Michele Flournoy, oft rumored as the next Secretary of Defense, called the military’s elaborate planning process “stale,” its training too risk-averse, and its corporate culture in danger of a new “Vietnam syndrome” where it willfully forgets the lessons of the last decade of guerrilla war.

This article comes courtesy of our colleagues at Breaking Defense. Read Otto Kriesher‘s take on the views of Chuck Hagel, who is also being considered for the Secretary of Defense post.

Flournoy also threw cold water on the hot concept of offensive cyber warfare, warning that adversaries might respond in kind — and the US is ill-prepared to protect itself against cyber attacks.

Flournoy spoke at an Atlantic Council forum a day after another possible choice for Pentagon boss, former Republican Senator and current Atlantic Council chairman Chuck Hagel, addressed the same group. The difference in approaches was illuminating. Hagel, a former member of the Senate committees on foreign relations and intelligence, emphasized a diplomatic approach to emerging global threats through “engagement.” Flournoy, a former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, focused on the military, showing the depth of knowledge she obtained in her Pentagon position and as founder of a Washington think tank, the Center for a New American Security.

Because the US is dominant in conventional warfare, Flournoy said, the military should expect to face increasing use of asymmetric tactics both at the low end of combat, where adversaries will imitate the use of IEDs and suicide attacks in Afghanistan, and at the high end, where countries like China and Iran are developing “anti-access/area denial” systems to turn back US forces. That bifurcated threat will pull the military in two opposite directions, she said. Her suggestion: tackle the low-end threat by building the military capacity of partner nations — the Army’s favored approach — and the high end by developing new tactics such as the AirSea Battle doctrine being crafted by the Air Force and the Navy.

In preparing for future threats after ending a major combat role in Afghanistan, Flournoy said, “we have to be careful not to fall into the Vietnam Syndrome where we believe we’ll never do that again. We don’t get to choose” the nature of future conflicts.

With un-Washingtonian bluntness, Flournoy faulted the traditional Pentagon planning process as “unsatisfactory” and “stale.” The training programs in which the military takes such pride, she went on, are handicapped by “an aversion to failure.” To produce the adaptive and flexible leaders who will be needed to face the uncertain future threats, “we have to be willing to fail.”

Asked how the nation should finance its future military in the new era of austerity — with steep defense cuts likely either under sequestration or as part of a deal to avert it — Flournoy said it must “pay as we go” and not repeat the last decade of borrow and spend. She also urged the Pentagon to adjust to lower budgets by cutting infrastructure, organizations, and overhead, rather than cutting training and modernization.

Flournoy also warned that national leaders will face “increased public skepticism” about getting into future conflicts because of the questionable intelligence on weapons of mass destruction used to justify the invasion of Iraq. After a decade of war, she said, “public fatigue… will put a higher threshold on putting boots on the ground.”