Preparing for unconventional wars

Barnes is a writer in our Washington bureau.

The U.S. military must do more to improve its ability to respond to the low-intensity, irregular fights it is likely to face in the years to come, even if the nation avoids another experience like Iraq or Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said.

Gates wrote in an article released Thursday that the fight against extremism was a “prolonged, worldwide, irregular campaign.”

The article, though never mentioning his predecessor by name, criticizes former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for thinking that U.S. forces could notch a quick and easy victory with the “shock and awe” of its conventional might.


“We should look askance at idealistic, triumphalist or ethnocentric notions . . . that imagine it is possible to cow, shock or awe an enemy into submission, instead of tracking enemies down hilltop by hilltop, house by house, block by bloody block,” Gates wrote.

The article, which will be published in the January edition of Foreign Affairs magazine, sums up the two years Gates has spent under President Bush. But with President-elect Barack Obama’s announcement this week that Gates will remain at the Pentagon, the article also offers a road map to many of the Defense secretary’s priorities.

For months, Gates has argued in speeches that the U.S. must focus more on unconventional threats. He has stirred controversy by criticizing Pentagon officials who advocate building weapons to fight powerful competitors, a tendency Gates has called “next-war-itis.”

In the Foreign Affairs article, Gates called for a balanced approach that maintains the U.S. edge in conventional military strength while preserving knowledge gained in Iraq about how to combat insurgencies.

U.S. forces are not likely to be challenged to a conventional fight by another nation, and future wars probably will be a mix of sophisticated missile and computer attacks alongside crude roadside bombs, he said.

“One can expect to see more tools and tactics of destruction -- from the sophisticated to the simple -- being employed simultaneously in hybrid and more complex forms of warfare,” Gates wrote.


Although he says the military must not abandon the development of ships and planes, Gates takes issue with the view that the nation’s most sophisticated weapons can best counter the low-intensity threats.

He writes that the Pentagon must field more specialized, cheaper and lower-tech weapons designed for counter-insurgency missions.

“It is time to think hard about how to institutionalize the procurement of such capabilities and get them fielded quickly,” Gates wrote.