Predicting the Future: Bob Gates and IEDs

FACT: There’s been significant media interest in yesterday’s address at a Heritage Foundation conference by Secretary of Defense Bob Gates. Today’s Washington Post story says Gates “implored the U.S. military Tuesday to prepare more for fighting future wars against insurgents and militias such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, rather than spending so much time and money preparing for conventional conflicts.”

ANALYSIS:The Post story isn’t inaccurate in characterizing Gates as using “unusually strong language” in the speech, but it is still better to go to the original text than to rely on a filtered media account, so here’s the actual transcript of Gates’s remarks.

Vehicle-borne IED photo by Ramzi HashishoOne thing I’ll note about his main point is that he gets right to it: “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,” as opposed to what we need in the here-and-now.  In his eyes, what we need now is counter-insurgency tactics, capabilities, and mindsets. 

He doesn’t argue that other large nation-states will never be our adversaries, or that we’ll only face roving bands of anarchic terrorists.  On the contrary, he argues that “even nation-states will try to exploit our perceived vulnerabilities in an asymmetric way, rather than play to our inherent strengths.” 

In a graphic defense of the need for the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle (MRAP), at around $1 million per vehicle, Gates noted its success rate and went on: “There is a strong case to be made that IEDs and suicide bombings have become the weapon of choice for America’s most dangerous and likely adversaries – and the need to have a vehicle of this kind won’t go away.”

I had a furious discussion on this very topic several weeks ago, with my thesis (now echoed by Sec. Gates) that potential adversaries of the United States – and I’m talking nations here – must be watching and learning lessons from our experience in Iraq. In other words, they may say to themselves, “Hmmm, it appears that a superpower’s military force can be humbled very effectively, and cheaply, with a seemingly anarchic wave of IED assaults.  What if we could try that on U.S. soil….”

Perhaps we’ll be fortunate that they’ll “overlearn” the lesson, and miss the successful counter-insurgency approaches we have developed over time in Iraq. If their military establishments are anything like ours, and they generally are, they may blunder down that path for a while.  But that doesn’t let us off the hook, from devoting some serious thought to the potential for homeland IED assaults, and in their wake chaos and fear (the essence of “terror”-ism).

As I argued in several briefings while I was still in the Intelligence Community, we might expect that the most likely scenario in future “war” would be some derivative of past and current enemies, some amalgam of a powerful militaristic state and loosely connected terrorist cells. Ergo, you could wind up with a well-armed “State Actor” who had learned assymetric tactics from Iraq.  If you squinted sideways, it just might look something like… elements of the American Revolution’s “Continental Army“ (the proverbial “well-regulated militia,” that can hide in the woods and strike without mustering). 

In my argument, when I went even further and posited the possibility of foreign governments sponsoring IED use on U.S. soil by front groups such as violent domestic gangs, my friend vociferously felt I was getting worked up over a non-existent threat. Ah, but that’s the essence of blue-sky thinking, for it drives you beyond the boxy bounds of traditional thinking.  And in a roundabout way today I read Sec. Gates as agreeing with me.  -)

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