The Spectacle Blog

The Return of the “Next War-itis”

By on 12.12.13 | 6:16PM

Former defense secretary Robert Gates is not memorable for much, but his condemnation of “next war-itis” is worth remembering—but only because of its unfortunate revival by Washington Post writer Tom Ricks.

In a 2008 speech, Gates said, “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. And in a world of limited resources, he continued, the Pentagon must concentrate on building a military that can defeat the current enemies: smaller terrorist groups and militias waging irregular warfare.

That is so wrong on so many levels—e.g., it assumes we’ll never have to fight another conventional war—it’s hard to believe it ever came out of a defense secretary. (A former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs once told me in confidence that when Gates said it, he shook his head in disbelief.)

The principal job of the Defense Department is two-fold. First, to deploy and fight the wars of today under the direction of the commander in chief. Second, to assess constantly the technological advances we, our allies, and—to the extent intelligence reveals—our enemies achieve to ensure that we don’t get leapfrogged by an enemy, giving him an advantage that could lose us the next war.

“Next war-itis” is something that every defense secretary should be pushing, not deriding.

Now comes Tom Ricks with the liberals’ logical extension of Gates’s formula for failure. What he proposed in his “Smaller is better” column on Sunday is that we need a smaller military; not one that is the most powerful but the most “relevant.” And with regards to the future:

The wrong way to prepare is to try to anticipate what the next war will be and then build a military — on land, sea and air — that fits that bill. Guesses about the future will almost certainly be wrong…The best form of preparedness is to develop a military that is most able to adapt. It should be small and nimble. Its officers should be educated as well as trained because one trains for the known but educates for the unknown — that is, prepares officers to think critically as they go into chaotic, difficult and new situations.

That is a plan for paralysis. Militaries are inherently flexible, but you can’t tell a soldier to fight with a World War I bolt-action rifle and expect him to win against 21st-century automatic weapons. Ricks’s plan is to not buy or build anything until it’s too late to do so. Every war is a “come as you are” event. It takes about 10 years to build a new fighter aircraft or naval ship. Sometimes we get it wrong – as with the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship and the joint service F-35, both of which are not worth, in combat power, a tenth of what they cost. But mostly we get it right. And sometimes we have to face the possibility that the nature of war is changing. Can today’s aircraft carriers survive in the next war? Maybe and maybe not.

America wins wars when we invest in and protect the secrets of our technological advantages, and when we employ them to their fullest advantage. When American forces rolled over the Iraqi army in 1990, it wasn’t a fair fight and thank Heaven for that. The Taliban lost quickly in 2001, and then we chose to give up our advantage and turn to nation-building which failed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We don’t want fair fights where the other guy has as many advantages as we do. We don’t want to fight, but when we have to we want to fight and win as quickly as we can in as one-sided a war as we can devise. That requires constant planning and investment in technology. That’s not guessing; it’s planning. There’s a profound difference neither Bob Gates nor Tom Ricks understands.

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