The Defense Department needs to worry more about what warfighters need right now than what they may need down the road, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said last night (May 15, 2008).
In a speech to the Business Executives for National Security group, Gates said he will work for the remainder of his time in office to ensure the department fulfills its "sacred obligation" to support U.S. servicemembers now fighting on the front lines.
This means doing all that is needed to "see that they are successful on the battlefield and properly cared for at home," Gates said.
The secretary received the group's Dwight D. Eisenhower Award during a dinner here and spoke of the challenges he has faced since assuming the Pentagon's top position in December 2006.
Troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan need more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, the best possible vehicles, and proper outpatient care and support when they're wounded, Gates told the group. "These are issues I take seriously -- and very personally," he said.
"These needs require the department to focus on the reality that we are in the midst of two wars and that what we can provide our soldiers and commanders three or four years hence isn't nearly as important as what we can provide them today or next month," he said.
The secretary said providing what the nation's warfighters need requires leadership, vision and a sense of urgency. He stressed the importance of overcoming obstacles within the services such as "an unwillingness or hesitancy to upend assumptions and practices that have accumulated in a largely peacetime military establishment and an assumption that the war would soon be over, and therefore, we shouldn't impinge on programs that produce the kinds of equipment and capabilities that probably would not be needed in today's combat."
Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets -- particularly unmanned aerial vehicles -- illustrate part of the problem, the secretary said. Though UAV technology has been around for some time, he noted, the United States military was loathe to invest in the technology.
"The defense establishment didn't see the potential value or anticipate the need for this capability," he said. "Put bluntly, we suffered from a lack of vision and have struggled to catch up."
Commanders throughout the world -- but especially in Iraq and Afghanistan -- need more of these assets, the secretary said.
Unmanned aerial vehicles, he said, can give ground commanders instantaneous information about what they're facing -- such as a live look at someone planting an improvised explosive device miles down the road a convoy is using -- without putting pilots or ground-based scouts at risk.
"I've taken a special interest in UAVs, because they are ideal for many of today's tasks in today's wars," Gates said. "They give troops the tremendous advantage of seeing full-motion, real-time, streaming video over a target, such as an insurgent planting an IED on a street corner."
Since 2001, the total number of UAVs has increased 25-fold to more than 5,000, and over the past few months, the Air Force has doubled the number of Predator UAVs supporting combat operations.
"But that's still not enough to meet the demand from commanders in the field," Gates said.
The capability requires innovative thinking and tearing down a bureaucratic culture "within all the services and within the Pentagon" that does not encourage innovation. The idea should be that every employee comes to work asking how he or she can help those in combat, the secretary said.
Gates cited the fielding of mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles as another example of something that should have happened faster. The vast majority of U.S. combat deaths and wounds are the result of roadside bombs, and enemy fighters increasingly turned to armor-piercing devices as troops' Humvees were fortified.
"As with UAVs, the department didn't recognize or act on the need for large numbers of these systems early enough," Gates said.
The MRAPs have a distinctive, V-shaped hull that deflects the blast from buried explosives. It has proven invaluable in a conflict where these types of attacks have been the No. 1 killer. This capability, too, has been around for years, but the vehicles were not sent to Iraq in large quantities until last year.
"I believe that one factor that delayed fielding was the pervasive assumption ... that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would not last long -- that regimes could be toppled, major combat completed, the insurgency crushed, and most U.S. troops withdrawn fairly soon," Gates said. "The fact that these vehicles -- which cost over a million dollars each -- could potentially compete with other longer-term procurement priorities geared toward future wars probably was also a factor."
A year ago, the secretary made MRAPs the department's top procurement priority.
"In under a year, production has soared from 10 vehicles per month to over 1,200," he said. "I was particularly impressed by how quickly industry responded once the Pentagon made MRAPs a priority."
Today, more than 4,500 MRAPs are in Iraq and Afghanistan, and thousands more are on the way. "There have been 151 attacks so far on MRAPs, and all but seven soldiers have survived," Gates said. "These vehicles are saving lives and limbs."
Finally, Gates discussed the obligation the country has to ensure that those wounded receive the best possible care and get the help they need set them up for their changed lives.
"The wounded warrior program -- our highest priority apart from winning the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- involved two different kinds of leadership challenges: accountability, and reforming a lumbering outpatient health care system," Gates said.
The initiative grew out of a Washington Post series on inadequate outpatient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here.
"I was disappointed by the initially dismissive response of some in the Army's leadership, who went into damage-control mode against the press and, in one case, blamed a couple of sergeants," Gates said. "Wrong move."
The secretary said he concluded responsibility lay much higher, and acted accordingly. Gates asked for and received the resignations of the Army secretary, the Army surgeon general and the Walter Reed commander. Since then, the Veterans Affairs Department and DoD have made significant progress on providing the type of care veterans deserve, Gates said.
"We are on track to complete more than 400 recommendations resulting from the new National Defense Authorization Act and five major studies and commissions," Gates said.
But the most important change has been one of attitude and the establishment of a new way for injured personnel to receive medical treatment: warrior transition units.
"These units are responsible for shepherding injured servicemembers back to their units or helping them transition to veteran status," he said. "Thus far, the Army has created 35 new warrior transition units, caring for over 10,000 soldiers."
Each wounded soldier is assigned a case manager, squad leader and primary care provider. The units also offer a full range of support for military families, including personnel benefits, financial counseling, employment support, education counseling, child care, and other needs.
Another change has been to streamline the disability evaluation system, Gates told the business leaders. Servicemembers have complained bitterly about the time and hassles of the old system, rooted as it was in the peacetime military, he said. For example, servicemembers received two separate disability ratings from DoD and VA.
"We are now converting the disability evaluation system into a single and transparent process in which one disability rating would be legally binding by both organizations," Gates said. "One servicemember; one exam; one rating."
A pilot program for the new system began at Washington-area hospitals in November, and the results have been encouraging, Gates said.
"Thus far, over 300 wounded, ill or injured troops have been treated and evaluated," he said. "Early findings suggest that a better handshake between the VA and DoD could cut in half the time required to transition a veteran to full VA compensation."
DoD also is increasing the resources it applies toward one of the signature injuries of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: post-traumatic stress disorder.
"We are actively working to eliminate any stigma associated with PTSD," Gates said. "Over 900,000 soldiers have been trained in recent months about symptoms of PTSD and the need to seek assistance."
Gates cited the recent change to a question on mental health on the security clearance application as part of that effort.
"Too often, troops have avoided seeking help because they were worried it would affect their security clearance and perhaps their career," he said. "I announced at Fort Bliss two weeks ago that the question about mental health, as a general matter, will now exclude counseling related to service in combat, post-traumatic stress in particular. We hope this will encourage more men and women in uniform to seek help."
Gates said the men and women of the department want to do right by the men and women on the front lines.
"It's up to their leaders to clearly articulate the department's priorities and spell out, as they say in the military, 'commander's intent,'" he said. "When we do so, the bureaucracy responds, industry responds, and the nation responds."
Gates noted he is responsible for the war strategy and for signing the deployment orders to carry it out.
"Every day, my signature on a piece of paper sends our brave men and women in harm's way," the secretary said. "At the end of the day, I must be able to look them in the eye -- be they in Kandahar or Ramadi or Walter Reed -- and tell them, truthfully, that this wealthy and generous country has done everything possible for them."
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service