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Pentagon to abandon two-war strategy, but at what cost to US security?

The Pentagon has long said it must be prepared to fight two wars at once. Budget cuts and changing global threats mean that standard is no longer practical, experts say.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / January 3, 2012

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta boards a C-17 plane as he leaves Tripoli, Libya in December.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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The Pentagon appears to be on the cusp of abandoning a long-held strategic principle: that the US military should have the ability to wage two conventional wars simultaneously.

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US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to announce the results of a large-scale strategic overview Thursday that will instead call for the military to be able to fight one large conventional war, and act as a “spoiler” for potential enemies in any other conflict that might crop up.

In the new military parlance, it’s the “one-plus strategy.”

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The news is expected to draw a great deal of buzz, but how important is this shift, really? And how will it impact America’s standing in the world? In practical terms, some analysts say that the “shift” has little meaning. In fact it’s less a shift, they argue, than a “no duh” announcement. 

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates addressed the subject as he rolled out the Pentagon’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, the Pentagon’s strategic way forward. “For years, US defense planning and requirements were based on preparing to fight two major conventional wars at the same time.” It’s a construct, he added, “that persisted long after it was overtaken by events. The department’s leadership now recognizes that we must prepare for a much broader range of security challenges on the horizon.” 

What’s more, the United States hasn’t been able to fight two ground wars simultaneously for quite some time, analysts point out. Nor would it want to, others add.

“Arguably, we already weren’t sized to fight two major wars simultaneously,” says Todd Harrison, a defense specialist at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “We are just adjusting our formal strategy and the way we talk about our formal strategy. We’re just going to say openly and publicly that we’re not going to plan on getting into two major wars at the same time.”

How about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? These don’t really count, Mr. Harrison says. That’s because the Pentagon never actually had to fight them in earnest at the same time. The surge in Iraq peaked in 2008 then started declining. In Afghanistan, US troop levels reached their maximum in 2011. 

Even so, perhaps proclaiming such a warfare stance isn’t a great idea, others argue. Might it, after all, provoke an aspiring world power to strike when the United States is otherwise engaged in another conflict?

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