Gates Challenges Cadets to Change Army Culture
(March 1, 2011)
Defense Secretary Robert M.
Gates addresses the cadets at the United States
Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Feb. 25, 2011.
DOD photo by Cherie Cullen
WEST POINT, N.Y., Feb. 25, 2011 – Defense Secretary
Robert M. Gates told cadets here that they must
continue changing the culture of the Army to ensure
the service can handle the challenges facing
This was the last opportunity for
the secretary to speak to the Corps of Cadets. He
has announced he will step down as secretary later
Gates spoke about the future of
conflict and the implications for the Army. He
talked about institutionalizing the diverse
capabilities the service will need. Finally, he
threw out some ideas for how the service can recruit
and retain the leaders needed in the 21st century.
“When you receive your commission and walk off
these parade fields for the last time, you will join
an Army that, more than any other part of America's
military, is an institution transformed by war,”
Gates told the cadets gathered in
He said the changes have been wrenching, but the service
used the experiences to learn and adapt. They “allowed us to
pull Iraq back from the brink of chaos in 2007 and, over the
past year, to roll back the Taliban from their strongholds
in Afghanistan,” he said.|
The experience must be
learned and incorporated into the service's DNA and
institutional memory, the secretary said.
leads to the challenge of how the Army will structure
itself, and train and equip for the diverse range of
missions it will face in the future.
“There has been
an overwhelming tendency of our defense bureaucracy to focus
on preparing for future high-end conflicts –- priorities
often based, ironically, on what transpired in the last
century –- as opposed to the messy fights in Iraq and
Afghanistan,” Gates said. “But without succumbing to what I
once called ‘next-war-itis,' I do think it important to
think about what the Army will look like and must be able to
do after large U.S. combat units are substantially drawn
down in Afghanistan –- and what that means for young leaders
entering the force.”
The United States has not done a
good job over the years in forecasting where the next
conflict will be, Gates said, but the country can build the
capabilities to deal with a range of crises.
can't know with absolute certainty what the future of
warfare will hold, but we do know it will be exceedingly
complex, unpredictable, and –- as they say in the staff
colleges –- ‘unstructured,'” he said.
Gates listed a
few of the challenges facing the country that will continue
after U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.
These include: terrorism and terrorists in search of weapons
of mass destruction, Iran, North Korea, military
modernization programs in Russia and China, failed and
failing states, revolution in the Middle East, cyber
threats, piracy, nuclear proliferation, natural and man-made
disasters and more.
There is a need for heavy armor
and firepower, but there also is a need for
counterinsurgency and humanitarian assistance, the secretary
“Looking ahead, though, in the competition for
tight defense dollars within and between the services,”
Gates said, “the Army also 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.”
rationale for swift-moving Army or Marine expeditionary
forces and airborne infantry or special operations is
self-evident, he said, given the likelihood of
counterterrorism, rapid reaction, disaster response or
stability or security force assistance missions.
my opinion, any future defense 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 [Army] General [Douglas] MacArthur so
delicately put it,” he said.
The Army is not going to
just build schools and sip tea, the secretary said. Still,
the prospects for another head-on clash of large mechanized
land armies seem less likely. “The Army will be increasingly
challenged to justify the number, size and cost of its heavy
formations to those in the leadership of the Pentagon, and
on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, who ultimately make
policy and set budgets,” Gates said.
seek to attack the United States where they believe America
is weakest. The Army will not repeat the mistakes of the
past, where irregular warfare doctrine was shunted aside
after the Vietnam War, the secretary said.
the odds of repeating another Afghanistan or Iraq –-
invading, pacifying, and administering a large third world
country –- may be low. But in what Army Chief of Staff Gen.
George W. Casey Jr. has called “an era of persistent
conflict,” those unconventional capabilities still will be
needed at various levels and in various locales, he said.
A second challenge facing the service, Gates said, is
whether and how the Army can adapt its practices and culture
to these strategic realities.
“From the beginning of
the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our soldiers and junior-
and mid-level leaders downrange have been adjusting and
improvising to the complex and evolving challenges on the
ground –- in many cases using the Internet, especially tools
of social media -- to share tactical lessons learned in real
time with their colleagues at the front or preparing to
deploy back in the United States,” he said.
taken time for the Pentagon to respond, but leaders are
pushing the envelope. Gates pointed to the way the Army
developed doctrine for the advise and assist brigades now
deployed to Iraq. Planners devised the strategy in months
rather than years and continue tweaking it as experience
But people are the basis for American
military excellence, and the question becomes how does the
service prepare, train and retain officers “with the
necessary multifaceted experience to take on a broad range
of missions and roles,” Gates said, that involve “many
doctrines in play, often simultaneously.”
example, Gates pointed to the ongoing and prospective
requirements to train, equip and advise foreign armies and
police. These capabilities must be institutionalized into
the ‘Big Army,' he said, while making the related
experiences and skill sets a career-enhancing pursuit. This,
he said, should be encouraged.
