Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Gates Speaks About Taking Care of Troops, MRAPs

Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently gave a speech, emphasizing the need to take care of the troops over the need to prepare for future conflicts:

The Defense Department must focus on current war demands, even if it means straining the U.S. armed forces and devoting less time and money to future threats, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday.

Meeting the war-fighting needs of the troops now and taking care of them properly when they get home must be the priority, Gates said in a speech to journalists at a seminar here sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

"I have noticed too much of a tendency towards what might be called Next-War-itis — the propensity of much of the defense establishment to be in favor of what might be needed in a future conflict," Gates said.

But in a world of limited resources, he said, the Pentagon must concentrate on building a military that can defeat the current enemies: smaller, terrorist groups and militias waging irregular warfare.

If it means putting off more expensive weapons for the future or adding to the stress on the Army — that is a risk worth taking, he said.

Gates has announced his opposition to one reform that would ease the stress on recruiting and retain soldiers who wish to pursue an education:

Gates’ letter [to Congress] complicates Webb’s effort by opposing S 22 while favoring other bills that include a Pentagon and White House initiative allowing service members to transfer GI bill benefits to family members.

“It is essential to permit transferability of unused education benefits from service members to family,” Gates said in the letter to Sen. John McCain, ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee and a co-sponsor of a Republican alternative bill, which was to be formally introduced on Tuesday. Transferability, Gates said, “is the highest priority set by the service chiefs and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reflecting the strong interest from the field and the fleet,” Gates said.

Transferring benefits is good for the family but also good for the services by helping to keep people in the military while family members are using the benefits, Gates said.

Gates also restated long-standing Pentagon opposition to GI Bill educational benefits that are too generous, making it more likely for service members to leave the military to attend college. “Serious” retention issues are expected if benefits exceed the average monthly cost for a four-year public college, including tuition, room, board and fees, Gates said.

Webb’s proposal would pay full tuition and fees for a public college plus provide a monthly living allowance equal to the basic allowance for housing of an E-5, which would exceed the level Gates says is acceptable.

The Enhancement of Recruiting, Retention and Readjustment Through Education Act, cosponsored by McCain and other Republicans, provides $1,500 in basic monthly benefits plus $500 a year for books. It also includes transferability of benefits, with the right to transfer all benefits to family members after completing 12 years of service and to transfer half of earned benefits after six years.

The Republican bill might have attracted support from military and veterans groups if the more generous Webb proposal was not on the front burner. But the promises of full tuition plus stipend benefits, similar to what was provided after World War II, are very attractive to major veterans groups and to new organizations representing Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.

A senior Pentagon official, speaking on condition of not being identified, said the McCain bill, co-sponsored by Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Richard Burr of North Carolina, “is retention friendly. It gives education benefits a big boost, but not more than average national costs. We can manage retention at those levels, but S 22 is a retention killer.”

Webb, in an interview, described such arguments as "absurd."

The Department of Defense, he said, "is doing a very good job managing its career force, given the strains that are on it. But it's doing a very poor job of taking care of the people who don't come in for a career."

Raising GI bill benefits nearer to those offered to veterans returning from World War II, Webb said, will give every volunteer, particularly those with no intention of making the military a career, "a proper reward for their service" and a great tool for transitioning to civilian life.

Defense officials have to understand, Webb said, that a volunteer military is "only a career system to a certain point." The current system isn't properly rewarding those who enter "because of love of country, or family tradition, or the fact that they just want to serve for a while," he said.

The services, he said, "have got this one demographic group they keep pounding on and throwing money at. Yet there's a whole different demographic group that would be attracted to coming in and serving a term."


During the same question and answer period, Gates also spoke about the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle:

Gates pointed to the mine-resistant vehicles as an example of spending money now on critical lifesaving equipment, rather than pouring all resources into war-fighting systems of the future.

Roadside bombs and suicide attacks "have become the weapons of choice for America's most dangerous and likely adversaries — and the need to have a vehicle of this kind won't go away," he said.

Gates also issued a warning to the military services, which have long set their sights on pricey, sophisticated weapons systems that take decades to develop and get onto the battlefield.

The Army has its $200 billion Future Combat System, the Air Force has its F-22 jet fighter. Both programs have been plagued by delays and escalating costs, as well as criticism from Congress.

However, the MRAP vehicle has been cited as having already been compromised by an insurgent-deployed weapon that finds a vulnerability in the design:

The deaths of two U.S. soldiers in western Baghdad last week have sparked concerns that Iraqi insurgents have developed a new weapon capable of striking what the U.S. military considers its most explosive-resistant vehicle.

The soldiers were riding in a Mine Resistant Ambush Protective vehicle, known as an MRAP, when an explosion sent a blast of super-heated metal through the MRAP's armor and into the vehicle, killing them both.

Their deaths brought to eight the number of American troops killed while riding in an MRAP, which was developed and deployed to Iraq last year after years of acrimony over light armor on the Army's workhorse vehicle, the Humvee.

The military has praised the vehicles for saving hundreds of lives, saying they could withstand the IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, which have been the biggest killers of Americans in Iraq. The Pentagon has set aside $5.4 billion to acquire 4,000 MRAPs at more than $1 million each, making the MRAP the Defense Department's third largest acquisition program, behind missile defense and the Joint Strike Fighter.

The military has resisted efforts to find out what might be wrong with the MRAP:

The Marine Corps has ordered a civilian scientist to stop work on a report critical of its efforts to obtain new armored vehicles, saying he exceeded his authority, a Marine official said Tuesday.

Franz Gayl, a retired Marine officer and civilian science adviser, alleged in a Jan. 22 report that "gross mismanagement" of the program to quickly field Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles had resulted in the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of Marines in Iraq. Gayl had planned to continue his investigation.

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