WEST POINT, N.Y. (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a farewell address to cadets at the U.S. military academy, warned on Friday the Army faces an increasingly complex security environment and must adjust to an era of light, nimble warfare and tight budgets.
Gates, who will step down as defense secretary by the end of 2011, told the future officers at West Point the Army would find it increasingly difficult to justify the cost and size of its heavy formations at a time when major mechanized land battles are unlikely.
“The strategic rationale for swift-moving expeditionary forces, be they Army or Marines, airborne infantry or special operations, is self-evident,” Gates said, noting the need for continued counterterrorism and rapid response missions.
“But 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 (Douglas) MacArthur so delicately put it.”
It was Gates’ fourth speech to the cadets at West Point, a campus of black-and-gray granite neogothic buildings on a hill overlooking the Hudson River about 50 miles (80 km) north of New York City. The ground was covered with snow and the campus was shrouded in rain and fog on Friday.
Gates, who taught a class before speaking to the entire corps, said the speech would be his last at West Point as defense secretary. It is the first in a series of final visits to the service academies and military units before his departure later this year, a date still not announced.
Gates, the first defense secretary to serve in consecutive administrations from different political parties, made a similar tour at the end of President George W. Bush’s administration, using his remarks to lay out an agenda for where he thought the military needed to go.
After President Barack Obama asked him to remain in office, Gates moved ahead with implementing many of the policies he had recommended.
Gates, who replaced Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in December 2006, was instrumental in putting the Army on a war footing in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He shook up a Pentagon bureaucracy distracted by other issues and cut through red tape to speed delivery of vehicles hardened to resist improvised explosives that were a major cause of U.S. casualties.
The defense secretary received a rousing welcome when introduced to cadets from the elevated “poop deck” of the campus mess hall.
He told them later that once the United States begins to scale back its presence in Afghanistan, the Army would have to adjust to the fact the Navy and Air Force are likely to win favor in funding.
“The Army ... 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,” he said.
Gates said he was particularly concerned about retaining talented and battle-tested young officers returning from Afghanistan. He urged the Army to break out of its rigid bureaucracy to find ways to promote them into meaningful careers.
“In theater, junior leaders are given extraordinary opportunities to be innovative, take risks and be responsible and recognized for the consequences,” Gates said, noting the opposite is true in stateside military bureaucracies.
“Men and women in the prime of their professional lives ... may find themselves in a cube all day reformatting PowerPoint slides, preparing quarterly training briefs or assigned an ever expanding array of clerical duties,” he said. “The consequences of this terrify me.”
He urged a rethinking of the way officers are promoted, one that might include merit and competitive approaches.
Editing by John Whitesides