other aspects of the high deployment tempo will pose a challenge for the Army going forward, Gates said.

“The first is that because of the pace of deployments over the last 10 years, we have a lot of brigade and division commanders who don’t have much experience as garrison commanders,” he said. “They’ve been so busy deploying and preparing to deploy that dealing with an Army that is on post with their families for two years is something that not very many of them have much experience with.”

The second, he said, stems from the high degree of independence the Army’s noncommissioned officers and company-grade officers have enjoyed and the varied nature of their work during their combat deployments that often required them to innovate.

“It’s been called ‘a captain’s war,’ because it’s basically a small-unit conflict,” the secretary said. “They’ve had the opportunity to do a variety of things, from fighting the enemy to building roads to meeting with village shuras and mediating disputes … So they’ve been given a lot of responsibility and a lot of independence, and they’re accustomed to taking responsibility.”

The challenge this poses as the deployment cycle winds down and soldiers come back to the United States, Gates said, is that after their experience in the combat theater, they may not be satisfied in a Pentagon cubicle making slides for briefings.

“I think one of the challenges for the Army that’s different from anything it’s done in a long time, if ever,” he said, “is how do you change the bureaucracy and the culture in the Army to keep people who have this kind of experience and this kind of independence and this kind of opportunity to innovate? How do you keep them challenged and interested so that they want to stay in the Army?”

Opportunities for advanced training, graduate school and professional military education opportunities could be part of the solution, Gates said.

“But I think that’s going to be a real challenge for the Army leadership,” he added. “It’s got a different kind of NCO and company-level officer than in the past, and that’s a good thing. The question is whether they can continue to be challenged.”

• • • • •

Gates Shares Views on Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan

During a question-and-answer session here today, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates gave U.S. Army Engineer School students his view of the situations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Though the current agreement between the United States and Iraq calls for all U.S. forces to be out of Iraq by the end of the year, Gates said U.S. and Iraqi officials see value in a continued, but relatively modest, U.S. presence there.

“I think that most of us in our government believe that there is value in a residual U.S. force remaining in Iraq,” Gates said, estimating the size of that force to be anywhere from 8,000 to 15,000 troops. The residual force, he added, would continue training Iraqi forces.

“They still have a lot of work to do with logistics and things like intelligence,” he said. “They basically have no air defense capability. They’ve improved enormously, but they’ve still got a long way to go.”

In addition, a continued U.S. presence would be useful in deterring Iran from interfering with Iraq and in reassuring allies in the region, adding that his conversations with Iraqi leaders indicate they agree, Gates said.

But, Gates acknowledged it is a point of contention among elected Iraqi officials.

“Most of the Iraqi leaders acknowledge that they need a continuing U.S. presence, but it’s political dynamite in Iraq,” he said. “The fact remains that most Iraqis want us gone.” He noted that radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has made a campaign theme out of ensuring the U.S. military presence in Iraq ends, and his groups are behind increased attacks against U.S. troops, especially in southern Iraq.

“So the question that is unsettled at this point is whether the Iraqi leadership will come together and all the different factions will hold hands and jump off the cliff together in terms of seeking authority and going forward with a continuing U.S. presence after the end of December,” the secretary said, noting that he believes the odds are about 50-50 that they’ll do so.

On Afghanistan, Gates said it’s too early to know whether the May 1 raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden will play out to allow an accelerated U.S. withdrawal.

“I think we’ll have a better view of that come winter — toward the end of the year, in six months or so,” he said. One of the key questions, he added, will be whether bin Laden’s death affects the relationship between al-Qaida and the Taliban. If that relationship is pulled apart with bin Laden dead, he explained, opportunities for reconciliation in Afghanistan are enhanced, perhaps significantly.

“And if that process were to go faster, then we could leave faster,” Gates said. “But the president made clear from the get-go on this, that decisions on certain levels will be made based on the conditions on the ground.” That will affect decisions with respect to July, when the U.S. troop level in Afghanistan is scheduled to begin drawing down, he said. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, is preparing recommendations.

“At this point I think it would be unwise to accelerate the drawdowns beyond what General Petraeus will recommend in the next few weeks,” the secretary said.

Meanwhile, Gates said, despite some hostile sentiment toward Pakistan in some circles in Washington since the bin Laden raid, Pakistan is important to the United States, and vice versa.

“We need them, and they need us,” he said, and discussions are under way on how to proceed.

“I think we’ve got a pretty sensible path forward in terms of trying to work with [the Pakistanis] and take advantage of their willingness now,” Gates said. “They have said in the wake of the bin Laden assault, ‘Why don’t you let us do it, or why don’t we partner?’ That’s an offer I think we should take them up on, and I think it’s also a test of their seriousness.”

The secretary noted that he and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Mike Mullen said at a Pentagon news conference yesterday that they had seen no evidence that Pakistan’s senior leadership knew bin Laden was hiding in their country, and that the leadership is clearly embarrassed.

“And so, this is an opportunity, perhaps, to move this relationship forward,” Gates said. “We’ve had some pretty good cooperation across the [Afghan-Pakistani] border between the Pakistanis and the U.S., and it clearly has been helpful to us to have 140,000 Pakistani troops in South of Waziristan, Swat and places like that.”

As the relationship moves forward, he added, work must continue on resolving the “trust deficit” that exists between the United States and Pakistan.

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