April 21, 2008

The Problem with Culture (Ours)

Sec. Gates really slapped down the U.S. Air Force today:

Although he praised the U.S. Air Force's contributions to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the defense chief made it clear that more needs to be done. A case in point, he said, is the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, as the pilotless drones are known. When he was director of the CIA in 1992, Gates recalled, "the Air Force would not co-fund with CIA a vehicle without a pilot," even though it was a "far less risky and far more versatile means of gathering data."

Saying that drones cost much less and can spend more time in the air than piloted planes, Gates called UAVs "ideal for many of today's tasks" and noted that the United States now has more than 5,000 of them, a 25-fold increase since 2001.

"But in my view, we can do and we should do more to meet the needs of men and women fighting in the current conflicts while their outcome may still be in doubt," Gates said. "My concern is that our services are still not moving aggressively in wartime to provide resources needed now on the battlefield. I've been wrestling for months to get more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets into the theater. Because people were stuck in old ways of doing business, it's been like pulling teeth."

Abu Muqawama usually jumps at any opportunity to pile on the boys in blue suits, but today he's a little more mellow because he was reading through an article Terry Terriff wrote on U.S. Marine Corps culture an hour or so ago. Terriff writes that “overcoming a deeply rooted, persistent cultural characteristic is neither simple nor easy.”

And that's why Sec. Gates is having so much trouble with the USAF right now. Unmanned aircraft (the strong emphasis being placed on that first word) go against the constitutive norms of the USAF in the same way that an adviser corps runs contrary to the constitutive norms of the U.S. Army. And while Sec. Gates may have some luck in the end, it will only be because he a) finds a way to get congressmen and defense contractors in on the game or b) somehow manages to change the way the USAF officer corps sees itself as a profession. Needless to say, he'll probably have more luck with the former.

Update: The updated article from the Washington Post now portrays the speech as having been more a criticism of the services (plural) than just the Air Force. Reader Pete's first-hand report states this was also the case. You can read the actual speech here. Abu Muqawama likes reading the Q&A sessions at the end of his speeches. Gates is so much more humble -- and thus, likable -- than his predecessor.