“If you chart a
different path, there's no telling the impact you could have
–- on the Army, and on history,” Gates said.
the Army has always needed entrepreneurial leaders, for an
era of full-spectrum conflict “America can succeed only with
leaders who are themselves full-spectrum in their thinking,”
he said. “The military will not be able to train or educate
you to have all the right answers –- as one might find in a
manual –- but you should look for those experiences and
pursuits in your career that will help you at least ask the
The secretary told the cadets to
look for opportunities that in the past were considered off
the beaten path, if not a career dead end. He said the Army
needs to encourage leaders in these pursuits. “Such
opportunities might include further study at graduate
school, teaching at this or another first-rate university,
spending time at a think tank, being a congressional fellow,
working in a different government agency or becoming a
foreign area specialist,” he said.
“It is incumbent
on the Army to promote -– in every sense of the word –-
these choices and experiences for its next generation of
leaders; the junior- and mid-grade officers in Army ranks
who represent the most battle-tested group in its history,”
The greatest challenge facing the Army is
breaking-up “the institutional concrete” in the service's
assignments and promotion processes to keep the best and
most battled-tested young officers, the secretary said.
The soldiers have been resilient and have done all that
national leaders have asked.
“I will never forget one
of my first decisions as Secretary of Defense in early 2007,
which was to extend Army combat tours from 12 to 15 months,
including for units that had spent less than a year at
home,” Gates said. “This was perhaps my most difficult
decision over the past four years because I knew the
hardship this would place on those who had already borne so
much for this country. But the alternative would have been a
disaster for our country and for Iraq. And the Army did as
ordered and much more.”
Today's cadets will join a
force that has been decisively engaged for nearly a decade,
Gates said. “While it is resilient, it is also stressed and
tired,” he said.
The repeated deployments, Gates
said, mean that young officers have had “little opportunity
to do more than catch their breath” and then get ready for
the next deployment. And waiting for these officers is the
bureaucratic, garrison mindset at their home stations.
“In theater, junior leaders are given extraordinary
opportunities to be innovative, take risks and be
responsible and recognized for the consequences,” Gates
In garrison, the opposite is often true.
“Men and women in the prime of their professional lives,
who may have been responsible for the lives of scores or
hundreds of troops, or millions of dollars in assistance, or
engaging or reconciling warring tribes, may find themselves
in a cube all day re-formatting Powerpoint slides, preparing
quarterly training briefs or assigned an ever expanding
array of clerical duties,” he said. “The consequences of
this terrify me.”
Gates said his experiences in
running large public organizations –- he was the director of
Central Intelligence and then president of Texas A&M
University before becoming the defense secretary -– show
that leaders must concentrate on the top 20 percent of their
workforce ,and the bottom 20 percent.
“The former to
elevate and give more responsibility and opportunity, the
latter to transition out, albeit with consideration and
respect for the service they have rendered,” he said.
“Failure to do so risks frustrating, demoralizing and
ultimately losing the leaders we will need most for the
Any bureaucracy often encourages people to
keep their heads down, avoid making waves and to never
disagree with superiors. “The Army has been fortunate
throughout its history to have officers who, at critical
times, exercise respectful, principled dissent,” he said. He
pointed to Army Gen. George C. Marshall as one shining
example among many, of this characteristic.
tendency of any big bureaucracy is to revert to business as
usual at the first opportunity. For the military, that
opportunity is coming with the unwinding of sustained
combat, Gates said.
Stopping that tendency is crucial
to the health of the force. “The former commander of U.S.
forces in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Barno, [West Point]
Class of 1976, has written that, ‘In a smaller professional
force competing for talent with the Googles of the world,'
reforming this system is a ‘must do' for the Army to keep
its best and brightest leaders,” Gates said.
while the service competes with corporate America, the Army
is not Apple or General Electric, he said.
that oath and accepting that commission means doing what you
are told and going where you are needed,” the secretary told
the cadets. “But just as the Army has reset and reformed
itself in when it comes to doctrine, equipment, and
training, it must use the eventual slackening of overseas
deployments as an opportunity to attack the institutional
constipation of ‘Big Army,' and re-think the way it deals
with the outstanding young leaders in its lower- and
Gates said for all the challenges that
lie ahead for the cadets, they made the right choice in
joining the Long Gray Line. “Beyond the hardship,
heartbreak, and sacrifice -– and they are real –- there is
another side to military service,” he said. “You have an
extraordinary opportunity -– not just for the lives of your
soldiers, but for missions and decisions that may change the
course of history.”
Gates said the today's cadets
will be challenged to take risks and expand what they
thought they were capable of doing. “And you will be doing
all this at an age when many of your peers are reading
spreadsheets and making photocopies,” he said.
of you –- with your talents, your intelligence, your record
of accomplishments –- could have chosen something easier or
safer and, of course, better paid,” Gates told the cadets.
“But you took on the mantle of duty, honor and country; you
passed down the Long Gray Line of men and women who have
walked these halls and strode these grounds before you -–
more than 80 of whom have fallen in battle since 9/11. For
that, you have the profound gratitude and eternal admiration
of the American people.”
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
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