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Gates urges unconventional thinkers to address unconventional challenges

  • Published
  • By Donna Miles
  • American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON (AFPN) -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates challenged military officers to become forward thinkers with the courage to advance new approaches needed to confront current and emerging threats.

"An unconventional era of warfare requires unconventional thinkers," Secretary Gates told Air War College students April 21 at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.

He challenged the officers to think outside the box to help the military adapt to a constantly changing strategic environment characterized by persistent conflict.

While addressing an Air Force audience, Secretary Gates' challenge applies militarywide.

"For the kinds of challenges America will face, the armed forces will need principled, creative, reform-minded leaders," he said.

Bucking convention isn't easy, Secretary Gates conceded. "Virtually every institution is organized in a way to stifle out-of-the-box thinking," he said.

Ideas that break with the status quo aren't always met with open arms, he said.

Secretary Gates noted the example set by the late Air Force Col. John Boyd, a maverick reformer who turned traditional approaches to air-to-air conflict and principles of maneuver warfare on their head. To do so, Colonel Boyd had to overcome "a large measure of bureaucratic resistance and institutional hostility," Secretary Gates said.

The way Colonel Boyd saw it, everyone faces a fork in the road in his military career. People choose to "be somebody," Secretary Gates said, making compromises and turning their backs on their friends to get ahead. Or they choose to "do something" -- sticking their neck out for their country, their military and themselves -- while recognizing that it's not likely to garner them favor or career advantage.

Pressing security challenges require people in the armed forces who "want to do something, not be somebody," Secretary Gates said.

New challenges, realities and requirements have meant "a wrenching set of changes for our military establishment that, until recently, was almost completely oriented toward winning the big battles in the big wars," Secretary Gates said.

He cited vast transformations within the military and the need for more. The Army is taking lessons learned and capabilities built from the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns and institutionalizing them into its core doctrine, funding priorities and personnel policies.

Similarly, Air Force officials have adopted recent lessons, setting the stage for the expeditionary culture and mindset to take root, Secretary Gates said. It has accepted new, nontraditional combat missions, new ways of doing things and new battlefield responses, including small-diameter munitions that can strike enemies with less chance of collateral damage.

Secretary Gates urged the officers to come up with more ways the Air Force can evolve to meet asymmetric threats.

"I would ask you to think through how we can build the kinds of air capabilities most likely to be needed while continuing to offer a strategic hedge against rising powers," he said.

Secretary Gates also challenged to officers to:

-- Come up with better ways to address the air, space and cyberspace roles in counterinsurgency operations;

-- Enhance partners' airpower capabilities;

-- Conduct civil-military or humanitarian missions with interagency, nongovernmental organizations and other partners;

-- Rethink the way the service is organized, manned and equipped;

-- Determine what new priorities should drive issues ranging from promotions to procurement; and

-- Come up with ways to accomplish future missions ranging from strike to surveillance in the most affordable, sensible way.

"I have raised difficult questions with perhaps difficult answers," Secretary Gates said. "I am asking you to be part of the solution and part of the future."

The secretary urged the officers to be willing to think beyond the status quo when they approach Colonel Boyd's proverbial fork in the road. He also emphasized the need for senior leaders to recognize the value of out-of-the-box thinking and to support the people who do it.

"For the good of the Air Force, for the good of the armed services, and for the good of our country, I urge you to reject convention and careerism and to make decisions that will carry you closer toward, rather than farther from, the officer you want to be and the thinker who advances air-power strategy in meeting the complex challenges to our national security," he said.

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