Robert Gates on the Leaders and Force of the Future

Posted: October 12, 2010 in Uncategorized
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Note: this article originally appeared in the 12 October 2010 edition of Air University’s The Wright Stuff.

Robert Gates on the Leaders and Force of the Future

By Mark Stout

Biologists view human beings (along with ants, bees, wasps, termites, and naked mole rats) as ultrasocial.  For humans, being ultrasocial means–in part–sharing information and having an ongoing and open-ended curiosity about things.  This is why we seek out news of happenings of all sorts, which we use to satisfy our intense appetite for understanding.  Context, pattern, and information are all parts of understanding.

So the goal today is to satisfy your understanding appetite while scratching your context, pattern, and information itches.  The topic at hand is Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s recent address at Duke University. Why take the time to bother parsing through the Secretary’s speech?  Well, as a part of our quest for understanding, Gates has told us to unpack his speeches much like the Kremlinologists did with the May Day parade photographs of Soviet leadership during the Cold War.  As such, I suggest his speech was planned as much (or more) for consumption inside the beltway as out here in flyoverland.

Words matter and speeches are made for a purpose, whether it’s to entertain, inform, or to send a particular message.  In this case, it seems the main purpose of Secretary Gates’s speech is to attempt to set broad manpower, mission, and money conditions for the upcoming debates regarding the future of the U.S. defense community.  In other words, the Secretary is preparing the intellectual battlefield for burgeoning bureaucratic battles that are sure to occur, even as they are now underway regarding the announced closure of U.S. Joint Forces Command.

While the topic of Secretary Gates’s speech is nominally described as the All-Volunteer Force, the most prominent theme in the Secretary’s speech is that the nation is asking too much of too few for its defense.  This idea is first made manifest in a sort of nostalgia Secretary Gates seems to hold regarding the draft.  Back in the draft days, dealing with military service was something almost every American male had to confront.  Although the Secretary views a return to the draft as politically dead-before-arrival and militarily unattractive, many characteristics of the draft, or better said, of a standard of expected military service, created a more equitable method of sharing the nation’s defense burden and an associated quasi-universal American experience.

But if asking too much of too few is the issue, the solutions are quite constrained.  In fact, the way out would consist of 1) doing less, 2) having more people, or 3) a combination of these two.

The ‘asking too much of too few’ theme flows to less evident and unaddressed disconnects: will the military disengage (do less), and if so, what will it stop doing or do less of?  How will the military reconcile the call to cut costs (do less), unless it cuts back or stops certain activities, slows the acquisition of military systems, or has fewer people?  Certainly, there is no call to disengage in the Secretary’s speech, and in fact, he suspects the global security environment will actually become more complex and dangerous in the future.

So it seems the Secretary is really calling for a broader representation of American society within the military.  This includes his desire for more geographical diversity in America’s military recruits as well as from “those at the most selective universities who may not have considered the military.”  Why is this ‘elite’ university thing an issue? For the Secretary, this sense of shared experience perhaps provides a certain amount of national security benefit.

Secretary Gates doesn’t quite reconcile the inherent inconsistency of doing more in the future when he proposes that the future of military pay and benefits must be “generous enough to recruit and retain the people we need and to do right by those who’ve served.”  Language like “generous enough” is certainly code for pay and benefit reductions with the implied position that too much is currently being spent.

However, cutting costs to a ‘generous enough’ level is difficult to square against the national security and ops tempo challenges the Secretary identifies such as “the complex, grueling, maddening face of asymmetric warfare,” “the strain of persistent conflict and the longest sustained combat in American history,” and the fact “no major war in our history has been fought with a smaller percentage of this country’s citizens in uniform full-time.”

Naval War College professor Mac Owens proposes this “endless war” is of a fundamentally different character and has in fact led to distrust between military and civilian leadership as the “professional military has borne the brunt of this war, and trust between the military and civilian leadership has eroded.”  Owens refers to Bob Woodward’s new book Obama’s Wars which asserts “President Obama’s civilian aides have been deeply suspicious of the military…”

Owens’s thesis points to the ultrasocial context Lehigh University’s Donald Campbell has offered up regarding human beings who are beset by the challenges of competition among social cooperators.  Campbell suggests there are ways to achieve better-functioning and less cliquish military-civil relations.  Reducing self-centered clique behaviors, characterized by excessive in-group cohesion and out-group animosity, will help create a more effective national security capability.

Owens’s assertion, Woodward’s writing, Campbell’s observations, and Gates’s message all tie together because behavioral aspects of ultrasocial beings include a division of labor and specialization (like an all-volunteer military), as well as a self-sacrificial effort towards collective defense (like the possibility of paying the ultimate price, or the military’s submission to civil authorities).  As Secretary Gates suggests, if future senior civilian leaders–who have often attended ‘elite’ universities–serve in the military, they’re more likely to connect with and understand the military, again, due to common experiences.

There will always be more mission to do than there are resources to do it, so at the highest level, one of Secretary Gates’s unstated challenges is that of prioritization, that is, of making sure the military is doing the most important national security work.  In the ultrasocial context, he’s basically advocating a form of despecialization, that is, having more citizens serve as soldiers and having more soldiers serve with citizens, because of its potential to build bonds, remove suspicions, and share the load, all of which will enhance national security.

Of all the challenges the Secretary has identified, getting greater shared and common experiences between America’s future military leaders and its future political leaders is likely among the easiest to address, but paradoxically, might take the longest time to pay national security dividends.  Re-establishing ROTC [Reserve Officer Training Corps] detachments at many more of America’s “elite” universities would be a great start.

Mark Stout is a researcher and analyst at Air University’s National Space Studies Center and administers its unofficial blog Songs of Space and Nuclear War.  The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and may not reflect the views and policies of the US Air Force or the Department of Defense.


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