Tuesday 14 Aug 2018 | 11:12 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 14 Aug 2018 | 11:12 | SYDNEY

Gates on future wars


Hugh White

19 May 2008 09:31

Robert Gates is not a newcomer to the complex business of strategic forecasting. He made his name as a Soviet analyst in the Cold War. He has therefore spent most of his long career trying to work out what kind of useful judgements he can make about the future to help his Government make sensible decisions to prepare for it. One would expect him to take a sophisticated approach to the inherent difficulties of this kind of work. Apparently not, according to Sam’s post. He quotes Gates’ recent complaint that the Pentagon generals are preparing to fight the war-before-last again by building forces more suited to the Cold War than to the conflicts of the last twenty years. Gates’ comments embody two cardinal errors of strategic assessment.

First, he makes the old mistake of assuming that the most recent data sets the long term trend. The argument he presents in the passage Sam quotes runs like this: wars for the past twenty years have not involved classic symmetrical conflicts, therefore wars for the next twenty years will not do so either. Umm, why? What reason is there to believe that the next twenty years will necessarily be more like the last twenty years than like the last 100 years? There may be such reasons, but they must be supported by deep analysis of the long-term evolution of the international order, not by a simple appeal to induction from selectively-chosen examples. Such analysis would need to account for the evident risks of conventional war in the world today: Taiwan is just the most obvious example. I’ve never been persuaded, and Gates’ Churchill story suggests he isn’t really persuaded either.

Second, Gates conflates probability and seriousness. Arguing for more emphasis on ‘new threats’, he says 'it makes sense to lean toward the most likely and lethal scenarios for our military'.  But who says the most likely scenarios are also the most lethal? I would say that is almost certainly wrong. Non-state and sub-state conflicts of the kind we have seen so much of in recent decades are more likely than a major conventional war, but they are clearly not more lethal, nor are they more serious for the US. Just the opposite in fact, which is why it can often make sense to plan for them even if they seem unlikely. The weight we give to any risk in defence planing should reflect both its likelihood and its seriousness if it occurs, and very often the less likely scenarios are the more serious ones. For the US military, a war over Taiwan is less likely than more protracted stabilisation operations, but it would be much more serious and deserves close attention in their planning.

To be fair, Gates touches on two points that seem to me quite right. First, the US military has not adapted at all effectively to the obvious fact that stabilization operations are going to be a core task for its land forces for years to come: the Army clearly needs more troops and different skills. Second, America is preparing to fight future conventional wars in a very backward-looking way. The aircraft carriers that still dominate America’s maritime posture are already vulnerable to Chinese forces, and will become more so over the next decade. Time for a big rethink. But as Sam notes Arkin saying, isn’t fixing this stuff what Gates is paid for?

As Sam suggests, the question Gates has raised is important for Australia too. As I argued in a Lowy Paper in 2006, the key question in Australian defence policy today, as it was in 2000, is how we balance two competing imperatives. The first is the high likelihood that the ADF will be busy on stabilisation operations for decades to come. The second is the less probable, but much more serious, possibility that it will have to fight conventional wars if the next thirty years in Asia turn out less peaceful than the last thirty years. The new White Paper will need to address both imperatives, and the art will be in balancing them.  I hope they do so on the basis of a more sophisticated analysis than Robert Gates’.