THE BLOG
05/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Gates Revolution

Defense Secretary Robert Gates' military reforms are commonly portrayed in the media as a series of technocratic budget decisions. But Gates is doing something far more radical than just canceling big-ticket weapons programs: he's finally fusing theory and policy. The sad truth is that many of our soldiers and civilians largely predicted many of the "hybrid war" challenges we face today, but their ideas went nowhere without institutional support.

The popular image of a complacent post-Cold War national security structure always preparing for the last war doesn't do justice to the explosion of essays, journal articles, and books published from 1989 to 2003 examining unconventional warfare and our vulnerability to it. A diverse array of soldiers and civilian analysts called attention to threats ranging from insurgents to Chinese information warfare strategies -- to no avail.

Our extensive counterinsurgency focus would not come as a surprise to retired USAF Colonel Richard Szafranski, who argued in a 1990 Parameters piece that the US was likely to face more low-intensity counterinsurgency missions. His argument, published on the eve of the large conventional Gulf War, was echoed in dozens of other essays on "asymmetric," "fourth-generation," "non-trinitarian" and "low-intensity" war in the same journal over a 10-year period. Countless other authors published on irregular threats in service publications like the Marine Corps Gazette, the Military Review, and the Air and Space Power Journal. Research monographs published at the Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) and Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) also reflected a growing interest in counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and other forms of irregular conflict.

Military analysts largely foresaw the urbanization of insurgency and the stress it would put on frontline troops. In 1999, Marine Corps Gen. Charles C. Krulak wrote an eloquent article about the challenge of "Three Block Wars." In these engagements, tactical-level leaders' decisions made in the global media spotlight would have strategic consequences. To prevail, Krulak argued, "strategic corporals" should prepare to assume a greater level of responsibility for the success or failure of the mission. Four years later, Iraq's anarchic condition forced junior officers to simultaneously play policeman, lawmaker, and social worker to a fearful and distrusting populace. Fortunately, many "strategic corporals" were up to the challenge.

And RAND Corporation analysts John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt largely predicted today's amorphous, decentralized terrorist networks with their 1996 works on "netwar." Arquilla and Ronfeldt cogently argued that technology and emerging network forms of organization enabled nimble decentralized networks to challenge stodgy hierarchies. The 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) protesters in Seattle largely confirmed Arquilla and Ronfeldt's "netwar" vision, locking down the city of Seattle and running circles around the Seattle police. The gruesome assault on Mumbai also demonstrated that a small force could "swarm" a target and overwhelm a static defense, another danger that Arquilla and Ronfeldt had warned of.

But the point of this piece isn't to push a simplistic Hollywood narrative extolling the maverick that got it right and castigating the higher-ups who refused to listen. However tempting it may be to blame the problem on "stuffed shirts" who keep Jack Ryan, Harry Callahan, or Jack Bauer down, the real problems lie in institutional decisions and strategic cultures that inhibit adaptation to today's complex security landscape. For too long, defense strategy and budgeting focused on high-tech warfare while treating the humanitarian interventions and small wars we increasingly engage in as afterthoughts.

Fortunately, Gates' strategic direction is creating an impetus for institutional change. By tying budget and strategy to the need to dominate the "full spectrum" of warfare, Gates still overwhelmingly focuses on conventional operations but makes irregular warfare a "core competency." This focus gives institutional support to soldiers and civilians already adapting to the challenges of two insurgencies and the ever-present threat of terrorism.

We can already see fruits of Gates' Pentagon "reprogramming" in the new approaches taken by some of our more innovative soldiers. The doctrine writers at Ft. Leavenworth have been pumping out a celebrated series of counterinsurgency manuals, and military figures such as Admiral James G. Stavridis and Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV have embraced social media tools such as blogs and Twitter. Counterinsurgency and irregular warfare approaches have been integrated into the capstone Army Operations manual and joint forces have performed relief missions in developing countries that bolster our badly damaged "soft power" abroad.

The quickly approaching Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) will likely cement Gates' strategic guidance. But the real test will be the largely acrimonious budget battles waged in Congressional hearings over the fates of big-ticket weapons systems -- programs that pork-addled lawmakers will fight dearly to protect. Foreign policy strategist Thomas P.M. Barnett isn"t exaggerating when he states that powerful interests are waging "war" against Robert Gates -- and it's a war that Gates must win. Otherwise the promising revolution in military affairs that Gates is leading will be banished to the policy gulag.