The Defense Department must focus on current war demands, even if it means straining the U.S. armed forces and devoting less time and money to future threats, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday.
Meeting the war-fighting needs of the troops now and taking care of them properly when they get home must be the priority, Gates said in a speech to journalists at a seminar here sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
"I have noticed too much of a tendency towards what might be called Next-War-itis — the propensity of much of the defense establishment to be in favor of what might be needed in a future conflict," Gates said.
But in a world of limited resources, he said, the Pentagon must concentrate on building a military that can defeat the current enemies: smaller, terrorist groups and militias waging irregular warfare.
If it means putting off more expensive weapons for the future or adding to the stress on the Army — that is a risk worth taking, he said.
"The risk of overextending the Army is real," said Gates. "But I believe the risk is far greater — to that institution as well as to our country — if we were to fail in Iraq. That is the war we are in. That is the war we must win."
Iranian influences in Iraq
In a question-and-answer session with his audience, Gates was asked whether the U.S. would at some point feel compelled to take military action against Iran for its support of Shiite extremists in Iraq.
Gates said the U.S. has a number of activities under way "to deal particularly with what the Iranians were doing in support of the special groups and others in Iraq." The term "special groups" refers to extremist elements of Shiite militias that U.S. officials say are funded and trained by Iranians.
He said that the Iraqis' recent operations in Basra led to the discovery of substantial caches of Iranian-supplied weapons, and "awakened them (the Iraqis) to the reality of the magnitude of Iranian meddling in Iraq."
"We're being very aggressive in going after the networks in Iraq, and the individuals who are interfering or supplying weapons from Iran," Gates said. "We have a number of other activities under way. We take it very seriously. But at this point our activities are focused pretty exclusively inside Iraq."
He initially said without qualification that those activities — which he did not define — were "exclusively" inside Iraq, but he quickly stopped himself and restated it as "pretty exclusively" inside Iraq, which seemed to leave open the possibility that the U.S. also is operating inside Iran.
Gates has warned before that officials must not ignore U.S. troops' immediate needs by looking too far into the future. But Tuesday he pointedly challenged theories that current wars have overstretched the military and risked its ability to fight future potential conflicts against foes such as Iran or North Korea.
In a classified Pentagon assessment provided to Congress earlier this year, Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, concluded that long battlefield tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with persistent terrorist activity and other threats, have prevented the U.S. military from improving its ability to respond to any new crisis.
On Tuesday Gates acknowledged the debate and agreed the U.S. "would be hard-pressed to launch a major conventional ground operation elsewhere in the world at this time." But, he said, that scenario is not likely, and the U.S. has ample air and naval power to "defeat any — repeat any — adversary who committed an act of aggression — whether in the Gulf, on the Korean Peninsula, or in the Straits of Taiwan."
The risk, he added, is prudent and manageable.
Gates pointed to the mine-resistant vehicles as an example of spending money now on critical lifesaving equipment, rather than pouring all resources into war-fighting systems of the future.
Roadside bombs and suicide attacks "have become the weapons of choice for America's most dangerous and likely adversaries — and the need to have a vehicle of this kind won't go away," he said.
Gates also issued a warning to the military services, which have long set their sights on pricey, sophisticated weapons systems that take decades to develop and get onto the battlefield.
The Army has its $200 billion Future Combat System, the Air Force has its F-22 jet fighter. Both programs have been plagued by delays and escalating costs, as well as criticism from Congress.
Such weapons programs will have to show they can be useful now against terrorist groups and insurgents, he said.
In a recent visit to the Red River Army Depot in Texas, Gates saw some pieces of the Future Combat System that can be sent to the war front now — and he said that must continue in order for the program to continue to be viable.
"We hear him loud and clear, and we're doing what he wants," Lt. Col. Martin Downie, an Army spokesman, said later Tuesday.
Among innovations Gates saw in Texas that are being used in Iraq are a new unmanned aerial vehicle, improved armor for land vehicles and a command post communications system that draws in a wider range of information at a faster pace, said Lt. Gen. Michael A. Vane, head of the Army Capabilities Integration Center.
"Tomorrow's readiness is influenced by today's capabilities," Vane said in a Pentagon interview. "The Future Combat System is relevant in today's battles as well as for tomorrow's."