The message at West Point: No more big land wars

Brian Stewart on what appears to be America's new military doctrine: no more big land wars abroad.

Defence Secretary Robert Gates takes his parting shot

Though he was drowned out by the roar of events, U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates outlined his vision for America's military in the years ahead, one that the world needs to take close note of.

The setting, last Friday, was the fabled West Point military academy for what is expected to be Gates's last official appearance there before retiring later this year.

And what he had to say no doubt shocked a number of young officers with visions of military commands dancing in their heads.

In fact, America's defence chief came remarkably close to calling both the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns fundamental mistakes and pretty much said that the age of far-off, big wars is over.

"In my opinion, any future defence secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should 'have his head examined' as Gen. [Douglas] MacArthur so delicately put it," Gates said.

Coming from such a highly respected bi-partisan — Gates is Republican whom Barack Obama kept on — this message is sure to resonate long after he's gone and will likely be much quoted in times of crisis.

More intriguingly, there can be no doubt Gates's speech was fully approved beforehand by the Obama White House, which means the president will be clearly identified with it.

No more nation building

Gates, it should be noted, is not calling for a new run of American isolationism, nor predicting an absence of clashes in what the U.S. military now calls "an era of persistent conflict."

Boots on the ground. U.S. Marines carry a tree trunk for firewood, during a patrol in southern Afghanistan's Helmand province in February 2011. (Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)

But future actions, he argues, must be short-terms strikes, primarily handled by the navy and air force — not by boots on the ground.

This means an end to the Big Force mindset, built around large armoured formations, which has governed U.S. military thinking for decades.

Going to West Point, he bluntly warned the Army that its recent era of strategic domination is fast ending.

"In the competition for tight defence dollars, the Army must confront the reality that the most plausible, high-end scenarios for the U.S. military are primarily naval and air engagements-whether in Asia, the Persian Gulf, or elsewhere," he said.

Plain talk. Particularly coming from the man who helped engineer the so-called surge of American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.   But this is also the stuff of strategic transformation that will affect all of NATO, Canada included.

For if the U.S. is not going abroad to engage in large-scale land combat it's a near certainty that Canadians and Europeans won't be going either.

The highly regarded Gates even rules out most smaller missions designed for counter-insurgency and nation building — the kind of operations Canada embraced in Kandahar.

He insists we need to be much smarter in deciding on these overseas options.

Three reasons for failure

Many, of course, insist that military planners are usually wrong in forecasting future conflicts, and Gates quickly concedes that the Pentagon's record of predicting upcoming wars since Vietnam "has been perfect.

"We have never once got it right."

U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outside the Oval Office in 2009. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Still, behind Gates's speech are some fundamental truths that can no longer be denied.

First, large Western operations anywhere in Asia have not worked out in over 60 years. Vietnam was a disaster, while Afghanistan and Iraq became bloody quagmires.

The 1990 Gulf War was an exception but even victory there, as I noted in a recent column, only set up future conflicts.

Western armies have never been strong enough to end foreign insurgencies quickly, if at all, which means the exit ramps are never reached in time.

What's more, the longer these efforts take, the more local populations doubt the commitments, which gives momentum back to the insurgents.

Secondly, the cost of these large land offensives is ruinous, which also contributes to the inevitable waning of public support.

And, thirdly, it can take a full decade for true war weariness to take hold, but when it does the effect can last a generation or more, tying the hands of decision makers.

Very JFK

So what the America army should become, Gates argues, is a smaller, lighter and more sophisticated force that can mentor and train other nation's armies, while keeping its combat skills alive for short-term interventions.

This all sounds familiar to people like me, old enough to remember another vision of a leaner and more worldly-wise U.S. military.

One that was all too briefly formulated by President John Kennedy almost half a half century ago in his speech before West Point, which Gates quoted: "Your military responsibilities will require versatility and an adaptability never before required in war or in peace … for a wide spectrum of conflicts … new in intensity, ancient in origin."

In particular, what Gates is advocating is for a new officer corps, hardened and experienced by Iraq and Afghanistan, but re-educated to operate far more sensitive operations in close partnership with other nations.

He calls for more emphasis on language skills and cultural studies, as well as graduate courses at civilian universities. Again, all very Kennedy like.

Trickle down

The Kennedy example may be important here. Some will say that his vision died in Vietnam, but that was only after his death in 1963.

Many historians are convinced that had Kennedy lived he would have avoided the big escalation ordered by his successor and that JFK, like Gates, was very conscious of MacArthur's warnings.

Gates clearly hopes to leave behind a military playbook that calls for a substantial reduction in America's armoured, big-unit strength.

Other NATO governments will be watching this transformation closely as they launch their own post-Afghanistan transformations.

The British, also anticipating fewer operations abroad, are currently slashing 10 per cent of their armed forces, while Germany is cutting even more of its ground troops.

Canada's army — likely too small to cut — may be much better positioned than most to embrace notions of compact, sophisticated units and more foreign training, like we plan to provide for Afghanistan.

And our long-starved navy will undoubtedly be glad to be again seen as a go-to branch of the service.

Of course, Gates may have the future all wrong, as he freely acknowledged. But that may be beside the point in that key decisions must be made now.

The U.S. has swung away from big overseas land operations before in its history, with mixed results for the world. Which is why Gates's words deserve attention: They signal a serious reservations at the very top of the Obama administration about America's ability and willingness to send troops abroad.

Whether one likes this idea, or is alarmed by it, this seems another of those "new realities" we keep being confronted with amid the sweeping confusion of our times.