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HANSON: Gates versus Gates

Secretary comes down four-square on both sides of future mission debate

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Robert M. Gates is on his farewell lap as secre -tary of defense and is making his final speeches to the service academies. He also seems to be debating himself in the process. He made the following remarks to Army cadets at West Point:

"And I must tell you, when it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right, from the Mayaguez to Grenada, Panama, Somalia, the Balkans, Haiti, Kuwait, Iraq and more - we had no idea a year before any of these missions that we would be so engaged.

"The need for heavy armor and firepower to survive, close with and destroy the enemy will always be there, as veterans of Sadr City and Fallujah can no doubt attest."

That's common sense right there. When I took early retirement from Special Forces, I served several years as a 1st sergeant in the Wisconsin National Guard and, when asked in 1999, I told my troops, "There is absolutely no way we will be in any land war that requires National Guard infantry to be called up." It pays not to make absolute statements. But later in the same speech, Mr. Gates said this:

"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 Gen. MacArthur so delicately put it."

MacArthur managed to limit his curtailment of presidential and congressional authority to simply crossing Asia off the list of places where we should start a land war. Mr. Gates has upped the ante and eliminated two continents and the most volatile region on earth. I think he was right the first time and that since we don't know who and where we may end up fighting, then we should make sure we maintain our best deterrents and combat systems. Next stop was the Air Force Academy, and the Mr. Gates who I hope wins the debate was back:

"That includes the requirement for more sophisticated, high-end capabilities. I've said before that it would be irresponsible to assume that a future adversary - given enough time, money and technological acumen - will not one day be able to directly threaten U.S. command of the skies.

"So even as I've touted the need to incorporate the lessons of the current conflicts, I have also committed the Department of Defense - and this country - to the most advanced and expensive tactical fighter program in history - the $300 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The department is programmed to buy 2,400 of these aircraft, and the first Air Force training aircraft will arrive at Eglin Air Force Base in just over two months. Having a robust, large quantity of fifth-generation tactical air fighters is something I view as a core requirement, and in this era of increasing budget constraints, my goal has been to ensure that core capabilities for all the services are protected. This has meant increasing development funding for the F-35, scaling back or cutting other programs that are not as essential and intervening directly to get the program back on track, on budget and on schedule."

Good for you, sir, since you told the Army cadets we may be doing a lot more air and naval actions rather than invading the continents you left open. Anyone want to take bets on what he will tell the Navy and Marines? Mr. Gates did a good job for two presidents and during two wars. I hope he can leave a legacy to be proud of. I think that a strong, capable, well-equipped fighting force that can keep us safe and project force to any continent would be a good one. Let's hope that is what wins the debate.

Jim Hanson served in the 1st Special Forces Group and writes for blackfive.net and bigpeace.com.

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