The era of big land wars is ending. Any senior official recommending a large-scale deployment of U.S. ground troops to Asia, the Middle East or Africa “should have his head examined,” to quote Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Instead, get ready for a new epoch of air and sea wars. Those were the surprising remarks Defense Secretary Robert Gates delivered to an audience of U.S. Army cadets at West Point, New York, on Friday.
Surprising, because it was Gates himself who fought to expand the U.S. Army and Marine Corps in recent years, and who argued forcefully for greater focus on our current, large-scale, Asian land wars — even when that meant cutting some of the Air Force’s and Navy’s priciest big-war weapons in favor of new gear to support the Army.
But Gates also spent years quietly prepping the Navy and Air Force to step up, once today’s land wars wound down. In telling the Army that it’s time on point has passed, Gates is simply making public a contingency he had long prepared for. But that’s not to say the secretary is beyond criticism, or the Army immune to risk.
Speaking at a cold and snowy West Point campus, Gates delivered the good news first. “The need for heavy armor and firepower to survive, close with, and destroy the enemy will always be there, as veterans of Sadr City and Fallujah can no doubt attest,” the white-haired 67-year-old crowed.
Then, the bad news. “Looking ahead, though, in the competition for tight defense dollars within and between the services, 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.”
“As the prospects for another head-on clash of large mechanized land armies seem less likely,” Gates added, “the Army will be increasingly challenged to justify the number, size and cost of its heavy formations.”