Reporting from Washington — Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates warned Friday that the U.S. should avoid future land wars like those it has fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, but should not forget the difficult lessons it has learned from those conflicts.
"In 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 General MacArthur so delicately put it," Gates said in a speech to cadets at West Point.
As Gates prepares to leave office later this year, his speech could be read both as a judgment on the difficult missions the military has taken on over the last decade and a prediction that future conflicts would look radically different.
His words are likely to carry special weight, because Gates was chosen as Defense secretary by former President George W. Bush and given the job of rescuing the military from what many saw an unwinnable war in Iraq. Retained by President Obama, Gates has presided over a large buildup of ground forces in Afghanistan.
Gates did not mention Bush or Donald H. Rumsfeld, his predecessor who presided over the invasion of Iraq. Rather than explicitly passing judgment on their decisions, he appeared to be aiming to sum up his tenure and position the Pentagon for the future before he leaves office.
Gates has said he will step down later this year, though he has not said when.
The odds that the U.S. would repeat "another Afghanistan or Iraq — invading, pacifying and administering a large, Third World country" were low, he said.
Instead, future conflicts involving the U.S. military were more likely to be fought with air and sea power, instead of the large ground forces like those that invaded Iraq in 2003 and are now deployed in Afghanistan, he said.
With the defense budget growing tighter, the Army faces growing pressure to justify continued spending on large mechanized formations. Instead, he said, the Army and the rest of the government needed to focus more on preventing "festering problems from growing into full-blown crises which require costly — and controversial — large-scale American military intervention."
With the U.S. role in Iraq ending and troops due to begin coming out of Afghanistan later this year, Gates warned against forgetting the lessons U.S. ground forces have learned since 2001.
Instead of focusing exclusively on conventional combat, ground units would have to be prepared for a range of future missions, including counterterrorism, disaster response and training foreign forces to fight insurgencies, he said.
"Potential adversaries, be they terrorists, insurgents, militia groups, rogue states or emerging powers, will seek to frustrate America's traditional advantages, in particular, our ability to shoot, move and communicate with speed and precision," he said.