Gates demonstrates that being soft-spoken is not the same as being soft. Speaking of the Afghan surge, he pointed out to me a "mark of the change -- and it's a tragic mark but I think it underscores the point I'm trying to make: When I took this job on December 18th, 2006, 194 Americans had been killed (in action in Afghanistan). ... As of now -- as of today -- it's 1,155. So I think it underscores that from 2002 until well into 2007 and '08, this war was being fought at a very different level of intensity."
Gates' strategy has been twofold: to win the wars we are in and to prepare an inertial Pentagon to fight them. The services tend to reserve their greatest enthusiasm for big-ticket, future capabilities. "The Army," says Gates, "has been dominated by armor; the Air Force, by the fighter pilots and strategic bombers; the Navy, by the carrier guys; and the Marine Corps, by the amphibious assault guys. And the truth is, all of those services need those capabilities, but they're doing a hell of a lot of other stuff as well. But because their leadership has been dominated by people from those cultures, it's been hard to institutionalize and prioritize these other missions that are also important."
So Gates has pushed for vehicles better defended against IEDs, for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) programs to increase battlefield awareness, and for increased medevac capabilities that in Afghanistan have dramatically reduced the time between battlefield injury and treatment. In Gates' view, counterinsurgency, counterterrorist and training missions -- combating mines, missiles and insurgents instead of high-tech fighters and massed armies -- will become only become more necessary.
Still, according to a rough Defense Department estimate, counterinsurgency programs account for just 10 percent of the military budget. About 50 percent is devoted to future, conventional high-end conflict. Another 40 percent is considered dual use. On the evidence of recent speeches, Gates fears that even these limited gains might be temporary -- that the services, once the current conflicts wind down, will quickly unlearn the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gates is likely to retire in the next several months. Whatever the current criticisms, his replacement is not likely to be an improvement.